Thursday, December 21, 2006

Evelyn Waugh versus mince pies

Reading group on Tuesday night at Doug's. He had a beautiful huge Christmas tree, tastefully decorated with red baubles and tiny white lights, which made everyone exclaim as they entered, and people brought Christmas food, mince pies and chocolates, and Jenny had a bag of samosas left over from her other reading group at Didsbury library which had had a Christmas gathering earlier in the day. And no one was much inclined to get down to business and discuss the book.

In the middle of all the hilarity I asked everyone if they minded my writing about our meetings on my blog (previously my reports have appeared on my website), and everyone said it was fine. But then Doug said suddenly that that reminded him: he had a good mind to start a rival web report because my last one (on Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn) was totally biased (towards my own view of the book) and ended on a yah-boo-sucks note. (Trevor added that he's always shocked by how different my memories of the discussion are from his.) Quite right! I retorted, refusing to be chastened.

Anyway, this is my memory of the discussion we had on Tuesday:

Ann had chosen Evelyn Waugh's 1938 novel Scoop in which, in a classic case of mistaken identity, a naive aristocratic nature-features writer, Boot, gets sent as a war reporter to the fictional African Republic of Ishmaelia, and in which journalistic contempt for the truth is famously satirised. Having read other Waugh novels and enjoyed them, she said she had chosen it as a civilised and urbane antidote to the linguistic grimness of Selby Jr. However, having expected to enjoy it without reservation, she now wasn't so sure, finding it on the whole to be in fact more of a farce than a satire. Everyone readily and strongly agreed, although most had enjoyed it - though Sarah said she had given up after the first seventy pages, for the very reason that she hates farce.

John pointed out that, while the overriding trope of mistaken identity and that of the innocent abroad were in the realm of farce, there was true satire in the treatment of the activities of the journalists and their newspapers, and most people agreed that the telegrams passing between them were very funny. Most were agreed too that the book was in any case very clever, but John and Ann weren't so sure since it wavered between satire and farce. Trevor said that, having previously avoided Waugh because of his right-wing reputation, he had been amazed to find how even-handedly Waugh had poked fun, representing the aristocratic Boot family as dodderers mainly confined to their beds. At which point Jenny expressed her oft-stated opinion that aristocrats are anything but duffers, it just suits them to have people think they are, and Waugh (who was not in fact aristocratic) had fallen for that.

John also noted that Boot is something of a psychological blank, and he said that while this is part of the satirical or farcical point, he found that it created a sense of something incomplete. We discussed this - the fact that in a satire you don't really need psychological complexity but that somehow here it seemed like a flaw - without coming to much conclusion as to why this should be. I said it was particularly noticeable in the 'love' interest (Boot falls innocently in love with a young German woman who is quite cheerfully taking him for a ride), and Trevor, who'd had quite a bit to drink by then, explained to me their relationship. I said I understood what their relationship was, I was talking about the treatment of it, and he explained it to me again.

Ann wondered how much more impact the book might have had in its day, as we are now so much more used to the idea of not trusting the press, but Doug said, haven't there always been satirical cartoons?

And that was about it. A very short discussion (as far as I remember it), and by the time Mark arrived, late from putting his kids to bed, we'd long gone onto other topics which we stayed late discussing, even though Doug had to go to London next day...

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

Thursday, December 14, 2006

North West Playwrights at Christmas

Christmas Party at North West Playwrights last night. Nice red wine, a lovely Christmas tree with silver baubles and a room full of playwrights gabbing about playwriting and the eternal obsession: HOW TO GET PLAYS PUT ON.

NWP was originally started by a bunch of playwrights including Dave Simpson and John Chambers (both veterans of Coronation Street and Emmerdale), as a yearly showcase of work by north-west writers, presented as script-in-hand readings at Contact Theatre. My first-ever try at writing for stage - a one-act play, Cakes - appeared in the showcase, and later I was privileged to be invited onto the judging panel. More recently, NWP has evolved into a somewhat different organisation, with a different emphasis. Headed now by a Director, Chris Bridgeman, and Deputy Director and playwright Sheila McNulty, it is geared towards nurturing and developing the careers of playwrights in a more ongoing way via not only script-in-hand performances but also workshops, training sessions and links with several theatres.

There was much talk of course amongst us playwrights of the recent debate, prompted by the Guardian's Lynn Gardner, about the frustrating aspects, for writers, of theatre 'development' schemes (which I wrote about in an earlier post). Everyone was agreed however that North West Playwrights is very different, its aim being not only to help writers develop their skills and scripts but also to find homes for their plays.

One guest was Dave Slack, co-founder of 24:7, the yearly Manchester theatre festival with an increasing profile, and a question on everyone's lips was: 'Are you putting something in for it?'. As I said to someone, 24:7 is one place where you can come from nowhere with a play, put it on unchanged by anyone else or for any theatre's philosophy, style or mission statement about 'development,' and then by virtue of having put it on, can be regarded as a professional playwright (rather than someone 'in need of development' by theatre professionals other than writers). Many theatre professionals might presume that this would make for inferior plays, but for two years running now plays from 24:7 have won prestigious Manchester Evening News Awards.

Closing date for 24:7 is 31st January.

And then it was time to go, and guess what, I'd been vain and worn my high heels, and when I went to meet John it turned out he'd had to park the car at the other side of town...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Normblog Writer's Choice

Famous blogger Norman Geras has invited me to contribute to his Writer's Choice series, where writers discuss books which have been important to them. I write about Wuthering Heights as perhaps the most influential on my own writing, and the shock I had when I re-read it for the purpose. The piece appears today.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Lost Literature

You can't help wondering what literature, both written and potential, is lost through lack of outlets. Commenting recently on my other blog, nmj relates how she started out as a short-story writer and got an agent on the strength of her short-story writing. However, she discovered, it wasn't the stories themselves the agent was interested in, and she was immediately persuaded to write a novel, and her short-story writing went by the board.

My own experience was the same, and I'm sure we are not the only two. It seems to me that the AL Kennedys and Ali Smiths are only the exceptions that prove the rule: Ali Smith, indeed, has stated in an interview that she feels she was helped towards publication of her first collection by things extraneous to her (marvellous) prose: the fact that she was Scottish, and the fact that she was lesbian.

Once upon a time short stories were all I ever really wanted to write. I loved the form with its special poetic yet muscular compression. Once I had published several stories in literary magazines, I began hoping to publish a collection. I went on an Arvon course and to my delight and gratitude my tutor Martin Booth sent my stories off to his agent, who immediately rang me. (And there are people in the blogosphere insisting that you don't need assistance and contacts to get taken up!) But this agent said the same to me as nmj's did to her: we have to have a novel, it's impossible to sell short stories. So I wrote a novel (The Birth Machine) - not a very long one that first time, more of a novella really; it took me a while to ease out of the short form - and then another (Body Cuts).

I didn't stop writing stories; I just went on publishing them in magazines. But then the magazines began to die away, and there didn't seem any point in writing them any more... And my novel publishers got bought up, the usual story, and the list I was on was remaindered. And, just as I found myself out in the cold, the commercialisation of publishing accelerated, and, after a beginning when all doors had opened before me, getting fiction published seemed no longer the easiest thing in the world. And since the doors in radio were flung wide open - I had written a play on the off-chance and it had been broadcast and won a prize - I became a radio dramatist instead.

Of course you don't stop altogether, you can't keep the urge down. And this week a collection of short stories won the Guardian first book award. Small presses like Comma, Salt, Elastic and Leaf are springing up to specialise in short stories. There are doors swinging open again.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sundar Kanta Walker - exhibition of paintings

Yesterday I went to the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Sundar Kanta Walker, 'This Precious Place', at the new Waterside Arts Centre in Sale in South Manchester. Kanta's paintings are vibrant with pure colour, as can be seen above, brimming with a seething yet patterned life, and also often with humour. That's Kanta above, standing next to one of my favourite paintings in the show: 'Ethnic Chick'. If you can't afford one of the oils, there are limited prints available, and I persuaded John to buy me one for Cristmas!

Kanta is of course also a writer, which was how I met her, when she and I once did a reading together, along with novelist Jane Rogers. So it was no suprise that there was another writer at the show, and to my delight Kanta introduced me to her: poet Judy Kendall, who has two books due out, a collection of poems from Cinnamon Press, and the edited letters of Edward Thomas from Carcanet.

I haven't been to Sale for a long time and was amazed to find how gentrified it's become. The Waterside Arts Centre is in a splendid new complex looking out over a paved and lamplit area next to the canal. There were other things going on in the centre besides the opening, and towards the end a group of people drifted past the gallery entrance, coming downstairs from a North-West Playwrights training day. And who from among them should come rushing in to the gallery but my actress friend Mary-Ann Coburn. You could see the pub across the canal through the glass wall of the gallery, so no prizes for guessing where we ended up then...

Kanta's exhibition runs until the 20th January.