The last breath.

Social media is a strange animal. It is so fast moving it can be funny, curious, informative, inspiring, infuriating, enraging, vile and vicious all at the same time. But I generally love it. Having been initially scathing of Twitter and Facebook, I now spend  a lot of my life on both, because despite the problems, I find them places where I can meet and engage with interesting people.

One of those people was Harry Leslie Smith, who died in an Ontario Hospital at the age of 95 on Wednesday.  Harry  came into the public eye when his book ‘Harry’s Last Stand’ was published in 2014 when Harry was 91. This powerful memoir describes the grinding poverty he was born into in the 1920s. Poverty that put such pressure on his parents, their marriage didn’t survive. Poverty that meant the family had no money to get medical attention for Harry’s sister, Marion when she developed TB, so that she died in agonising pain in a workhouse. Poverty that forced him out to work selling coal aged 10. Though harrowing in parts, the driving force behind the book was Harry’s fury at the austerity measures imposed by the government which is sending our country back to a past he thought he’d escaped.  It was an instant best seller, and Harry himself became a sensation when he gave this fantastic speech on the  NHS to the Labour Party.  With the tour that followed, his follow up ‘Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future’ and Harry’s Last Stand podcast he has been an inspiring leader for the anti austerity movement in the last four years. So that last October when he asked for pledges to do a tour of refugee camps to write a book about refugees, the money came flooding in.

I first ‘met’ Harry on twitter a couple of years before the publication of ‘Harry’s Last Stand’ when we got chatting about his book ‘Love Among the Ruins’. It tells the true story of how at the end of the war, when stationed in Hamburg, he met his future wife Friede. Despite a ban on having relationships with German women, they fell in love and fought against everybody for the right to be married. I was fascinated and after that we talked a lot about writing, progressing to politics where we discovered we had a mutual rage against austerity.  So when Harry came to Oxford to speak with Owen Jones in 2014, I naturally took my then 11 year old son to see him. In a world full of toxic masculinity and unhelpful role models, it was wonderful to show my son, that being a man means you can show emotion and compassion as well as rage at injustice. It was a fantastic night and we were both very pleased to meet Harry afterwards and shake his hand.

In the last four years, I continued to enjoy chats with Harry, which were always interesting. Every year on the anniversaries of the deaths of his beloved Friede, and his son Peter (who had mental health needs), he spoke movingly about what they meant to him and Peter’s struggles to stay well. He spoke out about injustice whenever he saw it and supported a wide range of progressive causes.  His hilarious put downs of racist trolls who challenged his support for refugees and refusal to wear a red poppy were a sight to see. (Never mess with a nonagenarian RAF veteran). And his interactions with everyone he spoke to were laced with kindness.

Harry’s last tweet  last week was something to the effect of ‘Bugger, I’ve had a fall. I’m off to hospital.’ I missed that one, but I did catch the one that followed from his son John, saying Harry was in hospital and at Harry’s request, John would be updating his account. What followed was the most amazing social media experience. Within minutes messages flowed in from all around the world from people inspired as I was by Harry’s work and witness.  #IStandWithHarry trended as a virtual vigil of young and old, the ordinary and powerful joined John by Harry’s bedside. Up until that point I don’t think many of us had been aware of the vital part John played in Harry’s life supporting his work, caring for him, enabling him to manage his tours. But in this last week we have come to see a beautiful son, looking after his beautiful father, with an extraordinary tenderness and love. John tweeted about his father sleeping, trying to breathe, telling jokes, remembering good times. He tweeted hope for his father’s recovery, anxiety about things that weren’t working, dread that this was it. And in between he reminded us of Harry’s work, to challenge poverty, champion free health care, fight for refugees. As the week continued, it was clear that Harry wasn’t going to make it back on the road this time round, and so we had a final lesson from him in how to die well. And a baton being passed, as John,shortly after announcing Harry’s death told us he would be completing his father’s work.

Last night John tweeted a picture of Harry in his hospital bed in January, surrounded by paper as he continued with the work he knew to be so vital. He promised us he would keep going to his very last breath, and so he did. I have so often despaired of the state of the world in the last decade, I’ve needed someone like Harry to remind me that hope is possible, change is possible, but we need to show up and keep working. Thank you Harry and John for reminding me of this. I promise never to forget. And that I too will go on till the very last breath.

 

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A Writer’s Responsibility.

NB There’s a spoiler for Bodyguard in this, so don’t read if you haven’t watched…

Ten years ago, I was set an assignment for my creative writing course to write a story  about a journey. Earlier that year I been to London and travelled by tube, the first time since the 7/7 bombings.  I’m a Londoner by birth and had always been at ease on the underground.  But on this occasion, I found myself checking who was in the carriage, and, to my shame, felt a bit nervous when I spotted an Asian man with a black rucksack. A year before, I  wouldn’t have noticed him, but in the light of that terrible event, he stood out, and  despite myself, I felt anxious. It was deeply uncomfortable to recognise that I was susceptible to such irrational racism, and because good fiction is often based on discomfort, I thought it might be a good basis for my story.

As a result, I wrote a piece about a woman travelling on the Northern Line who finds herself worrying about the odd behaviour of the man opposite her. Is he dangerous, or is this just an ungrounded racist fear provoked by one terrorist incident? When I started writing I had no idea how I was going to answer that question, but I wanted to explore a tension that I felt was current in our society.  I was keen to avoid portraying Muslims in a bad light, so when the one Asian man in our class pointed out that the story might be doing that, I introduced a Muslim family to demonstrate that following a particular religion does not make you a terrorist.

I enjoyed writing this story very much, and it helped build my confidence as a writer enormously. I learnt a lot about building tension by using the different stops on the Northern line, the dark tunnels and background characters to highlight my central character’s growing anxiety. And I was also proud of developing wordplay and imagery to add depth to the feeling of the piece. But I kept wrestling with the ending. I really didn’t want to perpetuate stereotypes , so my original thought was to finish with my character getting off the train and recognising she had allowed herself to fall prey to racism. I wrote several versions like this. But something kept coming back to me from my classes – a comment from Chekov that you have to follow the story to its natural conclusion. And unfortunately, whenever I wrote the ‘nothing happened option’, the story petered out, and all the tension I’d built up for the reader just dissipated. It felt a cop out. So, I went for the ending I didn’t want to write. The woman has a moment where she looks into the man’s eyes and is spooked. She gets off the train, scolds herself for her stupidity and walks away. And as the train moves off he reaches into his bag…

I’d been struggling a lot with writing when I wrote that piece, and had been doubting my abilities. So I was delighted to get a good mark for it, and when the course was over,  I submitted it to an online magazine. They accepted and produced a beautiful copy complete with gorgeous artwork based on the London Underground map. It was the first time my writing received professional recognition; naturally, I was pleased and proud.

A few years later the magazine changed its format, and the story disappeared off the internet, giving me the chance to use it again. I was still really proud of it, particularly, because it was so important in my development as a writer, and began thinking of other places to submit it. However, when I reread it that I realised that despite my best efforts, the piece undoubtedly promoted the stereotype of the evil Muslim bomber. I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve written. But since I wrote it the UK has become an increasingly racist and Islamophobic place and I don’t want anything I’ve written to add to that. Even though my platform is tiny, it is still a platform, and I have a responsibility to use it wisely. I decided not to publish it again.

I have been thinking about this story following the conclusion to Bodyguard last week. Jed Mercurio’s latest outing for the BBC has been the hit of the Autumn season so far, and I can see why.  Mercurio is a fine writer with a brilliant ability to build tension. The series has been full of intense, gripping scenes, with twists and turns, shocks and surprises and a host of his trademark ambiguous characters.

It is unfortunate then, that the first scene played right into stereotypes about Muslim women. The story begins with David, a bodyguard, on a train travelling home with his kids. After spotting a man behaving suspiciously he discovers a terrified hijab wearing woman in a suicide vest. Not only does he reassure her and talk her down, but he also manages to stop counter terrorist officers from shooting her. This opening is troubling on two levels. Firstly, because it reinforces the image of the victimised Muslim woman, and secondly because it plays into the classic white saviour narrative.

I was ready to let that go, because initially I felt the series was provoking some interesting questions about terrorism and our responses to it. And in a later episode, when David interviews Nadia, the terrorist, Mercurio created some thoughtful parallels between the two of them and their situations. Sadly, this was all turned on its head in the final episode.  After another tense scene where David himself ends up in a suicide vest, he manages to escape in pursuit of the bad guys. In a very good twist, it turns out that they are a criminal gang, using the terrorists to stoke tensions in order to stop the Home Secretary from passing more draconian laws. And that David’s boss is their inside woman. However, the final twist, that Nadia is the bomb maker, just fed back into a second stereotype – that of the hijab wearing suicide bomber.

Now, as a writer, I can understand why Mercurio did that. It’s a neat bit of storytelling to have the person we all thought was the most vulnerable, build trust with the hero, use the personal information he shared against him, and play him all along.  Just as I didn’t want to cop out in my story by letting all that tension dissipate, Mercurio clearly didn’t want to cop out in his. Writers have a responsibility not to let their audiences down and viewed simply in narrative terms, I think that ending fulfilled that obligation.

However, I also think writers have a bigger responsibility to not stoke discriminatory attitudes. Yes, we should reflect the world we live in, and yes, that world is grappling with terrorism and that’s a valid place to start. But the Western narrative on the war on terror is overwhelmingly white-centric, something white writers rarely address. Despite the fact that largest number of victims of terrorism are Muslims the myth prevails that the biggest threat we face is Islamic terrorism. As a result, islamophobia is on the rise, with Muslim women being disproportionately targeted.  Yet we hardly ever see this discussed in the media, fiction or drama.

I am sure Jed Mercurio did not intend to reinforce stereotypes in Bodyguard and the actress playing Nadia, Anjil Mohandra,  has herself said she felt the twist was empowering. Nonetheless, by beginning with the image of an oppressed Muslim woman and ending with the image of a ruthless terrorist, Bodyguard unfortunately did just that. Which is a shame, because we’ve seen on Line of Duty Mercurio can deal with such issues in a very nuanced way (see for example, how he highlighted the misogyny of the police force with Ted’s very different treatment of Kate and Steve in the last series).

I know myself how easy it is to succumb to the ‘white gaze’ and simply not see how our writing can help perpetuate attitudes that we say we oppose. But that’s why we white writers have a huge responsibility to make sure we guard against that, and think carefully about what we are writing. Whatever our motivations, and however good the work is, we simply have to take greater care. And when we discover we’ve written something that reinforces unhelpful stereotypes, we have to have the courage to either rewrite it completely, or never let it see the light of day.

PS If you want to read something that deals with the complexities of the war on terror on both sides and completely avoids stereotyping, I’d highly recommend Yusuf Toropov’s fine novel Jihadi: A Love Story.

Rave Review: Hamilton

Two or three years ago, my teenage daughter, a big musicals fan, started raving about an American show called ‘Hamilton’. She downloaded the sound track and listened to it obsessively, introducing it to her brother who became equally obsessed. The rest of us are not into musicals (particularly me), but nonetheless, I was intrigued by the concept of the story of the US Founding Fathers being told in rap, hip-hop and R&B and performed by a BAME cast. So when she was booking tickets for herself and her sister, I was happy to agree to her suggestion that I take their brother.

That was 18 months ago.  And today I am so glad she persuaded me. ‘Hamilton’ is an astonishing show, performed with energy and verve by an incredibly talented group of performers. Jamael Westman is excellent in the lead role (at 25 he’s definitely one to watch) capturing perfectly Hamilton’s brilliance and tendency to self destruction. Giles Terera, as Aaron Burr, his friend, rival, political enemy,  does a great job as the career politician, who admires, envies and eventually destroys Hamilton, much to his enduring regret. Rachelle Ann Go as Elizabeth Schulyer, takes us on a believable journey from adoring helpmeet, to betrayed wife,  forgiving partner and the widow who keeps the flame. While Rachel John, as Elizabeth’s sister Angelica, is superb as Hamilton’s muse, and equal.  Jason Pennycooke is hugely entertaining both as Lafayatte, the daring French ally in the revolution and a sparkly, witty Thomas Jefferson, Michael Jibson makes a hilarious King George and Obioma Ugoala is a dignified and thoughtful George Washington.

The show kicks off in exuberant style as Burr, the narrator, strides onto stage and asks ‘how does a bastard, orphan, son of whore,  and a/ Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten/ spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor,/ grow up to be a hero and a scholar’? He is joined by the rest of the cast who rapidly take us through Hamilton’s life and death, punctuated with the man crying ‘My name is Alexander Hamilton’. It’s a passionate and energetic beginning in the manner of a Greek Chorus, that managed to simultaneously, move me to tears and make me want to snap my fingers. No wonder I was hooked.

After that, the First Act rattles through Hamilton’s early life with similar enthusiasm, as he tries to make a name for himself and find his place in the American Revolution. His first encounter with Burr sets out the differences between them, where Hamilton is all passion and principle, Burr advises caution ‘talk less’, ‘smile more’, ‘don’t let them know what you are against or for’, advice Hamilton ignores both to his advantage and disadvantage. Instead he throws his lot in with revolutionaries, Laurens, Mulligan and Lafayette, meets the wealthy Schuyler sisters, marrying  Eliza, and is taken up by George Washington.

Act Two moves us beyond the revolutionary years, as the founding fathers begin to build the United States.  If the first Act lends itself to comparisons with ‘Les Miserable’s, Act Two, is West Wing in song. From the hilarious rap battles between Jefferson and Hamilton in George Washington’s cabinet, to the powerful ‘The Room Where it Happens’ where the political rivals are forced to thrash out a compromise, we see that nothing much changes in politics. And where the first Act shows the strength of Hamilton’s restless, impulsive side, here he must use Burr’s tactics to get what he wants. While he manages it once, like all tragic heroes, his fatal flaws of impulsiveness, arrogance and unwillingness to back down leads to his downfall, as in the aftermath of Washington stepping down, he finds himself immersed in a scandal of his own creation.

In the hands of a less gifted writer,  ‘Hamilton’ could have easily descended into melodrama. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intelligent use of lyrics and music power the story through.  A song such as ‘My Shot’ reveals a core truth of Hamilton’s character, ‘I’m young, and scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot’. These lines are repeated throughout, underlying how much this hunger for success drives him, while taking slightly different meanings each time. In contrast, the beautiful  ‘Dear Theodosia’ has Burr and Hamilton singing side by side to their new born children, underlying the common humanity they share, and which they both forget, leading to the inevitable tragedy.

Miranda uses repetition effectively in other places too. Eliza Schulyer’s ‘Look around, look around at how/Lucky we are to be alive right now’ in her first appearance describes a youthful excitement of being out in the world. Later it transforms to a plea to Hamilton to stay with her rather than go to war. While her and Angelica’s plea for him to ‘Stay Alive’ takes on an even more emotional aspect in Act 2.  ‘Rise up’ in Act 1, refers to overthrowing the British, but in Act 2, it is more about rising through the ranks. ‘History has its eyes on you’ starts with George Washington fearful he won’t amount to much, switches to a hope that Hamilton’s potential will be achieved, and later a reflection of the careers of both men.

The use of modern language, is an effective way to reflect the timelessness of the story, but it’s a strength of the script that Miranda manages to weave these with real historical words, such as Hamilton and Washington reciting the closing paragraph of Washington’s final speech. This, and the show’s progressive politics serves to confirm his assertion that Hamilton ‘is about the America then, told by the America of now.’

Miranda also uses his script to point up issues of equality.  Hamilton’s immigrant status is crucial to the whole play. It is this which fuels him to be so much more productive then all the men with wealth and privilege he works with. And it his outsider status that makes him feared and resented by others. The wry comment in ‘York Town’ ‘immigrants get the job done’ confirms the truth that America wouldn’t BE America without immigrants.  While the deliberate casting of mainly BAME actors demonstrates exactly WHY we have to create such opportunities. Normally the cast for a show like this would have predominately white. Choosing not do this means we get to see the phenomenal talent of Jamael Westman et al, which we would have missed otherwise. Positive discrimination is necessary and it works. Lionel Shriver, take note.

The treatment of women is also interesting. Angelica Schulyer was by all accounts an intelligent woman who wrote to all the great men of the day and had an affectionate relationship with Hamilton. Here she is presented as Hamilton’s intellectual equal and muse, who steps aside for the sister who she knows loves him more, and because she also recognises they are too similar to work as a couple. It is no coincidence that her first scene has her sparring with Burr about equality for women and citing Thomas Paine.  Eliza demonstrates she is more than just a passive wife, in the powerful ballad ‘Burn’ as she destroys Hamilton’s letters, so that she can ‘write herself out of the narrative’. It is important that she reverses that decision as she closes the show describing the way she ensured his work wasn’t forgotten. The song also provides a moment for her to describe her own achievements, such as setting up the Washington memorial, and founding an orphanage. The affair with Maria Reynolds at first jars, with Reynolds being presented as a woman who throws herself upon poor overworked Hamilton who wants to ‘say not to this’ but can’t. Then you realise that Burr has pointed out in the opening lines of ‘Say no to this’, that this is simply Hamilton’s version of events. In the first political scandal, we only hear the side of the man in power, while the voice of the woman is dismissed. Sound familiar?

Throw in references to Gilbert and Sullivan,  Macbeth, and commentary from a razzmatazz King George who alternatively pleads with and threatens his subjects with a wiggle of the hips, later gleefully enjoying their difficulties, and you can see why people describe Hamilton as a work of genius.

The music is lively, varied and though not always quite to my taste, full of brilliant showstoppers (‘Alexander Hamilton’, ‘My Shot’, ‘Ten Duel Commandments’, ‘Dear Theodosia’, ‘What Did I Miss?’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, ‘Cabinet Battle’ (#1 and #2), ‘One Last Time’, ‘Burn’, ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’, ‘The World Was Wide Enough’, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies,Who Tells Your Story?’). And though the set is fairly simple, it is used well, particular the revolving stage. Angelica’s ‘rewind rewind’ at the beginning of the powerful ‘Satisfied’ allows us to repeat the scene of Eliza and Hamilton’s courtship from her point of view, adding complexity to the relationships of all three of them. While in the final duel, it is used to great effect to provide us with the moments before Hamilton’s death, as he reflects on what his legacy will be. Both are stunning high points in a show that really has no lows.

They’ve just extended the run of Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre (huge props to Cameron Mackintosh to stage a show about the overthrow of the British monarchy round the corner from Buckingham Palace), and tickets are on sale again. So even if you can’t get there till next March, buy yours now. I guarantee it will be well worth the wait.

‘Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference
A place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up.’

(Alexander Hamilton, ‘The World Was Wide Enough’).

A White Writer Responds To Lionel Shriver.

I wasn’t planning to do this.  This blog has never been particularly political. However. I’m making an exception today. Over the weekend The Spectator published an article by Lionel Shriver that has caused a bit of a stir on social media. I made a few comments myself on Facebook and twitter and was going to leave it there, but then I saw a post from Kit De Waal that made me think. She said something to the effect that when a famous white writer like Shriver says something controversial on the subject of race,  journalists rush to people of colour to respond. She, and others refused because really, why should they always have to be the ones to counter a stupid argument? And why aren’t the journalists asking white writers what they think? She’s right, so, I’ve decided to write about it here.

I am not going to post a link to the article, which I think has had enough coverage (it’s easily googled if you want to read it). What I will do is have a look at what she said and see what lies beneath it.

Shriver’s complaint is that Penguin Random House wish to increase the diversity of its authors, which leads to, oh how tiresome, a list of questions that would be authors should fill in. ‘Oh dear,’  cries Shriver, appalled at the fact that one might be asked about one’s gender, race, disability or sexuality before submission.  ‘How terrible! The world of literature will never be the same again.’ The quality of the canon will be brought down because it will be reduced to a tick box exercise of making sure so many writers of colour, disability etc who will only be there because of who they are, not be what they write.

Anyone who has worked in the public sector, as I have done,  will remember the same tedious conversation in the eighties and nineties. ‘People will be promoted on the basis of their skin not their worth! It’s political correctness gone mad!’ was the battle cry back then. Of course, that wasn’t the case. What happened was that we asked people about their backgrounds and used that information to ensure that a) we weren’t discriminating against candidates and b) to provide more opportunities for disadvantaged people to progress through mentoring programmes and learning opportunities.

When employing people, asking about ethnic backgrounds, gender, disability and sexuality, allows you to check how representative the organisation is, it allows you to give space to people who in a previous era might be rejected because their name is ‘foreign sounding’ or they are the wrong age or gender. Ensuring you give everyone that equal opportunity, means that not only is your workforce representative of the community it serves, but you open yourself up to MORE talent not less. The first rule of recruitment is one tends to recruit to one’s own image. Diversity policies stop that happening. And, although I know the public sector has still got a long way to go (particularly in the top jobs), the fact we’ve tried to work on this for so long means we have a much wider range of people in the workforce and we are better for it.

And promoting diversity isn’t just about making sure the workforce  and its leadership reflects the population it serves, but that services are flexible enough to respond to the needs of the community. Thus, in 1993 when I ran the Southwark INFORM research project, aimed at increasing accessibility for disabled people, one work stream was to address the poor uptake of services from people of colour. Speaking to community leaders we identified solutions such as increasing the number of translators available, the importance of going out to spaces where people gathered to invite them in or providing women only sessions for those uncomfortable of being in a mixed gender environment. All ideas which were challenging to services at the time, but are now commonplace.

And so with publishing.  I’m as big a fan as any of the Big White Heroes: Dickens, Forster, Greene, Orwell, McEwan. They’re wonderful writers and they deserve their place in literary history. However, their view of the world isn’t the only one, their experiences not all the world has to offer, theirs aren’t the only voices we should listen to.  But it’s difficult for other voices to get through, because publishing remains one of the most white and middle class professions in the country.  Furthermore, there’s a wealth of evidence to suggest BAME writers have restricted opportunities and are too often pigeon-holed.

Of course, Shriver has a point that quota schemes are a clunky way of increasing diversity and, as the article cited above notes, the current discussions in British publishing about increasing inclusion, can sometimes appear to be more about marketing trend then ensuring permanent change. The same article notes that some publishers, including my own, Unbound, are doing a great job promoting diversity without resorting to quotas. But, if your starting point is as low as PRH’s clearly is, having a quota system forces you to look at a wider range of people. And all that means is you have a bigger pool of writers to choose from, and they will have different stories to tell.

Why does any of this matter anyway? Shriver is a well known writer, surely she can say what she likes about these issues?

Well, of course. We live in a free country and we’re all entitled to our opinions. But what concerns me about the article in question is the author’s implicit assumption that opening up more opportunities to people of colour or those with disabilities will reduce the quality of the work produced. I would hope that she means that if a company isn’t discerning about its choice, editors might choose poorly just to fill quotas, which, of course, is a risk that PRH run. However, there is a more insidious interpretation which suggests that the reason we don’t have enough diversity in publishing is simply because there are not enough good BAME writers. Not only is that nonsense which ignores the invisible barriers that prevent many such writers from breaking through, but there is more than a whiff of respectable racism about it.  Coming at  at time when the far right are being normalised, in a week, where The Spectator also published an article from Steve Bannon suggesting  white supremacists are on the ‘right side of history’ and when 15,000 people marched in London on Saturday in support of Tommy Robinson, the article sits more uneasily than it might.

I do not know what Shriver’s intent was in writing that article, but I do hope she has stopped to listen to some of the many responses she has had. And that she can learn enough from the experience of others to realise that working to increase diversity in publishing isn’t about promoting mediocrity, but ensuring equality of access for all. When we do that, we’ll have a richer, more varied range of stories to choose from. Why would any writer or reader not want that?

Treasure Hunt!

So, as you know, I’m rather partial to books. To me books are the ultimate treasure. I hope you feel the same because I’m organising a treasure hunt.

I will be placing 3 signed copies of ‘Echo Hall’ at different places in Oxford with a literary connection. There will also be a copy available to win online. I’ll be putting up literary clues on twitter for you to solve. The game will run from about 11-4, depending how good my clues are. It will work like this.

1. I’ll post a clue on twitter, linked to a particularly literary location. When you’ve solved it, go to the place and send me a picture of yourself there.

2. When I’ve had several answers, I’ll post the next clue allowing you time to solve and get to the next place.

3. The final three clues will be for the prizes, so if you miss out on one, there’s still a chance to win.

4.I’ll have one last clue for online folk who can’t get to Oxford. The first person to send me the right answer will win. (Unless I get several at once, in which case I’ll pull the answers out of a hat.)

5. I will be in the last location, and will be very happy to chat and talk about the book etc.

To take part follow me on twitter at @aroomofmyown1 and use hashtags #oxfordbookhunt #treasurebooks.

Happy Hunting!

Meeting a hero

It is not often you get to meet your heroes. Even less likely that you get to study alongside them.  I was lucky enough to meet mine – Sir Roger Bannister –  whose death was announced this morning.

Like many people, I grew up with the legend of the four minute mile, inspired by the grainy footage of the event which I can watch time and time again.  Bannister and later Coe, Ovett and Cram were the runners who drew me into athletics; even though I was a distinctly unsporty child, I loved to watch them, their grace and effort on the running track blowing me away every time. And when, as a student, I took up running myself, and learnt to appreciate the joy and pain of the sport, they continued to be my heroes.

So, when I arrived in Oxford in 2005 and discovered the famous Iffley Road track where Roger had completed his remarkable race, I was over the moon. A year later, my sister and I were chuffed to see him at a distance when he raced the starting gun on a charity race we had entered. I thought that was as close as I’d ever get to my hero, and it was enough for me.

In 2007, I was delighted to be proved wrong when I arrived at the induction session for my creative writing class and noticed a badge with the name ‘Roger Bannister’. It must be some relative of his, I thought, it can’t possibly be the great man himself. But then, suddenly there he was picking it up and climbing the staircase ahead of me to class. I couldn’t help burbling as I introduced myself, going on and on about how amazing it was to meet him. He smiled graciously, putting me completely at my ease. I realised then, that as a living legend, he must have got that a lot, and recognised my need to gush. He was such a kind man that his instinct was to tolerate this annoying behaviour without making me feel embarrassed or foolish.

After that, I kept my distance, not wanting to be a groupie. But the class was small,  we frequently broke into groups and Roger was quickly one of us. He was in his 70’s and though he’d written a fine book about running the four minute mile, creative writing  was new to him and he was unafraid of saying what a challenge it was. He was completely modest about his efforts, and his other achievements (4 minute mile, world renowned neurologist, Master of Pembroke College), which made us all just love him more.

Despite his modesty his contributions to class were always interesting and he was bold enough to allow himself to fail – the sign of a good writer, if I ever I saw one. Of the things he shared in class, we all appreciated the funny and kind poems in which elephants featured prominently. And I really liked an autobiographical poem he wrote about growing up in North London.

In the second year of our course, we each wrote a ten minute play for our lecturer, Patrick Collins, whose theatre company then performed them. My mother was delighted to attend and to meet Roger and his wife, Lady Moyra, but one of my strongest memories of the night was Roger’s contribution for the evening. I’d come to view him as a mainly comic writer, but his piece a scene of torture in Iraq was challenging and disturbing, raising many questions as all good drama should. With typical humilty he claimed it was all in Patrick’s editing, but I think it showed for me what a fine writer he was.

Like many of my class mates, Roger began working on a novel which I felt had great potential. It was based round a post war Oxford, and had a nice vein of English humour, that was quite Wodehousian. He did a great deal of work on it with help from our lecturer Dennis Hamley, but eventually decided not to pursue it. I think, by then, he knew he was ill, so I understand the rationale, but still think it a shame as he really had something.

As well as being a good writer, Roger was also a supportive fellow student. One day, when he met me coming out of a tutorial in despair at a mark I’d received, he offered the consolation and encouragement which I desperately needed. He was also somewhat anarchic at times. If he thought a visiting tutor was pontificating nonsense, he wasn’t averse to asking stupid questions just to wind them up.

I’ve met Roger a few times since we’ve finished the course. Each time, his illness had taken a little more hold of him, but he was always his usual gracious, kind and witty self. When I invited him to the launch of ‘Echo Hall’ he declined with typical  understatement, saying he was ‘confined to barracks with Parkinson’s problems’.

It’s not often you get to meet your heroes. Still less often that you get to spend so much time with them and discover that they don’t have feet of clay, and are in fact one of the nicest human beings you have ever met. That was Roger, and I was very very lucky to know him.

On Roger’s 80th birthday we were all amazed he chose to come to Jenny Lewis’ poetry class, and so to celebrate, we all wrote him a poem. This was mine.

Four minute mile.

Not many men have done it,

But only you can claim it first,

Some men would brag  but you,

Just smile and write another verse.

 

RIP Roger.  Thanks for all the elephants.

Love and condolences to Lady Moyra and all the family.

Rave Review. Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of 16 Australian authors by Ryan O’Neill

(Note: My rave review blogposts are reserved for the very best novels I read by novelists I don’t know. Just to be clear I do this so I don’t inadvertently offend someone I do know by not including them. I highlight novels by people I know through my plug of the month slots and author reviews.)

9781863958639

 

A few weeks ago,my lovely editor, Scott, posted on twitter that he had advance copies of the proofs of this novel for anyone who wished to read it in exchange for a review. When I checked out the blurb – a story written in the form of essays about sixteen fictional Australian writers* – I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

I’m so glad I did. This book is superb on so many levels which makes it a joy to read from start to finish.

First of all, there is the narrator’s style. It is a perfect rendition of literary biography: engaging, understated, curious, and peppered with enough ‘facts’ to give credibility to the fake biographer’s research abilities.

Secondly, there are the  ‘authors’ themselves. Each one is vividly drawn, some apparently inspired by real writers. But it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Australian fiction or not, because O’Neill has created such convincing characters that they feel  real to the reader. I can totally believe that there’s a school of science fiction led by a racist white supremacist called Rand Washington;  that a neglected poet called Matilda Young was treated shamefully by the men in her life, and dismissed until she later received the Nobel Prize; that the ‘Chekhov of Coolabah’ Addison Tiller could churn out his charming bush tales of Pa and Pete. It’s equally believable that an avant-garde movement called Kangaroulipo  could led by the seriously untalented Arthur Ruthra; a crime fiction hack,  Claudia Gunn, could become well known despite the quality of her writing.  and a talented young writer called Rachel Deverell could lose herself in the search for the mythical origins of literature. I suspect if I did some research about Australian literature, I’d appreciate the joke more, but the stories are strong enough to stand alone. (I did pick up on the title was inspired by the great Australian novel ‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin whose own real life story is  worthy of  inclusion in this collection).

The third thing that makes this book sing for me is the way the stories subtly interconnect. There are the characters real or imagined on the Australian literary scene, who pitch up on the sidelines of many of the chapters, some revealing more of themselves as the novel proceeds. Some, who appear early on, resurface as the star of their own essay, and with an interesting story to tell. Various literary movements are shown from their different perspectives, now in rivalry, now in alliance. There are scandals galore which make and destroy big names, and are seen from different angles as the book progresses.  The best writers often fail, the worst succeed, there is human suffering, fallibility and evil (some of which revealed by the things the author carefully doesn’t say). All of which enhances the sense that this is a real essay collection, and these people actually existed.

At the heart of the novel is the idea that the writers of fiction are themselves fictional . Very few of the subjects are as talented as they believe, and most have reinvented themselves to some extent. There’s even a character with literary output who is probably, himself, an invention. While the author  inserts himself into the plot as the ex-husband and widower of the Rachel Deverell, the novel’s tragic heroine, and has his ‘fiancee’, Anne Zoellner write the introduction. By this point, I was beginning myself whether O’Neill himself was a fictional creation. He does appear to be real, but in a book that rejoices in fakery, it is just possible to believe he  might have created an elaborate back story for himself…

All in all this is a delight, and a book that will definitely yield up more every time you read it. Put it on your pre-order list now.

‘Their Brilliant Careers’ by Ryan O’Neill will be published by Lightning Books in April 2018. You can pre-order here.

A proper author at last…

I have felt like a proper writer for some time, and up until this year, had two ISBN numbered books to my name, (Life without Jargon, Choice Press 1996 and Rapture and what comes after, Gumbo Press 2014). However, although I’m extremely proud of both,  I haven’t really felt like a proper author because of the small circulation.

That has all changed this year, the year I’m having not one but three books published.

Reclaiming the Common Good‘Reclaiming the Common Good’ is an essay collection which I’ve edited, was published by Darton, Longman and Todd in August. The book brings together the thoughts of 13 Christian writers, including myself and tackles issues such as welfare, austerity, migration, environment and peace and security. It identifies where the sense of the common good has been lost and how it might be recaptured. While it is drawn from a faith perspective, I hope it has something to say to everyone, regardless of belief or political persuasion, about the state of the world we live in, and how it could be better.

My long awaited novel (well long awaited by me at any rate) ‘Echo Hall’ will be out in echohall_finalKindle and print, on 30th November. I can’t tell you how exciting this is! The book is being serialised at the minute by The Pigeonhole and it is absolutely thrilling to read alongside readers and hear their thoughts which have been overwhelmingly positive so far. Additionally, my lovely book club, The Cowley Consonants were kind enough to review it, so I’ve made a little video of their thoughts to whet your appetite. The book will have its official launch at 7pm on November 30th at The Albion Beatnik Bookstore, Walton Well Street, Oxford, all are very welcome.

cover jpeg Nothing More And Nothing Less (2)Finally, I’m delighted to announce that on the same day, my Lent Course, ‘Nothing More and Nothing Less’ which is based round the film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ will also be published by Darton, Longmann and Todd. While this is only likely to be of interest to a sub-section of my readers, I am dead chuffed to have been commissioned to do this very important course, which highlights a major injustice being perpetrated by our government on the people who most need our help. And I’m hugely honoured that Paul Laverty the screenplay writer, has offered some kind words at the beginning and Sixteen Films have allowed us to use their iconic image for the front cover. It may  not be for you, but if you know anyone who you think might like  it, please do spread the word.

All of this means I finally have an Amazon books page. And I understand enough of the way the world works to know that I will rely on Amazon for sales, and reviews. (Please do consider reviewing all of the above if you like them, or even if you don’t. Honest reviews matter to me!)

However, I am passionate about bookshops and if you, like me want to support them, I would ask you to consider buying via your local bookstore. Or if not via Hive, who donate to local book stores for every copy sold.

Here’s a (not exhaustive) list of some fabulous bookshops you can order from:

The Albion Beatnik Bookstore, Walton Well Street, Jericho, Oxford

Big Green Bookshop 1 Brampton Park Rd, Wood Green, London N22 6BG

Blackwells 48-51, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BQ

Booka Bookshop Oswestry, 26- 28 Church Street Oswestry Shropshire SY11 2SP

The Book Case    29 Market St Hebden Bridge West Yorkshire HX7 6EU 01422 845353
Five Leaves Bookshop  Five Leaves Bookshop 14a Long Row Nottingham NG1 2DH
0115 8373097

The Book Hive 53 London Street Norwich Norfolk NR2 1HL 01603 219268

Bookish 18 High Street , Crickhowell,Powys , NP8 1BD   Tel: 01873 811256

Bookseller Crow on the Hill 50, Westow Street, London, SE19 3AF

The Bookshop Kibworth 52, High Street, Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire, LE8 OHQ 0116 2791121

Brendon Books Bath Place, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 4ER

Browsers Bookshop 60 Thoroughfare, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 1AL 01394 388890

Camden Lock Books Old Street Station, 4 Saint Agnes Well, Islington, London EC1Y 1BE.(020) 7253 0666

Chapter One  Chapter One Books, Chatsworth House, 19 Lever Street, Manchester, M1 1BY Tel: 01612780405

The Chepstow Bookshop 13, St Mary Street, Chepstow NP16 5EW.

Chorlton Bookshop  506 Wilbraham Road, M21 9AW

City Books 23,Western Road, Hove, BN3 1AF

Cogito Books 5 St Mary’s Chare, Hexham, Northumberland, NE46 1NQ 01434 602555

Daunt Books

Marylebone: 020 7224 2295
Holland Park : 020 7727 7022
Chelsea : 020 7373 4997
Belsize Park : 020 7794 4006
Hampstead : 020 7794 8206
Cheapside : 020 7248 1117

The Edinburgh Bookshop  219 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh, EH10 4DH 0131 447 1917

Falmouth Bookshop  Falmouth Bookseller, 21 Church Street, Falmouth, Cornwall
TR11 3EG, UK+44 (0 )1326 312873

Forum Books Corbridge  20a Watling Street, Corbridge, NE45 5AH

Golden Hare Books, Edinburgh Golden Hare Books, 68 St Stephen St, Edinburgh EH3 5AQ

Holt Bookshop 10 Appleyard, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 6AR

Jaffa and Neale

Chipping Norton 1 Middle Row, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, OX7 5NHC

Stow-on-the-Wold 8 Park Street, Stow-on-the-Wold, GL54 1AQ

John Sandoe  10-12 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea,London,SW3 2SR (0)20 7589 9473

Landers Bookshop  Ringers Yard, Hall Street, Long Melford, CO10 9JF

Little Acorns  Bedlam, 10-16 Pump Street Derry 0044 7776117054

London Review Bookshop  14 Bury Place, London, WC1A 2JL (0) 20 7269 9030

The Mainstreet Trading Company,  Main Street, St Boswells, TD6 0AT

Mostly Books 36 Stert Street, Abingdon-on-Thames, OX14 3JP – 01235 525880

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights   14/15 John Street, Bath, BA1  2JL

Much Ado about Books  Much Ado Books,  8 West Street,  Alfriston, East Sussex
BN26 5UX

Nantwich Bookshop 46 High Street, Nantwich, Cheshire, CW5 5AS

News from Nowhere  News From Nowhere, 96 Bold Street, Liverpool L1 4HY  0151 708 7270

Rossiter Books

Ross-on-Wye The Corn Exchange,7 The High Street,Ross-on-Wye,Herefordshire,HR9 5HL

Monmouth 5 Church Street, Monmouth, Monmouthshire, NP25 3BX

Sam Read Bookseller  Broadgate House, Grasmere, SA22 9SY 015394 3537

Scarthin Books  The Promenade, Cromford, Matlock, Derbyshire, DE4 3QF 01629 823272

Silver Dell Bookshop 61 Poulton Street, Kirkham, Preston, PR4 2AJ

St Ives Booksellers 2 Fore Street, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 1AB 01736 796676

Topping & Company Booksellers 

Bath The Paragon, Bath, Somerset BA1 5LS

Ely  9 High Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire,CB7 4LJ

St Andrews  7 Greyfriars Garden, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9HG

Wadebridge Bookshop 43 Molesworth Street, Wadebridge, Cornwall, PL27 7DR, UK.

Waterstones  Oxford  William Baker House, Broad Street, Oxford

P& G Wells 11 College Street, Winchester, SO23 9LZ

Wenlock Bookshop 12, High Street, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, TF13 6AA

Winstones Books

Sherborne 8, Cheap Street, Sherborne, Dorset, DT9 3PX

Sidmouth 10, High Street, Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8EL

Frome 10, Cheap Street, Frome, Somerset, BA11 1BN

White Horse Bookshop  136 High Street, Marlborough, Wiltshire, SN8 1HW

White Rose Bookshop 79-81 Market Place, Thirsk, Yorkshire, YO7 1ET

Wivenhoe Bookshop  23 High St, Wivenhoe, Colchester,CO7 9BE

Word on the water  York Way, Granary Square, N1C 4AA

Wordpower Books  43-45 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, Midlothian EH8 9DB

Urmston Bookshop 72A Flixton Road, Urmston, Manchester, M41 5AB

Ystwyth Books  7 Princess Street, Aberystwyth, SY23 1DX

And there are some more listed here.

Characters on the loose…

Starting today, three characters from the 1990’s section of ‘Echo Hall’ – Ruth (@thinkingwoman30) , her best friend Nisha (@dancinggoldman) and boyfriend Adam (@machomachoman59), will be tweeting some of their back stories.

In a dramatic week where the Berlin Wall  falls just before Remembrance Day, all three will face important choices which will change their lives, and lead Ruth on the path to Echo Hall…

Follow them on twitter to find out more…

 

It’s all getting very exciting…

I have just realised that I’ve shared the latest ‘Echo Hall’ news everywhere except here. Which is a bit remiss of me, considering this is the place I first started talking about the novel.

So first up. Here’s the fabulous cover designed by the wonderful Mark Ecob of Ecob Designs. It’s getting a lot of love so far, and so it should…

Secondly. I have finished the proofs. After so many years writing and re-writing that feels quite a milestone. I’m just waiting to hear back from Unbound that they’re OK and we are nearly good to go to the printers. Which hopefully means publication before the end of November.

Thirdly,  it is time to let the world know about the book. I am very excited that Unbound have teamed up with The Pigeonhole to release extracts over ten days around publication. You can sign up to this exclusive group and get the first section for free  (I can’t see what they charge for the rest). You will be able to chat with other readers as you read and talk to me and ask me questions. It’s going to be fun, so do join in!

I am also planning a number of other things. We’ll be launching the book at the fabulous Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford. I’m speaking to bloggers about reviews, I will be returning to twitter with Ruth’s story before Echo Hall, I’m hoping to come to bookshops for talks and more.

It’s all getting very exciting!