Thursday, August 25, 2011

Writing Retreat

I'm off up to North Yorkshire tomorrow, to a remote little cottage nestled on the edge of the moors, not too far a drive from the salty air of Whitby. There's a log fire if the weather turns gloomy, and a table out in the pretty garden for sunny days. There I intend to write my novel and think deep thoughts, surrounded by my research books and listening to music.

Sounds idyllic?

Yes, it would be idyllic - if I wasn't so hard up against my deadline. Instead, picture me hammering away at the keys like a lunatic, pacing the small living room of the cottage as I consider how to get from A to B, or staring out of the window in despair because the story has stalled.

Meanwhile the final copyedits for my first historical novel, The Queen's Secret, will be sitting on the table, laughing at me. They are due back with the publisher just after my return from Yorkshire. They involve tricky and detailed research on which stuffed birds might have been served at Elizabeth I's table, other than the varieties already mentioned in the book, and some fiendish logistics which will probably have me tearing my hair out as I confront their impossibility.

I shall take one or two of my mother's diaries with me for comfort and inspiration. There's nothing like reading over a few random entries in her journals to burst my bubble of self-importance, reminding me in my darkest hour of 'Why me?' that writers have existed who write quicker, harder and without complaining so much.

Catch you all on the flipside.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Decided Against Standing, Prefer Sitting and Writing

Today was the deadline for nominations for the Board of Trustees of the Poetry Society, and I decided not to submit my nomination form. Thanks to those who wanted to support my nomination, but I was only ever doing it to ensure there were some poets on the Board, and since announcing that I intended to stand, several other poets also leapt out of the bushes with their underwear pulled up over their tights.

In other words, I'm not needed, and good luck to them all.

I've decided, in fact, that at the moment I'm much better off sitting, either in front of my computer keyboard, writing my latest novel, or at a café table, working on my copy-edits. I'm quite good at just sitting, so why try to change things?

Judith Palmer is back at the Poetry Society too, so things are looking up as the summer of discontent draws to its fitful end. I no longer feel comfortable sending work to Poetry Review, which is sad, given my long and fruitful association with the flagship magazine of the Poetry Society, especially as a reviewer, but at some point that situation may change. I live in hope.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Should I Stand for the Board of the Poetry Society?

I've been in conversation with various poets behind the scenes about standing for the Board of Trustees for the Poetry Society.

I'm not sure this would be the right thing to do, not least because it's a huge commitment, and I am already heavily committed to my writing for the next few years.

However, it was suggested that not enough people who are active poets are standing, and this was enough to make me feel I should. I don't feel comfortable with the idea that the entire Board of the Poetry Society should be made up of lawyers, accountants, and corporate types who also serve on other Society Boards. The ones I saw on the retiring - technically sacked - Board of Trustees at the EGM seemed to me quite scornful of poets, one describing us afterwards as mad. People who have sympathy with poets ought to stand, as the Poetry Society site makes clear, stating on its page for Trustee candidates: "A demonstrable interest in all aspects of poetry, including written, studied, spoken, electronic and performance is essential."

Although I've announced that I'm standing, and have two nominations from other members - I need a third, otherwise this is all academic - I haven't yet made a definitive decision. Since deciding to stand, Kona Macphee, who describes herself as an 'Australian-bred poet', has joined Polly Clark as a poet standing for the Board. I'm not sure now that I am particularly needed, in light of that, but it's hard when I have only sketchy information about how many are standing altogether, and how many are active poets.

Here's my statement:
I’m a poet, novelist and former editor with a strong knowledge of grass-roots poetry, especially performance and independent poetry presses.

I received an Eric Gregory Award in 1996, have been Warwick Poet Laureate, and have published three full-length collections of poetry, one with Bloodaxe and two with Salt Publishing. I edited a poetry magazine in the nineties, and more recently was Editor of Horizon Review. I have also been a commissioning editor for Salt Publishing, both for poetry and fiction.

I currently write commercial historical fiction for Transworld as Victoria Lamb, plus Young Adult fiction for Random House from 2012. I have a professional knowledge of what it takes to work in the arts as a practitioner, while my experience as an editor has allowed me to understand the practicalities of making that work public.

I have tutored for the Arvon Foundation, taught poetry and creative writing to adults and children over the past fifteen years, and have sat on arts committees as a specialist. My main aim in standing is to ensure we balance out a board of arts-friendly professionals from other walks of life with serious, long-term practitioners of the art.

There's also an interesting piece just published in the New Statesman by Daniel Barrow which discusses the current situation, quoting various poets, including Polly Clark and Tom Chivers, and indeed myself. It sums up how I feel about the direction the Poetry Society ought to be taking:
"I would be glad to see a return to a more inclusive programme at the Poetry Society, and by that I don't necessarily mean 'anyone who writes poetry' but a better understanding and sympathy for the aims and achievements of the small presses, including smaller magazines." .... A re-engagement between the small presses and grassroots groups and the Society is necessary: "it's about time we returned to a position of cheerful amateurism".
If another poet stands between now and the deadline on Thursday, I shall probably not bother putting in my nomination form. My only wish here is to serve the Poetry Society by ensuring there is a balance on the Board between poets and corporate professionals brought in for their expertise in other areas. If enough poets are already standing, I see no reason why I should also stand. I may be better placed to serve the Society in other ways.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing in Hotels: Coventry City Centre

Just surfacing here from three nights at a hotel, largely spent writing my current novel but also having some alone-time, reading and thinking, staring out of the window, enjoying my solitude.

It's not really solitude though. I prefer to pick busy hotels rather than quiet country spots, because I like to hear city life going on around me while I work, the patter of toddlers' feet down the corridors, families moving in and out of rooms, the hum of traffic outside.

Too much noise would drive me crazy though, so I tend to pick hotels which have a high degree of noise insulation. City centre hotels, airport hotels, these are perfect.

I was staying at the Premier Inn - my chain of choice, because the beds tend to be very comfortable and the service is of a high quality, but relatively inexpensive - and I chose my favourite, only half an hour from where I live, the Coventry City Centre Premier Inn.

I wrote about 10,000 words, which isn't a huge amount for a three night stay, but had a very calming time of it, away from my kids and the constant interruptions of home. I had a large, comfortable room on the 4th floor, sat and looked out over the city lights at night, watched teenagers roaming the streets below me, shut my window whenever the sound of car stereos or sirens distracted me.

On my last night there, I was writing (as Victoria Lamb) a scene where Shakespeare, as a young theatrical, returns to his home town of Stratford, not far from Coventry, to see his wife Anne. Although sitting in a modern city centre hotel, it was surprisingly easy to imagine myself back in sixteenth century Warwickshire, for Coventry is a medieval city itself and steeped in history. Indeed, it's a city that Shakespeare would probably have known well; he may even have visited its magnificent medieval cathedral once or twice, now a burnt-out shell courtesy of bombing raids across the industrial Midlands during World War II.

It was quite a wrench to leave the hotel, but I have a trip up to Yorkshire booked for the end of the summer, where I hope to put the finishing touches to this novel. Meanwhile, I want to recommend the Coventry City Centre Premier Inn to travellers. I have stayed there many times over the past two years, while writing my Tudor novels, and can confirm that it is a great place to stay. All the staff there are invariably courteous, friendly and helpful. The cooked breakfast is probably the best I have ever eaten in a chain hotel in Britain - cooked to order rather than a buffet-style breakfast, with sausages and bacon bursting with flavour, and fluffy scrambled eggs (none of that runny mush you usually encounter). And the rooms are excellent: spacious, comfortable, very clean, and fully insulated from noise.

I only once had a problem while staying there, and that was when I was woken by a couple of noisy student-types eating a kebab outside my room at 3am. I rang down to reception, a burly security guard appeared after a few moments and moved them on, and in the morning I was told the cost of my room was being refunded.

It's also situated in the city centre, about 3 minutes on foot from the main shopping area, so when I get tired of writing alone in my room, I can pack up my laptop and saunter into Costa in Waterstones or Starbucks or whatever, and write there amidst the bustle of shoppers.

I expect the young Shakespeare left his digs in London and wrote in the occasional 'inn' too. The stories just seem to flow better in a crowd.

Novels, Weeping, Romance, Catharsis, & The Crucible

It occurred to me tonight, seeing my bloodshot eyes in the mirror after putting down the book I had just finished reading, that I had never seen my husband cry while or after reading a novel. Yet I do it quite regularly. Indeed, it's almost a benchmark for me of a novel's quality, if it moves me to tears.

Of course, this rarely applies when reading poetry or what I would call 'straight' literary fiction. I'm talking largely about genre fiction here, and mainly romance. With poetry, if it's good, I do feel moved emotionally - perhaps 'thrilled' or 'disturbed' would be a better description - and frequently also moved to write something myself. But only a few poems have brought me to tears.

With literary fiction, it's more a sense of having some truth revealed. Not usually a truth which pertains to matters of the heart, but one about human nature in general, the momentary lifting of some veil covering one of the mysteries of life and death. Something important and significant, but not necessarily emotional in quality. The kind of quasi-mystical, revelatory impression one receives from reading almost anything by E.M. Forster, for instance. Or perhaps James Joyce, before he erroneously decided longer was better.

So is it normal to cry after reading a novel? Is it because men don't tend to read romances that we don't associate them with snuffling into tissues as they reach the last page? Or because they go to fiction for other things than that cathartic moment when the Darkest Moment passes and you finally remember that everything is going to be all right, because this is fiction and not reality?

I'm probably asking the wrong questions here. Perhaps the real issue for me is, why is something that can elicit such a powerful emotional and even physical response so often considered second-rate by those who value literary fiction above genre? Or science-fiction above romance? Is it because they only work on the emotional level and don't necessarily uncover the mysteries of existence?

If only they could do both.

This continues to be a problem for me, both as a reader and a writer. With my head, I know that certain kinds of writing touch me deeply but intellectually, and that these are considered by the literary establishment - and often common consent - to be more 'worthy' than the novels which touch me deeply but emotionally. With my heart though, I admit to loving the latter and returning to them more often than the former.

Here's something else though. A few years after quitting a professional sport following an unpleasant and bloody run-in with my governing body, I went to an amateur production of Miller's The Crucible. And I wept openly in the theatre because, at the time, that play spoke to me on such a deep level about betrayal of trust, about the bullying and persecution of individuals by group consent, and about the importance of standing up for one's principles, whatever the cost. Emotion came together with intellect at that moment and metaphorically crushed me, forced me to suffer and remade me, sent me out new and somehow changed - precisely what you would expect to happen in a crucible.

I think of Shakespeare, and the same is true of his great plays. 

So is theatre the only place where both emotion and intellect can be invoked in equal measure? Can film ever have the same effect, or do we need to be there in person, witnessing it live, becoming complicit in the event, for a full and rounded catharsis to occur?

Catharsis. Perhaps if we had more of that, more bread and circuses, and less emotional starvation of the masses, we wouldn't have riots. Does literature ever make a difference? Is 'acting-out' the most effective form of literature we have? Why did I cry and, more importantly, why did I want to and welcome it?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Battle for London etc.

Not since the Vikings have we seen so much looting and arson across the UK. It's got to the point where I can no longer blog about writing and poetry without feeling as though I'm completely out of touch with what's going on in our society at large.

So here goes.

I have no personal photos, and don't want to use any without permission, but here are some horrifying and telling photographic images for those who need to see for themselves what has happened. 

An angry demonstration against the police shooting of a young man in London turned to rioting on the streets of London over the weekend. The rioting spread last night to other major cities. To my nearest city, Birmingham, less than an hour from my home in the Midlands, and also to Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds, Coventry, and possibly also Manchester. I imagine there may have been smaller scale disturbances in other places too, with youths across the country stirred up by rapidly-changing reports of a violent or provocative nature on Twitter, Facebook, Bebo ("Bebo provides an open, engaging, and fun environment that empowers a new generation to discover, connect and express themselves" according to their own publicity) and probably YouTube too.

London burnt for hours and is still smouldering this morning. There were many casualties among civilians and the police. Large numbers of innocent families, caught up in the arson attacks, have been displaced without possessions. Some have lost everything they owned, including their homes and livelihoods, and may never recover from this. People were beaten up, their property stolen. Restaurants full of customers were attacked. People had to barricade themselves into pubs and other places of business. One hapless youth swept up in the violence yesterday was helped to his feet, bleeding copiously from his nose, then mugged by his helpers: the whole disgusting incident captured on CCTV. Young people out 'on the loot' went about masked or with hoodies drawn down to protect their identity. Others strode about with utter fearlessness, jeering at police and gesturing obscenely to cameramen. Looters attacked anyone with a smartphone who might have been taking photos of them.

Some have claimed these were all kids, and from the footage a large number may have been as young as twelve or fourteen years of age. But many of those appear to have been thrill-seekers or opportunist thieves hanging about on the fringes rather than ring-leaders. "Let's get some watches!" exclaimed one excited youth on a snippet of film taken at Clapham's Debenham store as it was looted. But clearly this kind of widespread looting was not a free-for-all that happened by accident. "It's not just young people," said one man in London, whose property was threatened by rioters. "Don't believe news reports about the age of these looters. There were adults involved too, and they were very well coordinated, using their mobiles to move groups from place to place."

"It was like being in another country," said one horrified eyewitness to the rioting and looting on the streets of Liverpool last night. "The police were there, but they just stood about at the ends of roads, holding a line. They didn't confront looters or arrest anyone." "We were trapped in the middle of a confrontation between looters and police," said another witness of the riots, who could only watch helpless from his flat as youths tried to set fire to the pub opposite. "We were ready to leave if necessary, but it was too dangerous to move."

Today, a Riot Clean Up in London has been organised - ironically, also via the medium of Twitter. (See!/Riotcleanup to join in with the action.)

Many local people have come out this morning armed with brooms and buckets instead of sticks and burning bottles, and are just waiting for the go-ahead from police investigators - who are gathering fingerprints, CCTV footage and witness statements - before moving in to return the devastated streets of the capital to some kind of normality.

That same weary but determined clean-up effort is being repeated across the country. "People have been very good with the clean-up and it's business as usual,' said a local spokesperson in Birmingham city centre a few hours ago.

So why were the police stretched so thin and unable to cope last night? Why were so few arrests made over the weekend, and will more follow now that the violence and lawlessness have escalated to such an extent? Will the looting happen again tonight, and in the future? What's gone wrong with David Cameron's "Big Society"?

"In this country we police by consent," said a tight-lipped Theresa May, Home Secretary, speaking on BBC News24 this morning. Obviously though, consent by many young people in our cities, and in particular in London, has been withdrawn. Was it ever given? Only very grudgingly by some, it seems, and once the leash was off, so were the dogs.

An activitist speaking on the BBC news today, Darcus Howe, claimed that the action we saw on the streets of London last night was provoked by police brutality and the injustice of stop-and-search that mainly targets black youths. He felt the looters were disaffected and angry youths fighting back against a government that no longer cares about them. In rebuttal on Twitter, author and journalist Dorian Lynskey said: "Sad that Darcus Howe, such a vital figure in the black community in the 70s and 80s, is reduced to barking self-parody."

I was not involved in any of the rioting or looting. I was nowhere near any of the many areas affected. But the ensuing bill for tax-payers and the impact on our economy from the last few nights of unrest and lawlessness will certainly affect me as an individual and a member of the larger UK community in which we all live and work. I don't have any waterproof answers to the question 'why', and I don't know if we should call in the army or hope that increasing police presence and their powers to control looters may help to contain the escalation. I don't know why any of this has happened, and I'm not even sure it will become clear until we have a good few years' distance between ourselves and the Battle for London, as some newspapers are calling it.

But at the moment, it feels like a viral summer madness, spread via the internet and eagerly seized upon by those whose primary desire - at least for a few insane hours - is to deny the consent of all well-run societies to work together peaceably and obey the law. Others may have been dragged in unwillingly, through a fear of not appearing part of the 'group', the Borg mentality which drove the rioters and looters last night. See this article in the Independent for more on this.

My deepest sympathies go out to all those involved, and I can only hope that the madness has now burnt itself out. Whether or not that is a false hope will be seen over the next few days and weeks of the summer.

Monday, August 08, 2011

On the Dubious Hierarchy of Writers

One thing that still chafes me as I do the rounds, both on the internet and at writers' conferences and get-togethers, is the difference in the way writers are treated according to their publication status.

On the one hand, there are those who are published. (And these further sub-divide into those published digitally only, published in the small presses and independents, or published by major publishers: the latter being considered VIPs, in general.)

Then there are those who are either unpublished or self-published. (Pre-published is a newish term that attempts to circumvent the perceived weakness of this position.)

In my experience, which is not insubstantial, there are two main things which decide where writers are placed in this dubious hierarchy.

One is hard work. The other is luck.

Talent is important, yes, but you can get there without it (see celebrity biographies and surprise successes) and a lesser talent can be honed by hard work and application.

Luck is either dumb or smart. Usually the latter. That we make our own luck is self-evident. Any fool can find themselves next to an agent in the queue for the conference buffet, but a smart person will know what to say to get their attention - and what NOT to say.

Now, forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but unpublished or self-published writers may be working just as hard - sometimes harder! - than published writers, and also struggling to get Lady Luck on their side year after year. They may make the big breakthrough next year, or never. But that doesn't mean they should be disrespected for not having 'made it' yet, or for having decided to eschew the lengthy and often tedious agent-publisher route by publishing themselves.

Everyone has their story. Being published doesn't necessarily make it better than anyone else's. Just more high profile, perhaps.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

You shall have a fishie, in a little dishie ...

Back from holiday. Many thanks to those who left messages on Raw Light in my absence. These have now been approved and posted.

This little beauty was one of two caught by my twin boys and daughter (aged 9 and 7 respectively) in Normandy last week. Is it a trout?

They found a hook and part of a nylon line on the grass one day, tied it to a long tree branch, then left the whole thing in the stream which ran beside our house, with a little wriggling worm attached.

As you can see, it was a successful idea!