Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reading group: the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

We held our last meeting in the run-up to the play, but I don't think it was just the play which prevented me from finishing the book beforehand - Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon, chosen by Mark - for I had started in plenty of time, beginning in tandem with Jenny, on our weekend to Paris in June.

Now let me put my cards on the table here. I am not exactly a fan of crime-fiction, but I do remember once reading Raymond Chandler and being pretty impressed by the ethos he conjured, and since Orion provide quotes on the cover of their current paperback edition testifying to this book's 'masterwork' status, I was prepared to be won over.

We began in the Paris apartment, me on the sofa with my copy and Jenny on the sofa-bed with hers. I read the first sentence. Sam Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. Flexible v? I tried to imagine it. And who is this Sam Spade, by the way? (I haven't seen the film.) I read the next. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. Eh? Two nostrils making one v? Didn't he mean two vs? Or does he mean the point the nostrils make when they come together at the end of the nose - in which case why didn't he just say he had a pointed nose? And the next: The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows (brows - rather than a writer or an interior designer -picking up a motif ?) rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. High yet flat? And doesn't a widow's peak usually reveal enough of the head to give the forehead a rounded impression? And if it's a widows' peak, how can the hair be growing down? But maybe I've got it all wrong, because the temples are the sides of the forehead, aren't they, and that must be why he says they're flat... But then how is the hair growing down from them into a point on the forehead? Good god, I'm thinking, my mind going fuzzy with all this complicated facial geography and all the points and vs and feeling I could be missing some of them in the picture I'm piecing together, which bears a disconcertingly (or laughably) cartoonish resemblance to Captain Hook in Walt Disney's Peter Pan, and not least because I still have no real clue as to who Sam Spade is. But then the final sentence shattered the image: He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan. What? How pleasantly? To whom? To the author? To another character in the room? And what is this rather? And can I picture it anyway?

Then before I can find out any more about Spade, we get another disconcerting description:

He said to Effie Perine: 'Yes, sweetheart?' (Who Effie Perrine? and where is all this taking place?)/She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with the effect of dampness. Eh? What? Is this 'dampness' symbolic somehow, some thematic hint? It's somehow self-conscious enough to make you entertain the possibility, but we know so little yet about this situation and these people it's hard to grasp the nature of the hint. Or is it simply a fancy way of trying to cover up a cliche, ie 'her dress clung to her'?

You read on, and you know from the imprecision, the clunkiness and the repetition that it's the latter. 'Hey, listen to this,' I said to Jenny: 'His eyes slid from side to side between his lids. Where else would they slide?' Jenny giggled. 'Yes, I'm not finding it very gripping,' she agreed. 'I can't get my head round this,' I said as we sat in Paris airport waiting to go home: 'Spade's elbow dropped as Spade spun round to the right ... Spade's elbow went on past the astonished dark face and straightened when Spade's hand struck down at the pistol. ... His right shoulder raised a few inches. His bent right arm was driven up by the shoulder's lift. Fist, wrist, forearm, crooked elbow, and upper arm seemed all one rigid piece, with only the limber shoulder giving them motion.' The thing that Jenny's shoulders were doing was going up and down. 'I'm still trying to picure him "grinning wolfishly" all the time,' she spluttered.

Well, I'm sorry, folks, but this is a writer struggling with prose. 'You're nit-picking,' Trevor said at the meeting, and Mark, amazed that we hadn't thought the book remarkable, strongly agreed. What about the great plot, Trevor said, and I could hardly comment on it if I hadn't finished the book. I said but plot doesn't interest me in itself, and especially not a simplistic plot about recovering some old antique. Mark expostulated, But the book's not about that really, it's about Sam Spade, about the fact that he becomes humanized, which I would know if I'd read to the end. It's said to be the most complicated and clever plot in fiction, and (John said) one which people are meant to have difficulty grasping. For a start, if I'd read to the end I'd know that Spade and the femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy had been double-crossing one another. I said that I would hardly call that a recommendation, a book based on plot in which the plot can't be grasped, but actually I'd known from very near the beginning what the two were up to. Mark, backed by Doug, said that that was only because the template which Hammett set with this novel has now become familiar. I stuck to my guns. I said to agreement from John that early on it's more or less stated that this is what the characters are doing, and if readers don't pick it up it's because of the fuzziness of the prose rather than any cleverness on the part of the author. In any case, I said, I'm not interested in Sam Spade, he never comes alive for me, he's described in entirely (mechanistic) physical terms, and we are never party to his feelings. For me there's a big problem with viewpoint. Somebody asked suspiciously, What's viewpoint? and I explained, not without the feeling of being thought writerly and precious: We don't share Sam Spade's viewpoint but there's no authorial viewpoint to compensate and fill in for us; the authorial eye is unknowing about Sam Spade, so there's no psychological depth. But they had already stopped listening and were discussing opening another bottle of wine, though Mark said, But that's the point - it underlines the fact that Sam Spade keeps himself close and needs to be humanized.

I said, Well, I'm sorry, but a writer needs to write better than this to convince me that this is a conscious or worthwhile strategy or to engage me at all. Mark said, exasperated, How can you say these things, when this book is held up as the greatest crime novel ever? I said, I thought you were the one that saw through hype! Mark said, But this isn't hype, this novel had stood the test of time and sold in the millions! I said, Well so has Catherine Cookson, and Harry Potter which you despise - sales don't mean great writing. Then people said, Well, no one has claimed this book is literary, it's a genre novel, it doesn't have to have great prose, and I said, Well, yes, that's why I don't go for genre fiction as a rule.

John said, 'The trouble is, most people don't care about things like that when they read a novel - language and viewpoint etc' and everyone agreed, somewhat self-righteously I thought, at which I felt like crawling away and giving up on writing and said so to no sympathy.

Then Trevor said, 'Well, the thing that really upsets us is that you laughed at it,' and I'm sorry, but I laughed again.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Monday, July 30, 2007

All over bar the bar bills

So it's all over - the rehearsals, the publicity, the week of the play spent in town from morning till night and living on peanuts and wine, and the frantic get-ins - the fifteen mad minutes between the last show getting out and our audience moving in, in which the furniture for the set must be whisked from behind a screen and placed on stage, the stage marked out with tape, the video and camera for the media element of our show set up, gaffer tape slapped down on the leads in case the actors or the audience went and broke their necks, and the programmes laid out, all before Front of House called down and demanded clearance and the audience filed in... And falling asleep on the bus and then waking at five in the morning with the thought of all I had to do - emails, phone calls and printing - before I had to jump back on the bus into town and the whole thing started again... and of course, a whole week of grabbing as many as I could of the other amazingly diverse shows.

Two and and half months of solid hard work to realise a play I wrote in days! Can't say it exactly compares with radio where it's all done for you, where the publicity machine is huge, and the audience, without any trouble to the writer, thousands. And our slightly sniffy review from Natalie Anglesey in the Manchester Evening News was a bit disheartening, and it was hard not to see this as contributing to the fact that our houses, which began comparatively large, dropped thereafter.

But there are other ways of course that theatre and radio don't compare: with theatre there's that live adrenalin buzz, and above all, for me, the special ability of theatrical magic to tackle my particular thematic interest: the nature of identity. And on the last night UK Theatre Network dropped in and the next day gave us a really nice review, which, if too late to boost our audiences again, was lovely.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

How did it happen?

Originally uploaded by Tom Wright 1964
First night for The Processing Room last night. Wow. We were so nervous beforehand - so many technical hitches with the equipment for the media element of the show, the music disc going missing at the very last minute and Tracy having to rush home to record another one, the actresses panicking because the rehearsal time had been so truncated and gathering in corners for emergency line runs, me on the book with them and trying to find time to leaflet as well. And me thinking: Bloody live show business, it's just too damn hair-raising, let me get back to the recording studio and the printed book! And then it was time, and an audience of about fifty piled in from nowhere, and suddenly it happened and it was great, and I'm thinking - this is why we do it, because it's actually a kind of magic!

Our next performance is Wednesday (5.30), but I've hardly got a day off today. Better rush in at lunchtime for a bit of leafleting, before which I must gather together a costume and learn my lines for a film rehearsal in Widnes this evening - another script and another world which I have somehow to switch my head to!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A big day for a little writer

What an amazing day I had on Friday. First I met my lovely publisher Jen from Salt. Well, of course I think Jen can do magic because she's publishing my book, but she also arrived from Cambridge miraculously fast through the flooding country and arrived for lunch at Croma bang on time. (It was a different story, though, according to her blog, when she went back later in the evening.) We had a great lunch and Jen had brought me a lovely present - a proof copy of Carys Davies's forthcoming collection of short stories, which is due out at the same time as mine. I met Carys over the internet through our both being published by Salt, and it turned out that we had each spent a part of our childhood in the same tiny corner of South Wales which features in both our books. Magic, or what?

Here's Jen and me in Croma:

Then Jen and I parted for the afternoon - she to meet Forward Prize nominated Salt poet Eleanor Rees, and I to do a spot of leafleting before the tech rehearsal for The Processing Room. I had dressed up for the evening in a frock and heels but then I found myself lugging chairs around and sticking down duct tape so I can't say I ended up looking very glamorous. I can't say either that the tech went without a hitch - for one thing, I'd been so busy with publicity and thus absent from the last couple of rehearsals that I had failed to remind everyone that I had arranged for Tom Wright, the 24:7 photographer to cover the show at the tech, and the costumes hadn't been brought! (But it'll all be all right on the night - honest!)

Then it was off out into the liquid day day again, leaving everyone else to pack up, and down rainswept Cross Street to the Royal Exchange where the award ceremony for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize had already begun. Jen was there, with Eleanor Rees whom I met for the first time. The prize, for a collection by a single author and judged in this its inaugural year by AL Kennedy, was instigated by Ailsa Cox with whom I founded and edited metropolitan short story magazine. Short-listed authors were Neil Gaiman, Jackie Kay, Colm Toibin and two authors we published in metropolitan, Nicholas Royle and Tamar Yellin. Winner was Colm Toibin for Mothers and Sons (Picador). In his heartening winning speech he said that short stories were a much more difficult form than novels and that the notion of them as minor and 'practice' for the 'real' form of novels was seriously mistaken.

After this I had a couple of hours to kill before going to be interviewed on BBC Radio Manchester, so I went up to Cornerhouse to let the effects of two glasses of wine wear off and gather my thoughts for the interview - and who should I meet but Mark who the evening before had interviewed me and Stephanie on Let's Go Global TV.

Then it was quarter to ten and time to turn up at the BBC. What a strange place the BBC is at night - so hushed, not a soul around as I made my way down the winding corridors to Radio Manchester. Through the glass you could see the BBC car park gleaming and black with rain, but the little waiting area was cosy with bright light and a soft sofa and the sound of the current broadcast coming softly through the speakers - like a little oasis in the streaming night. And that's exactly how Phil Woods' programme seems too, an oasis in the night, with his urbane voice and his calm relaxed style, and in no time at all I had forgotten I was on the radio, which of course is how it should be. I was 'Mrs Manchester' for the night, choosing my favourite records (while of course plugging my play), and we ended up with Fats Waller's 'Your Feet's Too Big' which John once bought me because I have such big feet for someone of my not too considerable height.

And then out of the BBC on my big feet and straight onto a 42 bus, and I was stepping through the door by midnight.

Not bad, eh, for a writer - ie one whose typical day is spent in jamas and moving only between the desk and the kettle?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Free-to-Air and Magic Arm

For once I didn't go to rehearsals as I had rushing around to do, and between picking up Tracy's trailer for our show and dropping it off at Let's Go Global for tonight's programme I was able to call in at Cornerhouse and listen to the day's 5 o'clock Free-to-Air live broadcast. This takes place in Gallery 2 (Gallery 1 houses the main radio station), and it's fitted out cosily for a live audience with red-cushioned benches and the walls papered with Free-to-Air's red twenties-style posters. As the audience gathered, the artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White (who run the Open Music Archive website) played tracks of out-of-copyright music including Jean Havez' hilarious and catchy Good Bye Booze.

Then the broadcast began and the day's musician, one-man-band Magic Arm, played his own versions of the same tracks. I was enthralled as he not only managed to play several instruments but operated a loop pedal to build up his own accompaniments.

There's no live music today, but a discussion with the two artists behind Free-to-Air. I understand that Saturday and Sunday there will be two sets of performers each day, and I'm told that Saturday's show, featuring two female musicians, promises to be very good.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

No end to it

Oh dear, the ending of my play! After Mary-Ann expressed doubts about it, I spent half a morning thinking about how to reword it. Last night I took the new version along to rehearsal. I showed it to Tracy. She perused it silently. She looked up. 'You know what? I liked it better the way it was before.'

But Mary-Ann still had real problems with the way it was before. What did it mean? What message would the audience go away with? Wouldn't they go away confused when they need a resolution? Tracy said, 'But I like the ambiguity, that's the whole point for me, and the way it's written now, so explicit, weakens it, there's no impact,' and Stephanie (pictured above at an earlier rehearsal) agreed. Everyone pondered. Mary-Ann tore at her hair. I felt confused and said nothing, and then got all pedantic about the meaning of the play, which didn't help for a moment, and then I got all confused again.

In the end Tracy said to me, 'Well, you're the playwright, I'm just directing it. You have to make the decision.'

Can I make the decision? Can I heck. Help.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Reading: Adele Geras at Manky Poets

An anouncement: Adele Geras will be reading at Manky Poets at Chorlton Library this Friday (20th) at 7.30 pm. Adele is best known as a writer of children's books and, more recently, adult novels, but she also writes vivid poetry which tugs at all the senses. A warm and engaging speaker and a great reader of her own work, she is a treat to hear, and I would most definitely be going if I didn't have the technical rehearsal of my play. I've been intending to go to this event since copland smith, who runs Manky, told me he was planning it, and I'll be sorry to miss it.

Radio refuge

Andrew Edwards of the Manchester radio station ALLFM (96.9) is recording interviews with the theatre companies involved in 24:7, to be put on the 24:7 website, and on Sunday night Rachael (above at rehearsal) and I made our way separately over to Levenshulme to do ours. What a night! So cold! It would be cold for April, leave alone July! And wet, of course. I got a lift over, and after I was dropped, wrapped up in my leather jacket I went up onto Levenshulme station to wait for Rachael who was coming by train. Not a soul in sight, no sign of the train down the line, just wetness and wind and swaying trees, and everything grey - a world forsaken not just by summer. And how I wished I had gloves! But then the signals changed to red and the train came into view, worming its way towards me, and then there was Rachael stepping off the train in her woolly duffel coat and wellies!

ALLFM is situated in a converted three-storey corner terrace house just across the road from the station. Such a contrast inside! Another 24:7-er answered the door to us - I think it was Anthony Trevelyan who wrote Harlequin - since Andrew was in the studio recording someone. Julia Hogan, the author of Each To their Own, was also waiting her turn in the cosily bright back room which still had the air of a living room with a sofa and easy chairs. Not long afterwards, others joined us, including Luke Walker, writer of Mind The Gap. There was an immediate sense of refuge and cameraderie induced by the evening outside, adrenalin for the impending recordings and the fact that our shows opened in precisely one week's time! Julia echoed my feelings by saying that she was exhausted - she was amazed at how much work producing a show was. At the start she had considered directing hers, but was now entirely thankful that she hadn't!

Andrew was lovely, popping out in his bright tee-shirt between recordings to tell us to help ourselves to the water and biscuits and nectarines, and putting everyone at their ease. Then it was mine and Rachael's turn to go into the converted front room which was the studio and talk about The Processing Room. I had prepared a little dialogue, and we took turns at the only mic to read our bits, which Andrew would splice together afterwards. Rachael was brilliant, as I knew she would be: she is the daughter of actors and has been doing radio for all of her life. I haven't been in front of a mic that often, but as I said to Andrew when he said he thought I had, I've been around radio studios for a very long time. Let's just hope it sounds like it!

The publicity is really kicking off: on Thursday I'll appear on Let's Go Global TV's weekly evening programme, and on Friday night I'm on BBC Radio Manchester's Mr and Mrs Manchester (95.1FM/104.6FM)!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Art Radio at Cornerhouse

I'm listening to Art Radio, the amazing project/exhibition which is on at Cornerhouse. Galleries 1 & 2 have been transformed to a temporary radio station (106.5 FM and online), from which until the 26th August resident artists are broadcasting innovative radio programmes.

The contribution to this project from artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White is the 'Free to Air' series of programmes. Eileen and Ben, whose residency at Cornerhouse lasts from today until the end of July, run the Open Music Archive website from which you can download out of copyright music, and they are very involved in 'copyleft' issues. A 'Free-toAir' programme on at this very moment (running from 2-4) includes discussions about copyleft and Creative Commons and some amazing archive radio commentary on the nature of radio and intellectual property.

Later in the day, and until Wednesday 25th, Ben and Eileen will be playing some of the twenties and thirties music from their website, and broadcasting new interpretations they have commissioned from contemporary musicians. Most afternoons at five they'll conduct a live fifteen-minute broadcast in Gallery 2, when invited musicians will play their own interpretations.

This is a fantastic project bringing back to life forgotten music and misicians, and should be of inhterest to anyone concerned about the draconian developments in modern copyright.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Too much to do

Uh-oh. On Thursday night at rehearsal for The Processing Room, we are rehearsing the ending when Mary-Ann (pictured at rehearsal) says, 'Er... sorry to throw a spanner in the works, but...' The ending doesn't make sense for her, and now I have to think about re-working it to make my meaning clearer. And that's on top of working on publicity and rushing off to Widnes today to rehearse for a short film (and learning my lines for it) - not to mention clearing a room in the house for builders! And The Processing Room opens a week on Monday... Help!

Thing is, we writers moan when we're not busy, don't we?

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Rehearsals for The Processing Room continue apace (that's Rachael on the left, who plays the very strange and wry nurse who drops a bombshell for the three women lost in a hospital). I've been getting on with publicity, and an article about Stephanie (who plays one of the three women) will appear in the Lancashire Evening Post on 20th. Meanwhile, Channel M have put the details about our show up on their website and on Thursday 19th we'll appear on Let's Go Global's weekly TV show (7-9 pm).

We now have a stage manager, Becky Saville, and she came to her first rehearsal on Tuesday evening. It had been warmer in the day and she wore her shorts, and, like me, no socks, and as the temperature plummeted we got pretty frozen sitting watching the others as they kept warm with all their complicated and very funny moves.

Another one tonight - and I'm going to wrap up warm!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


An announcement today, of a brand-new website set up by a group of us blogging writers:

There are about fifty of us involved, who came together in a forum set up by novelist Clare Sudbery. Some of the members have been working away over the last few weeks to set up the site, including artist and writer Lucy Pepper who has designed it and helped us less techy folks along the way. It should be a fantastic resource for fellow writers, with regular articles and features on the subject of writing and publication, a news and events page, lots of useful links and a blog where anyone can comment.
We intend to update regularly and add as we go along, but it's already pretty good I reckon. Check it out! And you could stick our button in your sidebar:

Saturday, July 07, 2007


I am totally exhausted, my feet are aching and they have blisters: I have just walked several miles around Manchester leafleting for The Processing Room. Well, at least I'm making up for all that time I've spent at the computer and the desk...

Friday, July 06, 2007


Rehearsals are properly under way now for The Processing Room. Last night we all made it through the sheeting rain and ridiculously dark early evening to the third, and Mary-Ann wore her wellies. I am delighted with the way it's going: Tracy is picking up on the surreal elements of the play with lots of stylised movement which enhances the comedy. It's very complicated, and I don't know how the actors are picking it all up so quickly but they are. Here are some pictures:

And here they are collapsing in giggles when it all went pear-shaped:

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Launch: Missing by Cath Staincliffe

Last Thursday evening, before I left for Paris, I went to the launch at Waterstone's Deansgate of a new book in the popular Sal Kilkenny series of crime novels by my old friend Manchester writer Cath Staincliffe. Cath is unbelievably prolific, and it seems hardly any time since she won the Commonword Novel Competition with her first, Looking for Trouble, which was immediately taken up by a mainstream publisher and serialised on Woman's Hour. Amazingly, the new book, Missing, is her seventh in the series, and in the meantime she has published other stand-alone novels and is the originator of the Granada Blue Murder detective series starring Caroline Quentin.

Missing (Allison and Busby) finds Sal searching for two missing people, one a young mother, while on Sal's home front the love interest hots up...

Here's the enticing beginning:
People disappear every day. Most of them choose to. Have you ever been tempted? Slip on a coat, pick up your bag and walk, or drive, or run. Turn your back on home, family, friends, work.

Tim Preston took these photos of Cath with the book and signing copies: