It’s been another busy period juggling work and family matters with little time left for Writing Matters (though, thanks to audio books, I’ve had plenty of time for ‘reading’). I seem to have been living in my car on motorways, driving through gales and cloudbursts – first from my home in Sutton Coldfield to my brother’s beautiful but windswept, cliff-top house in South Wales, then setting out the next morning for the M4, M25, M23, A 23, A27, finally arriving at my mother’s house. Two days later, it was back to motorways again in gales and torrents, all the way home.
My book on these journeys was ‘Deaf Sentence’ by David Lodge. As well as its intriguing plot, it’s an eye-opener* for anyone with friends or family members who are going deaf (*The narrator refers several times to the predominance of sight-related metaphors, compared to hearing ones – wouldn’t it sound strange to say ‘ear-opener’?). If you’ve ever been somewhat less than patient with a friend or relation after your 5th repetition of the punch line of your hilarious joke, you might feel a twinge of shame. This book is also uncomfortably acute in its depiction of family relationships. But don’t let that put you off – it’s also very funny.
Back to what I was saying in my previous post – last Tuesday my house was invaded by the BBC. Yes, that is an exaggeration – it was only a team of three with a few hefty bits of gear.
Anyone who’s followed this blog from its early days and/or has read my accounts of both of my book launches, will know that Clarissa Dickson Wright and I have been close friends since we met at boarding school. Anyone who’s read her autobiographyor seen her talking about herself on TV, will know something about the extreme ups and downs of her life, and won’t be too surprised to hear that the BBC will be showing an hour-long programme about her. As with other programmes, they’ll be interspersing Clarissa’s interview with snippets of comments made by people who have known her. As her friend since childhood, I was asked to make a contribution.
I’ll be very interested to see which sound bites are selected from my one and a half hours of interview, and which of the photos from school days they show, along with the ones of Clarissa holding my daughter as a baby, her god daughter.Clarissa’s interview is the first of four programmes in a series that has been timetabled for advent, the Sundays leading up to Christmas. Considering the time-slot, I can see why this series will have a focus on the ways that spirituality and religion have influenced the lives of the chosen four.
The whole experience was fascinating, but also exhausting – all that concentration! I enjoyed the novelty of it, but don’t envy celebrities and public figures who have to do this type of thing on a regular basis. Even the cat was exhausted by the end of it!
It’s a whole week since my book launch and I still smile with delight when I go over the events of that evening, so I’m about to indulge myself shamelessly by giving a few more details of my conversation with Clarissa about Paper Lanterns, and how my writing career has been linked to our friendship as you can also see in my profile, published last week in the Birmingham Post, and now available to read on-line
As I said last week, we’d been treated royally by the Ikon Cafe staff, and you can read here about Clarissa’s comments on the food.
Friendships forged in childhood, especially those based on shared incarceration at boarding school, can last for a lifetime, and Clarissa felt that the best way of explaining how we’d met was to read a short extract from her autobiography, Spilling The Beans.
Our lives have taken very different paths through adulthood. It’s no secret that Clarissa is a recovering alcoholic, and when her drinking was getting more and more out of hand, I was so worried about her that I wrote a short story based on this.
I entered it for a competition run by BRMB and the Birmingham Readers & Writers Festival in 1985(the forerunner of the Birmingham Book festival) and I still have the clipping from the (then) Sutton Coldfield Times with the account of my prize winning story.
That was my first ever success with my writing, and in 2005, Clarissa was there to introduce me at the Birmingham Book Festival’s launch of my first novel,The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society.
Neither of us could have predicted this wonderful event and the changes in both of our lives 20 years later – Clarissa was no longer drinking and had forged an amazing new career for herself in television, and I was a published novelist at last.
We talked about other events in my writing career, and the ups and downs of my attempts to get published, and then I explained the ideas, inspirations and themes that produced Paper Lanterns. This included the story of how I discovered the original letters from 1920
First I read a long letter from the married English woman, and then the one from the young Chinese woman written 4 years before that to the same man. (I’ll post that one soon, but meanwhile, here’s an extract from the English woman. As I explained during the launch last Tuesday, I brought the dates forward to 1930, and changed the setting from Canton to Hong Kong, as this is a place I know well. In my novel, I’ve kept as closely as I could to the original letters, and have invented a series of journal entries, involving a totally fictional story line for a key section of Paper Lanterns.
Ah, Mr McFarlane, you are a disturber! What do you mean by upsetting the equilibrium of two highly respectable (!) ladies in their heretofore blissful states of married and single blessedness? And two at once, mind you! And you so young and all. The poor young idlers that we endeavour to teach to shoot must certainly not have got their money’s worth this morning and now at our first opportunity (recess) we two rush together to weep on each other’s shoulders for what we haven’t got and will never get. It’s a great bond, this being crazy about the same person. I only hope I’ll be able to preserve enough of a sense of decency from the wreck to give her the chance I wish I could take myself.
After these letters I read more extracts from the novel itself, and then went on to explain about the founding of Novel Press. I was delighted with the comments of Jonathan Davidson on the Writing West Midlands blog, where he suggests in his article “New Ways of Publishing” that:
“the means of production is moving away from being held in the hands of one conglomorate… Good writing will surface for us all to enjoy: poor writing won’t be quite so often foisted upon us in an attempt to get a return on investment or to distort our reading tastes for purely commercial gain.”
What a week this has been for me and for my latest ‘babies’: Paper Lanterns, and my publishing venture, Novel Press. On top of all this, I nearly jumped out of my skin this morning when I was leafing through today’s Birmingham Post. I was scanning for an article and a photo that I’d been informed would appear last week.
Although I don’t tend to expect more than my share of luck to land on my doorstep, I have to admit that I was rather disappointed, especially as the photographer had come to take my photo the Tuesday before. ‘Oh well! Never mind,’ I thought. ‘It’s a shame, but they’ve obviously got better things to print.’
However, I never let myself be put off by low expectations , so before I went to work I stopped at the useful shop at the top of the hill. I slowly turned the pages, thinking, ‘Not likely to be in this week with all this election stuff jostling for space.’
It wasn’t in Books, Films, History, Outdoors, Motoring, or Travel. Business Briefing? Not likely! Then, over the page, under the heading, Business Profile there was my face occupying the entire page! And on the facing page, another photo and a whole long article about ME!! AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER CHRISTINE COLEMAN
But I’m running ahead of myself. This amazing double-page spread happened today, and I haven’t yet said anything about Tuesday evening at the Ikon Gallery. What a fabulous venue for my launch! This was all thanks to Sara Beadle and staff at the Birmingham Book Festival who organised the whole event, liaising with the staff at the Ikon Gallery.
They were all keen to help promote me as a local author and publisher, together with my childhood friend, Clarissa Dickson Wright who has loyally supported me in my writing endeavours (more of this in my next post)
When we arrived, Clarissa and I posed for photographs, in the Ikon Cafe and then we and my husband were treated to an excellent meal of tapas and other mouth-watering dishes. Clarissa is well known for her interest in good food, and was genuinely enthusiastic in her praise of our meal.
We were then taken up in a glass lift . Here’s the description from their website
“The dramatic second floor galleries offer 228.2m² of space and are light and airy, retaining the original arched gothic ceiling.”
The Ikon staff and volunteers had to wait till the gallery had been closed to the public before they could bring in the 90 chairs, erect the platform for me and Clarissa, arrange the copies of Paper Lanterns and my first novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society on a table at the far end, and lay out the drinks for the audience at the other end. It was all done with amazing speed and efficiency, ready to welcome the audience at the appointed time of 6.45.
All the seats were taken and everyone in the audience was wonderfully attentive and appreciative. They laughed in the right places and I was amazed and delighted at their reactions to my readings of two of the original letters that partly inspired the novel. I’ll be writing more about this event (including book sales and Novel Press in future posts,) and about the Birmingham Post article.
In the meantime, take a look at this excellent article by Jonathan Davidson, Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands, with his hard-hitting piece ‘New ways of Publishing’
Hurray! It’s Friday evening and I’ve got the whole weekend in front of me. I can catch up with emails and phone-chats with friends I’ve been neglecting a bit recently. I might even have time to do more work on my publishing venture, NovelPress. (But more of that at a later date.) And I’ll play around with my newly acquired skill of posting pictures. (Just for practice, here’s one of our cat, Heidi, admiring a few punnets of strawberries from my husband’s allotment)
Meanwhile, I’ll carry on with what I was saying in my last post , The Literacy Consultancy.
Although it’s encouraging to be praised enthusiastically by an experienced agent, it’s also frustrating, since it raises the question, ‘So what else do I have to do to convince an agent to take me on?’
Here is an example of one of those letters, praising and (sadly) rejecting In The Lamb-White Days:
“You have captured those wonderful days of innocence beautifully and have created an utterly charming world (though with certain bleak moments), peppered with some interesting characters. You write very well, and tell a good story, but without feeling that passion for your novel, I feel it would be irresponsible for us to take you on. You deserve to be nurtured and treasured by someone who believes in you and can represent you with that vital enthusiasm.
I am sorry to be the bearer of such disappointing news, but we all have to realise our limitations, particularly if it involves someone else’s career. I am sure that you will find another agent very easily and I will watch your rise to stardom with interest.”
This lovely letter was from Broo Doherty when she was still working for Gregory and Company.
When I’d exhausted TLC’s supply of named contacts, I had to face the fact that this was it. The meandering path had led me, pleasantly enough, back down to where I’d started.
Not quite, though. This whole experience, from winning the prize of a free read with TLC, through all I’d learned from Sara Maitland’s reports, to the encouraging comments from the recommended agents, had boosted my flagging confidence, and given me renewed enthusiasm – enough to get back to my next novel, the ideas for which were still in the very early stages of development.
It had been a useful experience. I’d learned a lot, and in my own eyes at least, I’d been confirmed as a ‘real writer’ worthy of publication. I just hadn’t made it yet. And even if I never did find a publisher, it wouldn’t be because I wasn’t ‘good-enough’. I didn’t actually need ‘permission’ to carry on with my fiction writing – I would do that anyway. But it was nice to be given that affirmation of my skills.
As far as I was concerned, that would be my last contact with TLC and Sara Maitland. I was wrong, as I’ll explain later.
Meanwhile, I needed to get my act together and sort out the jumble of ideas jostling for inclusion in the novel whose main character, following on from my discussions with Clarissa Dickson Wright in the pub in Herefordshire all those years ago, was just emerging from the mist of unconsciousness: seventy-five year-old Agnes Borrowdale. (See my post, ‘about rats and not writing a sitcom’)
A rather depressing day at work - a meeting about the new funding for September. You’ll understand why I’m feeling like this if you look back at one of my earlier posts, A Beginner Reader is not a Beginner Thinker .
I enjoyed working as an Adult Literacy tutor, and later a manager, because the service was dedicated to helping people who’d not been successful at school, and giving them support and time to work at their own pace. Now, the funding is depending more and more on quick results and accreditation, with less opportunity to take account of the realities of people’s lives, such as shift work, ill-health, and familiy responsibilities.
The word ‘family’ brings me back what I was mentioning in the previous post about Late Shift (to see how this came about, take a look at the post, Cannon Poets and What This Led to )
As any parent will know, once you’ve fixed a date for one of the most important events in your adult life, particularly one that closely involves others for whom your presence is vital, Sod (of Sod’s Law) will manage to arrange a conflicting event on the same date at the same time somewhere else in the country for one of your children – an event that in their eyes will rank as the most important of their life, ever. One of those key rites of passage, than which nothing, absolutely nothing, could be more important – for example, your daughter’s graduation ceremony.
Naturately, that was the date chosen for Late Shift’s first performance – an occasion that was to take place in one of the main venues for artistic events in the Literary Festival at Ledbury. The date of my daughter’s graduation ceremony at Nottingham University, with an invitation for two close relatives. This, in her case, meant her father, and her mother.
This was the three-year old who’d stopped my heart at the thought of our future separation. How could I not be there for her? (see the post: A Short Digression onThe Joys of Motherhood)
Enter Clarissa Dickson Wright, (a bit like a fairy godmother!) My daughter would have four visitors to her university that day: both parents would be at the lunch beforehand, together with her brother and her dearly-beloved Godmother. We could all be photographed with the graduate in her cap and gown (proof of her mother’s presence, in spite of everything) , and then I’d drive our son back home, before setting off for Ledbury. Meanwhile, Clarissa would take my place among the assembled parents, and offer her cheers and applause instead of mine.
As I drove away, I wondered why I wasn’t feeling nervous. Well, it must be because I wasn’t strictly on the way to Ledbury yet – I was on my way home, to collect my script and drop off my son. Stage fright was obligatory, wasn’t it? It was bound to hit me, sooner or later.
Yesterday was the first time since I started this blog that I didn’t add a new post. I don’t even have the excuse of a hard day at work, because I decided to acknowledge the half term break by staying at home, so I’ll have to blame it on the rats.
Yes, rats - the four-legged creatures, not the politicians who’ve been claiming for duck houses or non-existent mortgages.
For several years I’d ignored the very occasional scrabbling sound from the loft of my lovely little study/writing room, a one storey extension that we added to our house about twenty years ago.
Eventually I couldn’t kid myself any longer - that noise wasn’t a flock of giant pigeons doing the can can on the ridge tiles, or the overgrown forsythia tapping on the roof.
The pest control/tree-surgeon duo (who’d come to lop back the encroaching vegetation that was stealing half the daylight from our garden) discovered that the roof space had been infested by rats, and they duly left a dozen or so little red dishes of lurid blue granules.
Yesterday they came back to clear all the clutter that had been stored there for nearly twenty years, and to monitor progress (no sign of rats, dead or alive). I watched as every cardboard box and black bin bag was handed down and taken out to the trailer waiting on the drive.
Good by to Action Man, and his green motorbike and tank. Goodby to Garfield the cat, the Starwars spaceship, the comics and annuals. A long-delayed goodby to my son’s childhood, for which he, at 30, wouldn’t feel the slightest pang.
Getting back now to what I was saying about Clarissa in my last post, A short digression on one of the two Fat Ladies, she and I have always been ‘good at English’ and managed to get top marks for our essays and stories – we boxed and coxed for the English and History prizes, one being first and the other second, then maybe vice versa the following year. So, with her TV career firmly established, the idea of writing a TV sitcom together seemed like something we could both enjoy.
So off we went to Herefordshire for a few days’ break, to see what we might come up with. Sitting in a snug pub in one of that county’s numerous Black and White villages (mainly unsung and tourist-free), devouring some excellent bangers and mash, we mulled over ideas, which I scribbled down in the back of a note book.
‘One Foot in The Grave,’ one of us said. ‘Vicar of Dibley,’ said the other. We both agree that our main protagonists would be anarchic older people, in one way or another. ‘Then we can play ourselves,’ she laughed.
‘We don’t count as ‘old’ yet!’ I said, and we embarked on a deeply philosophical discussion of attitudes and ‘states of mind’, carefully skirting around the boggy territory of ‘The Young These Days’ – wading into that morass being the clearest sign of ‘Being Past It.’
‘So what is this “it” that we might be past?’
‘Anything boring we don’t want to do.’
So far, the sitcom remains, not only un-shown on TV, but as yet, unwritten. However, all was not wasted. A few years later, after I’d achieved my MA and completed my novel, In The Lamb-White Days, I was on the verge of embarking on a new novel, when the idea of an anarchic older protagonist took hold. She emerged as ‘Agnes Borrowdale, 75 years old, a week on Tuesday….’, the heroine of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society.
(You can see Clarissa’s name, and that discussion, mentioned among the Acknowledgements in the front of that book)
On the whole, my mobile is on silent when I’m at work, and I don’t usually hear the ‘ping’ of an arriving text, so it wasn’t till I got in my car to drive the three miles home that I found I’d got a text from my friend, Clarissa. We’ve just had a good laugh about the content of that message - an enquiry from a Hollywood agent about the possibility of buying the film rights to her autobiography, Spilling the Beans. The mind boggles – as it often does when I hear of the latest developments in her life – As a novelist, I’d struggle to come up with a plot as unlikely as her life has turned out to be.
(This post might make more sense if you read this post, first, A Writing prize and a strange meeting )
Some while before I enrolled on the MA course that I’ve mentioned in the last two posts, I was out with my then newly-famous friend on one of our occasional trips around the countryside, and was thrilled when someone in a small market town approached her and asked if she was indeed, ‘the lady from the tele’.
To start with, it was a novelty, and as soon as the next admirer had moved on, we’d giggle like school girls. I mean, you can’t help being struck by the contrast between that taste of fame and the ordinariness of sitting next to each other at the back of the classroom whispering about anything other than what the teacher was scribbling on the blackboard.
The novelty had long worn off by the time the next series was out. I was still thrilled for her, because limelight is as natural and as energising to her as sunlight is to me, but it made me realise that fame might not always be a welcome companion.
Clarissa’s success is well-deserved, and well-enjoyed. She has, in great store, what it takes to be successful: guts, determination and multi-talent. She’s also one of the most generous people I know, not just with material things, but also with her time and support.
I know that lots of film rights get bought and never make it on to the large screen,(or even a small one) but so many extraordinary things have happened to her in the fifty years since we became friends, that a blockbuster Hollywood film of her life story doesn’t seem totally far fetched.
Actually, I’m finding it harder to believe that it’s really that long since we were eleven!
(This post might make more sense if you read the one below, before you read this)
Clarissa was able to maintain a civilised exterior when she came to stay with us, but I knew that her condition was worsening rapidly – it was becoming increasingly worrying for all her friends. And that was what my story was about. The title, A Head for Heights, referred to an episode at school when we’d climbed out onto the school roof and hoisted a skull and crossbones flag, while a visiting group of priests on some kind of conference were strolling around the grounds. But really, it was about the ‘me’ character’s worry about the ‘Clarissa’ character’s decline.
I’ve still got the cutting from the local paper about that prize-winning story – I vividly remember how excited I was when they sent a photographer to my house. The title of the prize-winning story made the headline of the article, and it made me sound quite professional, until the final ‘quote’, which had definitely not emerged from my lips, ‘I want to be a famous novelist one day!’
And here is the picture from the newspaper cutting. I discovered it a few years ago.
At that stage, I hadn’t seriously decided to write a novel, let alone dream of having one published, though that would have seemed more likely at that time than the major transformation in Clarissa’s life which began a couple of years later when she entered Promis, the Recovery Centre in Kent.
I don’t think either of us would have believed what was in store for me in October 2005, when my novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia was launched at the Orange Studio during the Birmingham Book Festival (the descendant of that same BRMB Readers and Writers Festival ).
It was thanks to Clarissa’s new position in life that I was able to have such a high profile venue for this launch. Her story was even more amazing: there she was, a very public figure, having dragged herself back from the brink of drunken oblivion to build a whole new career for herself as a famous cook, TV presenter, and champion of countryside pursuits, among numerous other occupations and talents (including, by that stage, having 9 or 10 published books to her name) .
So much for my worries about her survival, expressed in that story twenty years earlier.
This post might make more sense if you read the one below, before you read this
My teaching and learning continued, and my pile of rejection letters grew, and then one day another phone call brought some exciting news – It was from the competition organiser of the Birmingham Readers and Writers Festival – I’d entered for the short story category, and the man from BRMB radio station was telling me that my story, A Head for Heights had won fourth prize – my first ever recognition as a writer! The smile on my face lasted hours.
The subject of my story was one that would provide yet another strange link across the years. My best friend at school was a skinny girl with thin straggly hair and an occasional Australian accent. She’d turned up at our convent boarding school halfway through the year, and, unlike the rest of our class, wore actual nylon stockings instead of knee-length socks. (I discovered later, after we’d become friends, that her mother had been misinformed by the woman in Harrods school uniforms department about the regulations for the required clothing in the different years ). This put her at an added disadvantage, as it made her look like a sissy, choosing to subject herself to the discomfort of suspender belts a whole year before it was absolutely necessary, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, she had an unusual Christian name and a double-barrelled surname – I mean, I ask you, Clarissa Dickson Wright!
She was adopted by a kindly group of girls, who took her under their wings and showed her the ropes, but after a few weeks, one of them approached me and asked if Clarissa could join our small gang instead, as she was too naughty for them, and that was it – we’ve supported each other through the ups and downs of our lives ever since.
So, back to my prize winning story, which features a character based on my friend – It’s no secret to anyone who’s ever shown the slightest interest in Clarissa since she became famous that she’s a recovering alcoholic and that before she went into a treatment centre she’d had several years of slow decline. She continued to visit us throughout those years, and was dearly loved by my two children, her godchildren, who had no idea of what was happening to her. They both took for granted her store of green Gordon’s bottles that she brought with her whenever she visited, and they’d compete with each other to be the first to pour her tonic and fetch the ice cubes from the freezer.
There was one occasion at the pre-school playgroup when I sensed some strange looks from one or two of the helpers. I was later enlightened when I was told about my three year old’s offering of a doll’s size plastic cup and saucer to a visiting playgroup leader, with the words, ‘Would you like a gin and tonic?’