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.

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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.

Andy Kershaw. Scarborough Literature Festival. 13-04-12

Andy Kershaw on stage at Scarborough literary Festival.
Photograph copyright Pat Rogers.

Andy Kershaw reckons that he is the “luckiest bugger” he has ever met. I don’t think so. An hour listening to him is more than enough to show you exactly why he has had the life he has had, and more importantly, the life that he wanted. His energy and thirst to communicate are still working on overdrive in middle age and he is never still. Anecdotes pour out of him in an unstoppable rush, all fast, funny and to the point. People like to talk about having a passion for something, but few of them live it out as he has. When Andy heard Chuck Berry sing Promised Land he didn’t just go wow and trot down to the record shop, he went out to America and did the journey from North Virginia to California that the song describes. He didn’t just go to a lot of gigs as a student, he was promoting major rock gigs at Leeds University at the same time as completing his course, without even a sabbatical to help him find the time. His short list for his appearance on Desert Island Discs was four hundred songs long. He almost drowned surfing at Bridlington when he was very young- well if he could appreciate the Beach Boys surely it was obvious that he would be able to surf? This was before hearing Bob Dylan for the first time “blew him from the middle of the road and out into the undergrowth”. He remembers telling details in the way that only someone with real passion does. For example, Dylan didn’t just “go electric”, he toured with by far the biggest PA system that had ever been erected in the UK at that time. No wonder Billy Bragg wanted to work with him. Andy maintains that he was lucky to meet Billy Bragg before anybody else did, I think that works both ways.

The period of his life that he is most proud of, not surprisingly, are the years he spent sharing room 318 at Egton house and working with John Peel and the producer John Walters. It was there that he learned about “broadcasting not narrow casting” and his horizons were opened to all kinds of music, particularly world music. That love has led him all over the world to some of the most remote, war torn and least visited countries. He has reported from Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and Angola. By the time we reached this point his enthusiasm had led to the session becoming short of time but he still managed to get to the heart of what is most puzzling to an outsider about North Korea, somewhere he has visited several times. He was told on one visit that he was one of only 38 westerners who had been allowed in that year and yet the people on the street showed absolutely no curiosity about him. Nobody even looked at him. There were no cultural reference points and no commercial activity. Michael Jackson and The Beatles are completely unknown. When he and Christopher Hitchens were escorted into a major library and introduced to the “man who knows everything” (a man who was later quizzed quite heavily by Christopher Hitchens to investigate this claim) the same two English language books came down the chute for them to look at as had been sent down on his previous visit. He has a wonderful photo of himself standing next to an impossibly vast heroic statue. All very strange indeed.

He is both passionate and fearless. Jimmy Saville was buried in Scarborough last year and people lined the foreshore in tribute but he had no problem sitting in Scarborough Library telling us his own view on the man. “National treasure my arse. If you knew the reality.”

He is now in training to be a wall of death rider, after becoming interested while making a documentary about the last remaining travelling walls, just for something to do occasionally when he feels like it. I hope that promoting his autobiography No Off Switch ( a perfect title- he really hasn’t got one) when it comes out in paperback later this year doesn’t prove too dull for him. He clearly loves people so that should carry him through. He went out for a fag before he did some book signing and he was still chatting to someone enthusiastically outside while he had his fag break. It is hard to believe that it wasn’t picked up by a major publisher until it had already come out in hardback, but that’s today’s publishing world for you.

Both of his parents were head teachers and he has inherited the intelligence, eye for detail and capacity for hard work that has to go with that role while adding his own sense of adventure, a capacity to take risks and a marvellous sense of fun. A remarkable man.

Margaret Drabble at Scarborough Literature Festival. 16-04-11

Margaret Drabble’s first novel was published in 1963, after a major scholarship to Newnham college Cambridge where she was awarded a starred first, and a short spell with the RSC. She has now published seventeen novels, several screenplays, plays, short stories and a range of non fiction in a distinguished career which led to her being created a dame in 2008. Frankly I think that we were all astonished, as well as delighted to find her sitting in Scarborough library, although as she spoke it became clear why we had got lucky. She has a devoted readership and they were out in force, having taken their seats early. Looking across the room as she spoke there was a sea of still, rapt faces who were enjoying every second of time that they had to listen to her.

She read, quite beautifully,  from her latest novel The Sea Lady, published in 2006. It is set in a fictional place which is a kind of combination of Filey and Northumbria, and tells the story of what happens when two people who first met by the North Sea as children are reunited thirty years later. It is a story of a late romance, poignant and beautifully written, which explores how time, chance and place make us who we are as we get older. The setting springs from her feeling that there is something “important and luminous” about where you first see the sea, and that keeps you coming back again and again. There was a funny little anecdote about how one of the characters in The Sea Lady developed. She explained that being a marine biologist was the other life that she would always like to have had, and when she visited one to research for the marine biologist in The Sea Lady he found his way into the book. He was an embittered shark specialist- a delightful combination! The other main character in the book, Ailsa, drew a complaint from her editor that she was too irritating but Drabble felt that although she was “slightly monstrous” she was likable as well as irritating and stood her ground. After all she told us, you don’t have to like every character in a book. She also had great fun inventing new species of fish. Fun was a word which came up several times in relation to her writing.

This was also a wide ranging talk spanning her whole career and her feelings about the Yorkshire coast. Our relationship with the places and landscape that we know well in our early life is intense and special. Margaret Drabble herself returns to Scarborough regularly and she said that she had been down to Bridlington on this visit for the first time since 1948 and found that it was still there! There is something special about the English landscape in the hands of someone like Thomas Hardy that even allows it to resonate with people in places like Japan and Korea, which is strange.

Even after such a long successful career she said that she is still mystified by the ways of publishers, although she can understand how books come and go as they become relevant again and people relate strongly to them. She has seen this happen with own work over the years. Readers often relate particularly strongly to The Millstone, but her own favourite is The Needle’s Eye, a novel about modesty, survival and ideals. She told us that the heroine is the woman that she would like to have been.

The question and answer session at the close of the talk was intelligent and thoughtful, a tribute to her readership, and there were some real insights gained from what was asked. Even the inevitable lady who wanted to regale us with a personal story of her own made everyone laugh with a relevant and personal connection to Margaret Drabble’s work. When she was asked about sibling rivalry with AS Byatt, Drabble’s answer shot back straight away, with no bitterness just stark honesty. “There is from her but not from me”. This clear sighted truthfulness brought a huge laugh from her audience. In that moment you could really see the spark of steel which has made her something of a feminist icon. This also showed in her observation that she becomes impatient with woman writers who say that they have been paralysed or frozen by having children. She feels it can be a very creative opening up experience and that when she had little time to write that was a real incentive to find a way to get on with it. When she was asked about the process of writing itself she claimed that she was not very good at talking about the craft of writing, as it is intuitive whether it is going well or badly, and then explained that we are all made up of many people and that when you write you draw upon a strand of it, which was more than enough for me to think about. Although she had a background of studying classic English literature, when she started to write herself she found that she simply started to write differently. Later her major influences were Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf.

This was a fascinating hour with a formidably intelligent yet very approachable woman. The kernel of her own curiosity which she talked about, the curiosity which fuels her writing, is still clearly evident. She explained that she is still a feminist, but no longer angry about it, and that seems very appropriate to me somehow.

Sarah Waters at Scarborough Literature Festival. 14-04-11

Sarah Waters is good company. She is quietly charming, relaxed and funny and her large audience at Scarborough book festival spent an interesting hour listening to her talking about her life and her work, and reading from her latest novel, The Little Stranger. She began as an academic, with English Literature as her subject, finally choosing ‘Wolfskins and togas : lesbian and gay historical fiction, 1870 to the present’ as the subject for her PhD. Her first novel Tipping the Velvet drew on the research from her PhD studies and since its success when it was published in 1998 she has changed direction and written five highly acclaimed novels set in Victorian times, or more recently in the 1940’s. Her work is detailed and painstakingly researched and its gothic aspects are grounded in a strong sense of reality.

Sarah talked about how much she enjoys the research aspect of what she does, obviously while she clearly loves writing fiction there is still a little of the academic lurking in there somewhere. It was interesting that she finds middle brow fiction and everyday accounts useful for her writing, as it gives a solid understanding of how ordinary people lived their lives. The attitudes which shaped people’s lives most strongly are most clearly seen there. She enjoys the challenge of finding the idiom of a period, “ventriloquising” it, and this is where the strong sense of reality comes from. This is particularly important when it is a narrator who is speaking, such as Dr Faraday in The Little Stranger, as the author needs to see the world of the past through his eyes and notice only what he would notice. She is quite happy to be thought of as a lesbian novelist, and understood the concerns which the lesbian and gay community felt when there was no lesbian or gay character in The Little Stranger, as the community is little represented and can’t really afford to lose someone who they felt was speaking for them. All the same she felt that there would be little point in shoehorning a character in just for the sake of it, in the style of Where’s Wally!  She is philosophical about TV adaptations of her books and while she has been happy with them on the whole, tries to distance herself from them, feeling that she has moved on to other work before they are made anyway and the story almost partly belongs to the screenwriter. Any other attitude might mean that the writer is only setting themselves up for grief, and it is hard for them to find a real useful role in the process.

I really enjoyed listening to Sarah Waters and there was plenty for me to think about when I came away. It may be hard work for them, and even sometimes a bit of a nuisance as it keeps them away from their writing, but the chance for readers to “meet” their favourite writers and hear them, even for a brief hour, gives us a real insight into their thought processes that nothing else does, especially when they are as open, articulate, thoughtful and friendly as she is.

David Nobbs at Scarborough Literature Festival. 15-04-10

When you take the time to find out who has actually written the television, stage and radio comedy of the last fifty years it turns out to be a surprisingly short list. Great comedy writers are in short supply and the few that we have need to work overtime, as well as being hardworking and versatile. Even though making people laugh is a great skill and also very lucrative to television companies the writers can tend to be somewhat overlooked. Not this afternoon. Our hour and a quarter with David Nobbs at Scarborough library, part of the annual weekend literature festival, was an entertaining and honest gallop through his long writing career. He kept us laughing as well as giving us some sharp insights into his world. Alongside his television series he has also written for great comedy performers such as Frankie Howerd, Les Dawson, Ken Dodd and Ronnie Barker, and produced sixteen novels. On a good day he told us that he might write three and a half thousand words ( trust me that’s a lot) and when Leonard Rossiter insisted that he should write each of the Perrin series as a novel first, so that he could read it before it became a script, that was what happened.

As he looked back wryly at his successes and failures for us it became clear that it was sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. A proposal for a half hour Pebble Mill play was rejected as supposedly not dealing with contemporary issues and had it been accepted one of the great television comedies- The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin- might never have been written. One of the iconic comedy characters of the twentieth century would have been relegated to a single long forgotten afternoon of disposable entertainment. One of his favourite pieces of work, a series called Stalag Luft which starred Stephen Fry, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Geoffrey Palmer, was never the ratings success its writing deserved, thanks to the fact that week after week Leeds United and Chelsea failed to manage a result in the FA cup.  It never had a chance to build an audience. A series about Spanish Ex pats sank without trace because it was too truthful for people to recognise. He explained that people sometimes prefer to see things that are the kind of truth they expect, even if it doesn’t actually match reality. A novel without a detective in it was rejected as the publisher claimed that there was no market for detective stories, even though detective novels were selling like hot cakes at the time. I could go on.

After listening to him for three quarters of an hour it was easy to see why he described comedy writing as a “knife edge” in the question and answer session after his talk. It’s a harsh world where you don’t always get your just rewards and your best efforts can be cut down by ignorance or bad luck, even if you have the kind of talent that deserves better. If an idea is picked up and put into production you need a great team alongside you and if any of them let you down it may still fail, however good your script is. Clearly you need a streak of granite running through your soul, not just a flair for words and timing, if you want to succeed as a comedy writer, along with endless patience and perseverance.

Thankfully David Nobbs has had his fair share of success in return for his hard work and talent, with the ups far outweighing the downs, and this is what will be remembered. There are not many people around who are able to do what he has done. While a flair for comedy is a gift, it is not a gift that lands easily in your lap, all ready for you to present it to the world beaming happily. There is a cost. I am glad that he has been prepared to work so hard to add just a little to the sum total of joy in the world. There is never enough of that and it is not a trivial achievement.