Lionel Shriver at Scarborough Book Festival. 14-04-18

I have never once been disappointed by a writer who I admire when I have seen them in person at a book event and Lionel Shriver was no exception. She is very direct, fearlessly clever and funny. I think that may be because the best writers are very much themselves in their work. If you admire what they write you are almost sure to admire them. I think that We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the great modern novels and it was a real pleasure to be able to tell her so and hear her thank me before answering my question at the end of the talk.

The event, at Books by the Beach, Scarborough Book Festival, was to promote her new collection of short stories, Property. They have been written over a period of time with that same loose overarching theme, each time a commission came in where the theme could fit, and they are now drawn together into a collection. We began with a reading from one of the stories which was sharp, witty and perceptive. Of all the writers who I have heard read their own work I think only Jeanette Winterson did it as perfectly. The narrator is describing what it is like to be “hated” and face the constant feeling of being criticised- to not fit in. “What do you do about an annoying laugh? Stop finding anything funny?”

The discussion which followed was interesting and wide ranging. One of the stories is long enough to be a novella and this is a form that she admires. I can see why as it is much like herself. No tedium. more direct- one good story with no diversions. There were some poignant thoughts related to the books theme. as the magic of having things for long time was remembered via a clockwork donkey and she pointed out that what we care about is not always what we are told is valuable. Losing money hurts more than never having it. We do not own our own lives, other people experience our life in their own ways and it isn’t possible to draw a perimeter around it.

There were some interesting thoughts about fiction in general following from a past controversy where Lionel Shriver spoke out against the idea that “cultural appropriation” was wrong. We need a well rounded, healthy, enjoyable intersect between cultures, a taboo on writing outside your own culture is wrong headed. All fiction is fakery, a matter of what you can get away with. Anyway, as she pointed out, “I don’t want to be told that I may not do it”. Any writing is either convincing or it isn’t. That is what matters. The only form of censorship for a writer which is acceptable is self censorship. Hate speech laws shut down opinions which should be out in the open to be expressed and challenged.

She said that she markets herself as a “purveyor of pessimism with humour” and it was a delight to have the opportunity to sit and listen. Going eyeball to eyeball with her from the front row to ask my question was challenging but in a way that made me feel more alive and engaged rather than threatened. If I were ever to have a full conversation with her I have no doubt at all that I would have to up my game. I liked her a lot.


Magic, Mysteries and Midnight Feasts. The many adventures of Enid Blyton. Scarborough Art Gallery.


The Enid Blyton exhibition, Magic, Mystery and Midnight Feasts, at Scarborough Art gallery is fascinating. There are photographs, books, toys, letters, plenty for those like me who read her books years ago to enjoy and plenty of interactive play things for todays tots to have fun with. It’s the first major exhibition that there has ever been about her and it is in a small provincial gallery, a fact which is very telling. In her heyday Enid Blyton was hugely popular and the young woman at the ticket desk said that it had been a busy exhibition and the museum would be sorry to see it go. Her work rate was phenomenal- so much so that she liked to produce her typescripts as proof of authorship to people who doubted that one person could write so much. Unless it was a school story when she needed to keep track of characters as they moved up through the school years she never wrote notes. It all poured out onto a manual typewriter sitting on her desk or her knee.


She understood in a way that no children’s writer had done before her how important it was to build a connection with her young readers. Any of them who wrote to her would receive a hand written reply- a big commitment in the days before social media- and there were competitions and invitations to teas at her home, Green Hedges.


She took her commitment to her young readers very seriously. It was a very carefully managed public persona and it worked. Games, toys and books were marketed. Even her signature became a familiar logo which is still used. This is all commonplace today but back then it was very unusual for anything much to be known about an author outside the content of their books. Childhood reading was a private, solitary activity and authors were just names. Enid Blyton broke through that. She understood how powerful it was for readers to feel that they were being allowed into her world in just the same way that JK Rowling does today. All very cosy- she doesn’t sound like a controversial character but she was. She was disliked by teachers and librarians and eventually her books were banned, but nothing could stop children reading them. I will be kind and say that she was a woman of her time but plenty of people have examined the attitudes displayed in her prose and said much worse. Her books have proved lastingly popular- while not as omnipresent as they were- but they need careful editing before they are acceptable today. Here is an extract from Last Term at Malory Towers as a quite gentle way of showing what I mean without getting into accusations of racism or snobbery. I picked up the book in the exhibition and it took me seconds to find what I needed.

“Clarissa said she wished you would do it again, when she was looking” said Suzanne in French. “We would like to see it done. Me also I would like it very much. We are too big and old and prudent to do tricks- but we do not mind watching you!”
This was very naughty of Suzanne. No sixth-former would be silly enough to encourage the younger ones to come and play tricks in their room as much as they liked- which is what Suzanne was telling them to do! But Suzanne was French. She hadn’t quite the same ideas of responsibility that the British girls had.

It’s a very strong, moralistic authorial voice which I find unpleasant now but when I was very young I lapped it up along with everybody else. She had a way of making her readers feel grown up and important which was very flattering. You got to know her, even if you were never one of the lucky ones who got to visit Green Hedges. Her stories were exciting. There were girls who stood up for themselves, schools which allowed the pupils to bring their ponies with them, children who could outwit policemen, brave dogs, spooky islands and secrets. Her style was sometimes clunky- she did write very fast- but you were more interested in what was happening on the page. Her attitudes were never questioned because the stories pulled you along with them and your limited experience of the world allowed you to take them at face value. Enid Blyton was a nice smiley author who loved everybody who read her books so she had to be all right and you knew exactly what to expect from her.


I left feeling quite sorry that this was the first exhibition devoted to someone who was such a major figure in so many children’s lives but also quite glad that nobody had mentioned the golliwogs. Some things are best left in the past and perhaps Enid Blyton is one of them.

Shandy Hall.


True Shandeism, think what you will against it, opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which partake of its nature, it forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro’ its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round.

Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne (1713- 1768) is a writer whose influence far exceeds his output. He had a busy life as a Yorkshire vicar and his health was not good and both of these things limited the time that he was able to give to writing fiction but he had great enthusiasm and a flair for self publicity and they certainly didn’t stop him. His great work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. It’s a hard novel to describe and it’s a fair bet, if you haven’t read it, that you have never read anything else remotely like it. It was an oddity in its time, both wildly popular and criticised as a flash in the pan by Samuel Johnson, and it still reads like a breath of fresh air blowing in from several hundred years ago. You are carried along by the voice of the author who is having a remarkably unsuccessful but very entertaining attempt at telling you his life story, speaking directly in the first person. The full title is important, since you get to hear as much about Tristram Shandy’s opinions as you do about his life. It wanders about all over the place with no regard for plot, relying on sheer audacity. Tristram isn’t even born until volume three so you have no hope of ever hearing the whole story- it is as digressive and frustrating as real life and there is no point complaining about this because the author shares your feelings and explains that there is nothing that he can do about it. Yes you will have to read a whole paragraph about the fact that when Tristram Shandy uses the word nose that is exactly what he means- enjoy it! Skip a chapter if you want- he has already skipped one for you by tearing it out- and anything might happen along the way from bespoke marbled pages, cyphers, black pages, to sermons, love affairs and much else about noses, gynaecology, classical learning and military fortifications. This is a writer who has a serious and stressful working life as a vicar, serving his flock and writing worthy sermons. He is expected to toe the line and be at the beck and call of others day after day and now he is taking time off to have fun and do exactly as he likes. There are elements of satire, riffs that remind you of a modern day stand up routine and more post modernism than you can shake a stick at. It is the product of a sharp, learned mind at play and it is exhilarating. Rules? What rules?

Sterne’s home, Shandy Hall in the village of Coxwold in North Yorkshire, is a delightful place to visit. It’s the kind of house that you can explore, one which has grown over the centuries and there is a rambling garden which is good for wandering, reading and thinking. It is also fairly quiet so you are unlikely to meet crowds of visitors. The rooms are not as Laurence Sterne left them but they are full of Sterne memorabilia and contain some wonderful books and prints and a beautiful portrait bust of Sterne. In the small book lined study where Sterne wrote the live in curator Patrick Wildgust, a very knowledgeable man and a gifted communicator, invited us to breathe in deeply and perhaps become better writers. I would love to have that room for my own. I am glad that the Laurence Sterne Trust helps to keep alive the memory of a writer who is remembered, but perhaps not as well as he should be, and not taught as often as someone who has been such a strong influence on the writers and artists who came after him deserves to be.

David Lodge at Scarborough Literature Festival. 11-04-13

IMG_0011David Lodge has had a long career as an academic, novelist, screenwriter and playwright. His first novel was published in 1960 but he continued his academic career until 1987. He is a prolific writer who has won major prizes and been much admired by both readers and critics over the years. Now 78 he is still writing as sharply and enthusiastically as ever. His latest novel, A Man Of Parts, is a biographical one, based on events in the life of H G Wells. This can be a controversial form but he finds it an interesting one to work with as it gives a chance to get inside the head of a real character and fill in the gaps. While it would be naïve to assume that everything in the novel is based on fact he said that he had invented nothing of consequence and working within a framework of known facts had allowed him to create a character more different from himself than those which he would invent from scratch. H G Wells was a diverse man and it took some time to pin down the aspects of his life and character which he wanted to focus on. He was a great literary talent who anticipated many modern inventions and a man with a strong sex drive who made choices in his private life which were sometimes unwise. At the turn of the century he was seen as Britain’s most important novelist. There are some similarities between Well’s writing and David Lodge’s own which made him attractive as a subject. Both will sometimes use a large cast of characters and integrate comedy into a serious subject, tending to “ventriloquise” rather than have a distinctive voice of their own.
Some interesting subjects came up in the question and answer session afterwards. When asked about his writing routine, as writers invariably are, he talked about the way that some of the best writing comes when you are away from your desk as ideas germinate. As an author who has worked within the old publishing framework for a lifetime he described the industry today as in a state of “flux and alarm” but also full of possibilities and impossible to predict. He was also asked about the reaction of his academic colleagues to his campus novels and he said that while British academics had a good sense of humour and he hadn’t encountered any hostility from them he still tried to keep the two strands of his working life separate and in some ways he had been glad when he was able to retire from academia.
This was a fascinating hour spent with someone who has earned enormous respect and produced an enviable body of writing. It was good to see him in Scarborough.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you thought special…particular to you. And here is it…set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met. Maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Hector, The History Boys. — Alan Bennett

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson.

I don’t often blog about books that I have read, but every once in a blue moon a book comes along which fulfills what Hector says in The History Boys so perfectly for me that there is no avoiding it.

This time it is Jeanette Winterson’s memoir of her childhood as a single adopted child in a fervently and restrictively religious household and her search for her birth mother. It is a kind of companion in a sense to her first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and it has got me thinking and writing. There are many books which I have read twice over the years, some a lot more than that, but I don’t remember ever reading a book twice within two weeks before and immediately finding it fresh, new and exciting all over again. This is a brave and wise book, one which distils a lot of experience and hard thinking into dense, sparsely written, beautiful prose. There is a story of misery and abuse there, lurking beneath the humour and the elegance of the prose, but this is no misery memoir. It is the story of her determined fight for creative survival and the redeeming power of words rather than that of religion. Tremendous obstacles are put in her way but she hurdles them all and uses her own wit and considerable intelligence to find a way out of a barely tolerable situation into a creative and independent life. This is done at considerable cost, but one of the finest things about this memoir is that she is able to look back without any bitterness. She can see now, for example, why her adoptive mother behaved as she did and while it must have been appalling for someone who now lives by and for words to be denied almost any books other than the King James Bible this is also described as a great gift. Day after day she was made to listen to it and read it and it allowed beautiful rhythmic prose to become as natural to her as breathing. Other books she had to fight for and fight she did, devouring them in large quantities. She was a difficult child, as she dryly admits her behaviour was “not ideal”, but there were reasons for that and they are completely understandable ones. Many people would not have survived what she went through. Often just survival is spoken of by people who have been through bad experiences as an end in itself, (“I am a survivor of…….”) but to truly survive you need to do more than just still be here. You need to understand your past and use it to your own advantage, becoming the person you really are in spite of whatever attempts have been made to hold you back, That is a life’s work- it never really ends. The strength and tenacity which is shot through this book is the best example you could possibly have of that process. It’s confusing, difficult, and far from straightforward but it really is the only way to live a life. No bitterness, no looking back in anger.

So why did this book, a fine one but only one among many which I have read, resonate so powerfully with me? Well, I am a Northerner of the same generation as Jeanette Winterson for a start. When she talks about rag rugs lying on the floor like damp dogs I know that it is a perfect image because I grew up with rugs like that around me and watched them being made. I can and will make my own one day. I was taught how. I was brought up in a religious household, albeit not a fundamentalist one, and there were Victorian religious framed texts and prints on our bedroom walls. I was not forbidden books but nobody else in our house, which contained four adults and me, read or bought books so I also had to find them for myself in libraries and bookshops and was told “not to waste my money on books” by my mother. I am now a would be writer with much less talent and dynamism than JW, but words are still important to me and I possess thousands of books. Words formed an important part of my teaching career and filled my spare time. A long time ago I was also a solitary and imaginative only child and now that I am in middle age I know what it is like to write a “cover version” of your own life inside your head and on the page. I made my own break for freedom as the first in my family to go to university and I also left behind a life for something new and have been coming back afterwards to feed on it and understand myself for the first time. You need to leave before you can truly come home.

Read this book. Please.

Marina Lewycka. Scarborough Literature Festival. 14-04-12.

Marina Lewycka on stage at Scarborough Literary Festival.
Photograph copyright Pat Rogers.

Marina Lewycka is an inspiration and an example to an unsuccessful writer like me. She had to wait until the age of 58 before her first novel, A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian was published in 2005 to great acclaim after being rejected 36 times. Her second novel, Two Caravans, even features a dog. What more of an example could I want? I asked her during the Q and A session that followed her short interview and reading in Scarborough Library as part of Scarborough Literary festival what it was that had kept her writing during a busy life and a successful academic career. She gave an interesting answer, given her background. It was the sense of control that she enjoyed. You can make things happen when you write in a way that you can’t always do in real life. She also said that it was important to be public about your writing and find chances to read your work. Also she reminded me what every unsuccessful writer knows, that if you stop trying then it really isn’t going to happen.

It’s very hard to avoid using the word journey when you think of Marina Lewycka’s life, however much of a cliche it may be. She was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 and spent the first year of her life there before coming to Britain with her family. With a little support, and a lot of hard work and tenacity, they established themselves in West Yorkshire and she went on to university, motherhood, and a career as an academic. All the time she was writing, and finally, after more than fifty years people sat up and took notice. Her writer’s voice is perceptive, funny and engaging, just as she is herself, and she has now published her fourth novel, Various Pets Alive and Dead. It examines the generational divide between parents whose attitudes were formed in the hippy culture of the 1960’s and their children whose values are very different and the extracts which Marina read out were vivid and funny and made us laugh. She explained that she feels that people need to be reminded that things were different once. Humour is a great tool for doing this. When she talked about the dog in Two Caravans it was a lovely glimpse into her way of thinking. “The only thing which he is sure of is his own dogness.” No grammar or punctuation was used because “dogs don’t do that” and we see the world through his own, very different, senses.

It is rather wonderful that a writer who had an uncertain start in life, and grew up with parents who, understandably, wanted her to be protected from the sufferings of the previous generation, has been able to explore and examine this history through her writing. Better still she has done it with wit and humour. When her first novel was published it led to members of her Ukrainian family, who she didn’t know, contacting her and there is a nice circularity in that. She still has lots of ideas and it is when a character and a story coalesce that a novel will take off. The next one may well be based around a child who is working in what were effectively slave conditions in the 18th/19th century. We can all look forward to that.

Joan Bakewell. Scarborough Literature Festival. 14-04-12.

Joan Bakewell on stage at Scarborough Literary Festival.
Photograph copyright Patricia Rogers.

The audience of mostly older ladies in Scarborough Library were very excited to see Joan Bakewell, and no wonder. She has been a role model and an inspiration for their generation for many years now, blazing a trail for women in the media as a journalist, writer and broadcaster. She now sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Bakewell of Stockport and at the age of seventy nine she has just published her first novel. She’s Leaving Home is a coming of age novel set in the 1960’s, which tells the story of a young woman’s development into an independent, thinking adult. It is a period which Joan was right at the heart of (some of her audience admitted rather ruefully that they felt they had missed out on it) and the book contains a wealth of period detail and insight into those times. It was a positive, forward looking time when things were getting better. There was a lot of talk, both from Joan herself and during the questions after her reading, about the seismic changes that took place back then. Within ten years Britain moved away from a position where censorship was taken for granted, abortion and homosexuality were illegal, divorce was very difficult, and work was only something for a woman to do to fill the gap between leaving school and having children. For good or ill this was the period when our modern social attitudes were formed and Joan Bakewell’s media work was right at the centre of the controversy and new freedoms which this change brought with it. I agree with her that, while there is clearly some way to go, we now have a society that is much more generous and tolerant towards the way that women live their lives and that can only be a good thing.

For someone who has achieved so much it is quite a brave thing to do to write a first novel. One of the smaller pleasures of writing it has been the chance to prove to the English teacher who steered her away from doing English A Level that she was wrong. I’m sure that there will have been no doubt as to her intellectual ability, given that she went on to study economics and history at Newnham College Cambridge after being the school’s head girl, it was just a matter of which way they felt it should be channelled. As she pointed out, teachers were all powerful back then. That road not taken has now allowed her the pleasure of tapping into an early yearning late in life. She has found writing fiction for the first time much more exacting and self revealing than the countless articles that she has written and it must have proved an interesting process.

Of course the inevitable question about being “the thinking man’s crumpet” had to be asked (by a man, naturally, who managed to misquote Frank Muir and use the word tottie instead) and this was dealt with graciously. It must be tedious to keep hearing it after all this time, especially when lazy journalists have trotted it out over and over again, even in response to serious articles, with the prefix “once known as” attached, but her fellow women journalists at the time told her to be glad of it as an identifying tag and they were probably right.

We were given an interesting glimpse into her work in the House of Lords. Recently she has been combatting the new health bill. When she asked whether it might be possible to have a bit of Milton instead of morning prayers ( four prayers and four psalms) she was told that wasn’t quite how it worked. It was clear from the way that she talked about the powerful speeches that she has heard and the way that the House of Lords expects evidence and demands authority for a persons views that she is deeply engaged with her work there and enjoying it very much.

When asked what she saw as the role of older women today Joan was very positive, seeing great opportunities in the fact that many women are living longer and healthier lives. This gives them the chance to get out there and be part of a needful community, alert and engaged and contributing, as well as having the chance to fulfil their own dreams. It is incredibly hard to see Joan herself as an older woman. She looks wonderful, and is lively and articulate and full of energy. The label National Treasure doesn’t sit well with her as she has a suspicion that it’s a way of being put out to grass. When asked whether her book deal was a three book deal she laughed and said, “At my age?” I’d have no problem giving her a three book deal myself. Dame Joan Bakewell isn’t going to stop inspiring us all any time soon.