Books and poetry
Colin Chambers remembers Bob Leeson, children's writer and former Chair of the Guild, who died last month
Not many people, I suspect, have music played at their funeral that moves from The Song Of the Prune to Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs by way of Yes, We Have No Bananas, but for those who knew Bob Leeson, this selection celebrating the serious and the absurd was spot on. For Bob, a former chair of the Guild and a versatile, pioneering children’s author who has died aged 85, was a man of deep commitments and loyalty who always displayed a keen eye for the ridiculous wherever it appeared and turned it to good effect in his writing.
Born in Barnton, Cheshire in 1928 to a working-class family as the youngest of four children, he loved reading and storytelling from an early age, and much of his later writing drew on the experiences of his youth. Although the nearby grammar school, to which he, like his siblings, won a scholarship, had no library, he eagerly looked forward to the arrival of the monthly ‘library box’ from which he was allowed to borrow one title on each of its visits. Ever resourceful, at the local library, which lacked a children’s section, he began to feed his imagination, aged 11, by using his mother’s ticket.
Rosemary Friedman introduces her new collection of short stories, The Man Who Understood Women
On clearing out my attic I discovered a large cardboard box filled with very old magazines, in various stages of desuetude, dating from 1956 until 2013. They were mostly aimed at women and published not only in England but in a dozen languages in as many different countries.
As I turned the fragile pages I was fascinated to find advertisements for `Salon Style Home Hair Dryers’, recipes for `Mutton Saucer Pies’, `Twenty Uses for Vinegar’ and coupons for Vogue Patterns from which the `housewife’ – when she wasn’t trotting down the high street, suitably hatted, her wicker basket over her arm - could create a fashionable `fur fabric jacket’.
Reading through forgotten short fiction which bore my name, in publications such as Housewife, Good Housekeeping and Women’s Realm - titles which in themselves reflected women’s then preoccupations - brought home to me the cataclysmic change in women’s role in society and their burgeoning independence over the past 50 odd years. Might there be some mileage in resurrecting these stories? After 26 full length books, three plays and various screenplays I regarded it both as relaxation from the creative process and as a challenge, not the least part of which was translating the texts from the rapidly fading printed page (no computers then) and digitalising them for which there is a magical program entitled OCR (Optical Character Recognition).
No one was more surprised than I to discover that, read consecutively, the collection comprised a social document which reflected a gradual but heady change over the years in women’s circumstances and provided a picture of inner lives which contemplated a future for women brighter and infinitely more exciting than any they had hitherto imagined. From the spinsterish Miss Phipps, The Magic (1956), with her lending library, who opens the door for her female readers to fulfil their fantasies - through the man whose life is haunted by an adolescent misdemeanour Mea Culpa (1958) and the sad and sexually predatory New York millionairess Southern Comfort 1998) - to the modern divorcée A la Carte (2010) who briskly road-tests her internet date, the stories depicted the changing role of women in a rapidly changing world.
Helena Pielichaty on a campaign to promote reading for pleasure and the value of authors' visits to schools
In April 2011 the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG) held a One Day Conference for its members. During the Q & A session, Annemarie Young voiced her concern that many teacher training colleges did not appear to have much in the way of reading for pleasure on their courses - the little time allotted to reading tended to concentrate on synthetic phonics. If newly trained teachers weren’t getting any advice on reading for pleasure, how could they be expected to encourage their pupils to read widely once they were in the classroom, Annemarie wondered.
Other delegates agreed, adding that it wasn’t just new teachers who weren’t aware of the wide range of children’s literature available but many experienced teachers, too. The rigidity of the English National Curriculum was given as one reason for teachers abandoning long-established practices, such as the class reader; Ofsted’s ‘expectations’ were another. I related my anecdote of the teacher who, when I asked why she didn’t have a class reader any more, replied: ‘Can you imagine what Ofsted would say if they caught me reading to my class?’ Caught – as if she were indulging in some deviant act!
After the conference CWIG and the Educational Writers Group (EWG) formed a Campaigns Group to look into this issue. Further research confirmed that within most PGCE courses, reading for pleasure was given a one hour slot, if that, leaving NQTs dependent on their mentors in schools for ideas and inspiration about books. However, a study by Teresa Cremin (2011) highlighted how narrow even established teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature was, with only 10% of those surveyed being able to name 6 poets or 6 illustrators , reiterating what had been said at the One Day Conference.Yet there is some excellent work going on in schools, especially in those with a designated school librarian.
The next event of the Guild's Off the Shelf at Black's event features James Miller who explores extraordinary themes in his writing.
Born in London in 1976 and educated in Oxford and London, Miller is author of the acclaimed novels Lost Boys (Little, Brown 2008) and Sunshine State (Little, Brown 2010). He is currently finishing his third. He has a PhD in African-American literature and civil rights and is particularly interested in experimental and avant-garde literature, critical theory, contemporary American literature, Modernism, the Beat Generation and any work that plays with notions of genre.
Miller’s short stories have been published in various anthologies and he has spoken at numerous festivals, including the Edinburgh Book Festival, Wilderness Festival, Berlin’s Hebbel-Am-Ufer theatre, the Tottenham/ Palestine literature festival, the Festival of Ideas and the Athens Megaron.
If any Guild members would like to present their own 10-minute reading after lunch, please email Jan Woolf.
James Miller: Off the Shelf at Blacks
11am-4pm, 18 November Blacks,
67 Dean Street, Soho, London
Price: £30 (includes coffee and a two-course lunch with wine)
Next Guild literary event - 16 September in London
The next Writers' Guild Off the Shelf event at Black's in Soho is a special day with Unthank Books and its writers. Guild members and othersd are invited to hear readings by the chosen authors, followed by a delicious two-course lunch at Blacks members’ club in London’s Soho. The featured writers are: lecturer in creative writing at the Open University Ashley Stokes (Touching the starfish, Unthank’s launch publication, and The Syllabus of Errors); musician, editor and writer Nick Sweeney (Laikonik Express), and writer and lecturer in creative writing in the North West of England Sarah Dobbs (Killing Daniel).
Unthank Books was launched in early 2010 in response to what it saw as a “particularly egregious spell of awful or no literary fiction being published by the mainstream houses and its concomitant deleterious effect on aspiring literary authors”. Since then, it has published 15 books, including its annual Unthology of shorter prose, twice-staged UnLit, The Unthank Literary Festival, and delivered numerous courses in poetry, prose and screenwriting through the Unthank School of Writing.
11am-2.30pm, 16 September
Blacks, 67 Dean Street, Soho, London
Price: £25 (includes two-course lunch, tea/coffee)
Abigail Tarttelin explains how she found the space and the passion to write Golden Boy
I have been told that second novels are the hardest to write. Perhaps it’s the expectation that you, the writer, will make huge leaps forward in ability. Perhaps it’s because you worry the genre and message of the new novel should complement the first. Perhaps you think: what do I want my oeuvre to say? Will my agent like it?
I came to writing from outside the literary world. In Grimsby, my hometown, I had never met anyone involved with the business of books. In fact, when I was first published, I felt foolish telling people what I did. Even to me, it sounded a bit unrealistic.
Writing has always been a compulsion for me rather than a passion. It has reared its head from time to time, between badly paid acting jobs, grueling night shifts in a Leicester Square casino and a short, greasy stint in a chippie. A voice would arrive in my brain; my fingers would act as conduit, and I would bang out the thoughts of an imaginary someone.
When I was 19, the voice of Flick, an angry, intelligent 15-year-old boy, arrived to rant, or amuse, or philosophise in my ear. Flick would describe scenes from his life, and sometimes they would be scenes from my life. Gradually, a story formed, and in it were themes that had been brewing in my mind for a long time: frustration at the lack of a decent education, first love, the selfishness of drug dependency.
Eventually I had over 20,000 words on my laptop. I wanted to finish it, but I didn’t consider myself a writer. I thought being a novelist was something you did when you were 50 and had useful knowledge to impart. Two years went by. Then one night, the compulsion returned. I suddenly knew how to structure the book. It would be in short, punchy chapters and would be aimed at contemporary teenagers, particularly boys; a group I felt was under-represented by current fiction. It would be realistic and not fantastical, with useful thoughts and advice for adolescent readers. I realized although I didn’t know much about the world, I knew more about being 15 than any 50-year-old could claim. I had a mission and because of that I felt I had a right to be a writer.
Review of Public Lending Right Scheme results in few changes
After two years of dithering and a desultory consultation process, the Government has finally decided the fate of the Public Lending Right scheme – it will cease to be an independent agency and come under the wing of the British Library, but the office and staff in Stockton-on-Tees will carry on as before.
PLR – which pays authors 6p each time one of their books is borrowed from a public library – was an unfortunate victim of the incoming coalition government’s 'bonfire of the quangos' (which also cooked the goose of the UK Film Council, only to transfer most of its functions to the British Film Institute).
PLR Registrar Jim Parker welcomed the announcement: 'The Government realises staff here do a great job and we have had tremendous support from authors from all over the UK.' In fact the overwhelming outcome of the consultation was opposition to any change at all.
According to Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, authors should notice no change to PLR. He claimed that transferring management to the British Library will save £750,000 over 10 years.
Writers’ Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett commented: 'This whole affair has been an unnecessary charade, wasting the time and resources of authors’ organisations and the government to achieve a purely cosmetic change and a saving too small to be measurable – all for the sake of one headline over two years ago.
'In the meantime the government has done precisely nothing to extend the PLR scheme to ebooks and audiobooks, as legislated by the previous government just before the 2010 general election.'
John Morrison presents his guide to book festival etiquette (with apologies to Emily Post)
Let’s call her Arabella. She is young, well-spoken, has an upper second in English from a leading university, and works in the publicity department of Fudgwick and Brittle, once a leading independent London publisher, now part of a giant international conglomerate.
You are an underpaid author, whose new biography of the famous 18th century courtesan twins, Sally and Polly Tickler, has just had a warm review in the Telegraph. Your phone rings.
‘Hi. It’s Arabella Toplofty from Fudgwick and Brittle. We’ve had a bid from a book festival in Lower Sneezing. Are you free to do a Tickler twins event in the first week of October? You are? That’s brilliant. Don’t worry about a thing – I’ll make all the arrangements.’
I’ll make all the arrangements. It’s the kind of thing J K Rowling hears from her publisher every day. You’re flattered. You can relax. Everything will be taken care of. Arabella…what a lovely name…
You have just made a terrible mistake.
The First Rule – A Danger To Be Avoided
The first rule of book festival etiquette is to bypass Arabella Toplofty. If you are an author, insist on making all arrangements directly with your hosts in Lower Sneezing.
A chaperone from the publishers’ PR department, however well-intentioned, will probably muddle up the dates and times, put you on the wrong train, or fail to forward your emails. Leave Arabella to file her nails.
The same principle applies if you are running a book festival and inviting authors. Send a booking form for the author (not Arabella) to fill in and return by email. Write in the exact date and time of the event, the fee (if any), the contact details of the person who will meet the author and host the event, and how to claim travel expenses. Ask the author to provide his or her postal address, home and mobile telephone numbers, and a list of technical requirements.
An interview with Jan Woolf
Jan Woolf, member of the Writers' Guild Books Committee, originator of the Guild's Off the Shelf at Blacks events and recipient of the first Harold Pinter writers’ residency at the Hackney Empire in 2010, considers herself a late starter. However, her earlier working life: teaching, activism, events production and a brief stint as a film classifier gave her plenty of material. She talks to author and screenwriter Brendan Foley about finding a life in writing and her recent collection Fugues On A Funny Bone.
Brendan Foley: Your writing has been described as ‘quirky’ and ‘eclectic’. If you had to use your own adjectives, what would they be?
Jan Woolf: I’d be happy with pithy or sharp. Also wabi-sabi – a Japanese term for art that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete – a bit wonky, like this answer. But I don’t mean anything goes. I liked Lisa Goldman’s piece in the last issue of UK Writer about breaking the rules and pushing at the edge – but not for its own sake; that’s arrogant. There are no right answers and I think you find your voice when you become present to the writing, the point at which it keeps you company. That’s when you find a style that suits your personality and you become own authority yet listen intelligently to what others say. I think it’s about cultivating a kind of writer’s wisdom, knowing what writing form should carry which idea. My piece about two film censors fancying each other but having to watch porn together found its way into a play – Porn Crackers for the Hackney Empire. My stories about kids in a Pupil Referral Unit needed to be linked – so they were fugues.
The next one-day residence in the Guild's literary afternoons features poets Leo Aylen (pictured) and Alan Brownjohn on 17 December. Please book with Jan Woolf for a day of coffee, poetry and lunch in the beautiful rooms of Black’s club Soho.
Leo Aylen is an author, film director and prize-winning poet. He will read from his ninth collection The Day The Grass Came, which Melvyn Bragg describes as 'a triumph', Geoffrey Heptonstall as a 'very real achievement', and Simon Callow as 'virile, vital, virtuosic'.
Alan Brownjohn published his first poetry collection, The Railings, in 1961, and has been a major figure on the British poetry scene, chairing the Poetry Society between 1982 and 1988 and serving as poetry critic for the New Statesman. He has also sat on the Arts Council literature panel and has written four novels, two books for children and a critical study of Philip Larkin. His Collected Poemswas published by Enitharmon in 2006.
Elsbeth Lindner introduces bookoxygen.com
I’m not a writer.
I know this because, even though I’ve published a novel, I’ve learned that writers are only happy when they are writing. And I’m happier reading.
How do I know this about writers? Because I’ve spent my professional life, some four decades now, working alongside them. I’ve edited, published, interviewed and, I hope, assisted writers while working for publishers, literary magazines and now my website bookoxygen.com which, as it says on the masthead, is a ‘breathing space for books and writers.’
I like writers. Not only do they use language with invention and delicacy, but they think for a living. Writers are often prescient, which comes, I assume, from thinking just that little bit harder about what’s going on and where it’s leading than the rest of us do.
Perhaps it was a spark of rubbed-off authorial foresight that inspired me to launch bookoxygen, although in truth I think the notion came from having written book reviews for some years and noticing (especially in the USA, where I lived for a while, but here in the UK too) that with newspapers under increasing financial pressure, space for culture generally and book reviews specifically was shrinking.
The Government has published proposed new minimum standards for copyright collecting societies – including ALCS, the organisation that makes payments to writers for photocopying of their work, education uses, and broadcasting by overseas cable TV services.
This is a major step in revamping copyright law to tackle the new digital environment, and is welcomed by the Writers’ Guild.
Screenwriter and first-time novelist Ølivier Nilsson-Julien on what he learned from The Guardian Self-Publishing Masterclass
Forty-eight participants arrived at The Guardian HQ in North London on a Saturday morning in June. Rebecca Swift from The Literary Consultancy started proceedings by asking about our backgrounds and it appeared that most of us had tried a traditional publishing route before turning to self-publishing: a published crime writer wanted to break with the pre-formatted crime books being churned out; an established author of self-help books had decided to publish independently for increased royalties; a serial novelist was fed up with the lack of control in publishing – essential information had been taken out of her last novel by the publisher without her consent, and the cover was horrible. It was obvious from talking to fellow writers that a wide range of genres and interests were represented. There seemed to be extensive industry experience and most participants had some degree of professional writing background.
Paperbooks tanking, ebooks taking off
The quality of the participants seemed to reflect the competitive nature of publishing. In fact, Swift told us that publishers usually rely on one or two bestselling authors to fund their whole business, which is why taking on a new title isn’t done lightly. During her session on ‘Evaluating and pitching your book’, Kate Roden of Guardian Books gave us some humbling figures. According to Nielsen Book Scan, only 76 print books sold more than 100,000 copies in 2011; 106 between 50,000 and 100,000; 465 between 10,000 and 50,000; 389 between 5,000 and 10,000; 2,000 between 1,000 and 5,000; 1,000 between 500 and 1,000; and 1,700 up to 500 copies.
‘Paperbacks are tanking and being replaced by ebooks,’ according to Roden. Confirming this trend, publisher and marketing specialist Edward Pettitt predicted that by 2015 e-books will represent 50% of book sales. To give an indication of the growth of self-publishing, he added that since 2009 there are more self-published than traditionally published books in the US. In 2010 there wasn’t a single self-published book in the Kindle top 100. In 2011, there were 18.