Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category

Mechanics’ Institutes are educational establishments, originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men…The Mechanics’ Institutes were used as ‘libraries’ for the adult working class, and provided them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs.

In 1823, George Birkbeck, an early pioneer of adult education, founded the then “London Mechanics’ Institute” at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand. Over two thousand people attended. However the idea was not universally popular and some accused Birkbeck of “scattering the seeds of evil.”


Scattering the seeds.  That belief in disseminating education to working people enabled me, almost 200 years later, to achieve my MA whilst holding down a full time day job.  Thank you, George Birkbeck.

The Review is a collection of creative writing from students past and present.  Over 90 stories were submitted this year, 21 were chosen.  In addition, there are stories from published writers Colin Grant, Jackie Kay, Adam Marek and Evie Wyld.

I started writing my story ‘Roxburgh’ years ago.  In the final version there are still references to characters smoking in pubs.  That’s how long ago it was that the idea came to me.  I’d worked on it a bit over the years, and revised it during a term of my MA.  SInce graduation, I’d forgotten all about it.  Earlier this year, out of the blue, a fellow graduate emailed me to say he’d heard something on the radio that had made him think of the story.  I was so touched that he’d remembered it, and taken the time to email, that after replying to him I looked at the story again and thought ‘s’alright, that old story’.  It happened to be the submission deadline for the Mechanics’ Institute Review, so on a whim, with no nerves and certainly no expectation, I sent it off.   It was a genuine surprise when I was told they wanted to publish it.

Then of course, the internal critic started needling.  Having sent it off without much thought, I started agonising.  It’s not a complex story, it’s formally conservative and thematically rather sentimental.  I wasn’t ashamed to attach my name to it, but it’s not one of the pieces I’m most proud of having written.  On the other hand it is funny, the dialogue is very good and it’s something of a coming-of-age for a middle aged character.  That’s relatively unusual.  The fact that it was selected for publication meant that a group of people (the editors) thought it was good.  Despite my own caveats, I think it is well written.

We were assigned an editor, and the wonderful Mary Bracht http://marybracht.com/ was mine.  It was my first experience of being edited, and it was fantastically useful.  At one point in the writing, I had vaguely toyed with the idea of ‘Roxburgh’ becoming a novel, and that shadow structure lay under the short story.  I’d almost forgotten, or certainly thought it was invisible.  Not to such a forensic editor as Mary, who charmingly and supportively suggested cuts that removed the extraneous ideas and focussed on the key characters and key relationships in the story.  Sue Tyley, a professional copy editor then went through the text for line edits.  I thought I was thorough, I thought I had a good grasp of grammar and syntax.  Perhaps I’m reasonably detailed, but being edited by a professional is awe-inspiring.  And for someone as pedantic as me, a delight.  In a short story especially, each word is important.  Sue’s focus means that every sentence has been interrogated to check for inaccuracies or inherent weakness.   The end result is as strong and as precise as it can be.

There was a launch party for the authors, editors and academic staff on Thursday 26 September.  The Review has been in existence for 10 years, so this was also a significant birthday party.  I chatted to my friend and fellow contributor Barbara Bleiman https://twitter.com/BarbaraBleiman  Her story, Indecent Acts, is an extract from her novel.  It’s very powerful, and I’m sure her search for an agent won’t be a long one.  I was told that there were two actors who would be reading extracts from two of the stories, and mine was one that had been chosen.  The terrific and charming actor Lloyd Hutchinson http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0404371/ read an extract from ‘Roxburgh’.  It was of course the first time I’d heard the story out loud.  I’d spoken it to myself as I was writing it, to get the rhythm and the dialogue right.  But this was the first time in front of an audience, and thanks to Lloyd’s perfect timing they laughed in all the right places, which was gratifyingly.  Perhaps most potent for me was the experience of hearing Roxburgh’s voice, of imagining his presence in the room.  A man speaking the words of a male character.  It was a lovely moment, and I did feel proud.  Afterwards, lots of people complimented me on the story (thanks really to Lloyd for bringing it alive) and Claire Houghton-Price, an agent from HHB Agency http://www.hhbagency.com/index.html gave me her card and said when I’d finished my novel, I should get in touch.  It’s no more than that, but it has acted as a spur to get on with finishing the novel, and with perhaps writing some more short stories.

And if you want to buy it…

This is the book version:


This is the Kindle edition:


And finally, if you want to see me read an extract, nowhere near as well as Lloyd, then come to The Harrison, 28 Harrison St, London WC1H 8JF at 7.30pm on Monday 14 October. I’d love your support.



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Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of many to have been (thankfully) defeated by plans to stage The Master and Margarita. The interweaving strands of 1930s Moscow and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, magical realism and social realism coexisting in the same storylines, not to mention a naked woman flying across the night sky towards a huge, opulent and hedonistic ball hosted by Satan, make any potential staging of this novel a daunting challenge. Simon McBurney and his theatre company Complicite are known for their experimentalism and innovation, and their production at the Barbican in April was both. The stage was bare, the furniture minimal. The extraordinary lighting and laser projections did the rest. Paul Rhys as Woland and The Master was sinister as one and tragic as the other, Sinead Matthews as Margarita was fearless and committed.  Behemoth was a life-sized puppet, foul-mouthed and Liverpudlian-accented. The Variety Theatre scene used the audience, filming the first few rows and commenting on the clothes and shoes of audience members, modernising and adapting the source material.  It was an experience of ‘total theatre’, intense and compelling, and without being cowed by the source material Complicite did justice to Bulgakov’s masterpiece.  As B and I stepped out into the Barbican, B commented on how ugly a place it is.  I have mixed feelings about it, but the architecture that suggests at a utopian communality and dystopian brutalism seemed like an apt place to stage such a production.

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I first read Birdsong when I was in my mid-twenties.  I thought then it was powerful, serious and (I cringe) erotic.  I read it again last year, as part of my university course.  I found it plodding, pretentious and the sex scenes squirmingly badly written.  Faulks is signalling to his readers that this is Serious Literature, but a closer reading shows overlong sentences, florid imagery and descriptive passages that could be cut back to a couple of sentences.  When I was younger and not so widely read, I thought overwriting meant real writing.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy proved to me that is never true.

On rereading, I still found the sections of the novel set in the tunnels to be the best, Faulks strips his prose back and manages to capture the terror of being in a space little bigger than a man’s horizontal body, tens of feet underground, fearing explosions or discovery by German soldiers.  He writes of the stench, the smell of blood, urine, sweat and dirt, the lack of light and air and the constant claustrophobic horror of dying underground.  It it compelling and uncomfortable reading.

The television version both improved upon and lost something of the book’s storytelling.  Abi Morgan (is there anything she isn’t writing at the moment?) takes away the redundant and unconvincing section in the 70s, and transforms the entire heavy tome into a screenplay that is surprisingly light on dialogue.  The love story therefore becomes more believable, more natural and carnal and free.  It is telescoped, of course, but that improves the book ponderousness.   The first part of the adaptation seemed a huge improvement on the book.  The second part however, focussing more on the final stages of the war and Stephen’s time underground, lost the intensity of the book.  The reader’s imagination will create the particular hell of those tiny, squalid tunnels, and a television version (or perhaps this version) cannot create the same experience.  The make-up department seemed unwilling to add any significant disfigurement to either Clemence Poesy or Eddie Redmayne, so this soldier seemed to make it out of the underground tunnels looking like an upset and slightly grubby Burberry model.  In the book, we have a sense of the physical degradation of a man trapped underground for several days.  In the book it takes Stephen several backbreaking and soul-destroying days to make it out of the tunnel, and after having made a promise, he drags Jack Firebrace on his back, bent double or crawling. Even when he knows the man is dead, he will not leave his fellow soldier underground.  At this point, the novel is almost unbearably moving.  The television version didn’t really come close.

The television version gave the story pace and energy, a lightness of touch when needed, and even moments of humour.  Poesy is very good and Redmayne is terrific, his is a very pretty face but he registers very subtle changes of emotion with his eyes.  He conveys the youthful lust of the earlier sections as well as  the dead-eyed trauma of the wartime sections.  It is just a shame that the book’s strongest section was telescoped and anaesthetised, the horror muted and the power diminished.

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My friend M appeared in a all-female production of A Doll’s House. 


I went to see it to support M, but I wasn’t sure what the point of an all female cast would be.  Not that I thought it would be a bad idea, but what it could add to the original conception.  In the first act, I found the woman playing Torvald, the husband, almost unbearable to watch.  The performance was so arch, so stereotypically male, all lechery and patronisation and raised eyebrow.  In the second half however, as Torvald’s certainties start to fall apart, the performance became more fractured, more pathetic, more sympathetic, more real.  

I felt as if, in the casting of women, I was being shown masculinity as performance,  as a face that needs to be adopted as the man faces the world.  That masculinity is a construct, as much as femininity is.  A few weeks later I went to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to see a Drag King night with S and C.  Women dressing up as men, for the entertainment of other women, is an incredibly carefree night out.  The night was mixed, some men, some straight women.  But the atmopshere was like a wonderful girls’ common room, no teachers and no boys allowed.  Girls, women, were free to take on the stereotypical attributes of masculinity, male performers, and subvert them.   Maybe women need to experience a sock down the pants to understand how hard, how ridiculous, how painful it must be sometimes to be a man, and that being a feminist means wishing for a world in which we destroy the contructs of gender to experience each other, and each other’s realities as men and women, different certainly, but not opposed.

Women as men hasn’t been a deliberate quest recently, but perhaps coincidences make themselves, and I saw Twelfth Night recently.  As it’s cast today, a woman will play Viola, pretending to be a man, to make her way in the world after the storm she assumes has drowned her brother.  In Shakespeare’s time, a young man would play a woman, playing a man, and it would be interesting, if a little mind-bending to see that today.  And lastly, on this gender-blurring tip I’ve been on recently, I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  In an interview he gave on the book’s publication,


Eugenides says,

‘I grew up in the unisex 70s.  The heyday of nurture.  Everyone was convinced that personality, and especially gender-specific behavior, was determined by rearing.  Sexologists and feminists insisted that each child was a blank slate and that rearing determined gender roles.  Now everything is reversed.  Biology and genetics are considered the real determinants of behavior. Having lived through the demise of the first oversimplification, I suspect the imminent demise of the current one… So we have these pat theories about evolutionary causes for our present behaviors.  Men can’t communicate because 20,000 years ago they had to be silent on the hunt.  Women are verbal because they had to call out to each other while gathering nuts and berries.  This is just as silly as the previous nurture explanations.’

I hope his predictions about the immiment demise of pseudo-scientific, pseudo-psychological misogyny and misandry are correct.

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Last night I went to see David Eagleman give a lecture at the Swedenborg Institute.  He’s an incredibly bright, energetic polymath who studied Literature as an undergrad and then Neuroscience at PhD.  He leads the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, and has published on time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw.  He has also written fiction, Sum:Forty Tales from the Afterlives. 

He spoke about his day job, and about his fiction writing.  He also spoke about Possibilianism, an idea he came up with in response to a question he was asked on live radio.  He elaborated further later in an interview in the New York Times:

Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”

Last night was one of those beautiful moments when someone articulates something you’d long thought, but hadn’t verbalised.  He’s a scientist who isn’t afraid to dismiss crackpot ideas that have no evidential basis, but he is keeping an open mind to the possibilities contained within the macro: dark matter and the micro: the human brain.  There are approximately 2000 current religions on earth, each one privileging its own stories and myths.  They can’t all be the one truth.  But if we don’t know how many other galaxies there are, and we don’t know what happens to us when we die, then a possibilianist outlook surely makes perfect sense.

His fiction is poetic, taut and funny.  Everyone’s wondered what happens after death is like, and now we have forty versions of what that might be like.  .His talent lies in being able to remind the reader why life on earth, in all its imperfections, impermanence and incompleteness is the most beautiful reality we need.

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On Wednesday I went to the Shoreditch House Literary Salon.  David Mitchell read extracts from his new novel,  The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet (and apologised to anyone who thought they were coming to see the Peep Show comedian and Radio 4 stalwart).  An audience member asked him for any wisdom for writers at the beginning of their journey.  He replied, “Write, live, read. In that order.” 

I thought about that afterwards over dinner with D, and realised that my current order is live, read, write.  No wonder I’m feeling as if, when I do write, it’s terrible, flat, lifeless prose.  All my energy is going into living, and not enough into writing.  One needs to live, without a social life and a curiosity for people a writer has no material.  But if a social life is used as yet another avoidance tactic, then no good writing will come as a result. 

I’ve just started some work with an amazing Life Coach and fellow writer Esther Poyer.  I’m hoping to work on getting rid of avoidance tactics, procrastination, laziness and general rubbishness.  As my amazing friend M says, ‘there’s a difference between organised and efficient’.  I need to spend less time making lists, and more time doing the things on the lists.  Principally, writing.

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