Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Society of Authors AGM

Yesterday I went to the AGM of the Society of Authors in Senate House - the main administrative buidling of the University of London. It is an impressive beautiful building. Although I studied at the University of London for three years at the beginning of the eighties this is the first time I had ever been inside. We met in a fine wood-panelled hall. Anthony Beevor took the chair for the last time before handing over to Helen Dunmore.

The main issues were: why many new books are sold as 'used' at very low prices on amazon, ebay and Abe books, sometimes on the day of publication - and where they come from; and the proposed takeover of the bookchain Ottakars by Waterstones and why this is bad news for both authors and readers. I shall blog about these two issues in more detail later. Tomorrow I am going to Newscastle and shall be taking my camera.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Laura Hird's Website

I came across Laura Hird's excellent website today. It is packed with all sorts of useful information for the writer - a comprehensive list of literary magazines taking short stories and an excellent review section. I have added it to my list of links. It is one of the top ten Scottish websites and well worth a visit.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Waverton Good Read Award

On October 7th, one of the first events in the Chester Literature Festival is a dinner to celebrate the Waverton Good Read Award. Waverton is a village just a few miles outside Chester. This year’s winner was Jonathan Trigell with BOY A which I shall blog about later. The Waverton Good Read award emulates the Le Prix de La Cadière which is now in its fifth year. It was started by the doctor in Cadière (population 4 000) because he thought that a good book might be as useful to his patients as the medication he would prescribe. This looks fascinating and shall be investigating this in detail soon.

The Waverton Good Read (for more detail see this amusing article from the Daily Telegraph here ) is an award for first adult novels by British Writers published in the previous twelve months. The aim is stimulate reading and provide encouragement to British writers. I think this is an excellent idea because British writers (and those of other nationalities) need all the encouragement they can get - it is a hard cruel world out there.

One of the organisers, Gwen Goodhew (left in the photo with Wendy Smedley when they received an award from Cheshire County Council in the Cheshire annual celebration of Rural Women's achievements), has kindly answered a few questions about the award.

Clare Dudman: How did the scheme start?
Gwen Goodhew: Wendy Smedley (the other initiator and organiser of the scheme) read an article by Susannah Hickling in the Daily Telegraph about a similar scheme in a village in France and thought it would be a good scheme to start in Waverton. She kept waving the article in front of my nose until I agreed to go in with her. We met Susanna Hickling in 2004 when we went over to France to see how they ran their scheme (she lives there now). We also met the doctor, Dr Dufour who started off the scheme there.

C.D: Yes, I was going to ask you about that - were there any differences?
G.G: Well it’s changed now. They started off with debut novels (in French, of course) but now it has evolved into something different - now they have started asking people to suggest favourite books, which I don’t think works as well. Also their methods of collection are different. In Waverton, in the early stages the books are collected from mine and Wendy’s homes, and then later on from the hairdresser, post office and various places throughout the village. In France all the books are collected from the pharmacie.

C.D. That must make things a bit busy for the pharmacist.
G.G: Well, she’s one of the organisers of the scheme over there.

C.D: Is the doctor happy with how the scheme has worked out? Has he found that the scheme has benefitted the villagers’ health?
G.G: Well he finds that they are talking books now instead of talking about their ailments.

C.D: Has the same thing happened in Waverton?
G.G: People chat about the books now - it has introduced different dynamics into the village.

C.D: How did you find the books?
G.G: It was quite difficult. First of all we tried the websites of literary prizes, then websites of publishers (which are a lot better now than they were) and then we rang publishers to ask them if they have any books that were eligible. It was not a perfect system, and we still haven’t found one. We have found that some publishers are more supportive than others, and I suppose it depends on who you happen to contact on the day. A few publishers haven’t replied at all.

C.D: That’s quite surprising - you’d think they’d be pleased.
G.G: Yes. They have to be published between certain dates: For this year it is between 1st September 2004 to the 31st August 2005.


C.D: How many people do the reading?
G.G: About 100 altogether. Some read solidly - others drop in and drop out. We have recently included the small hamlet of Bulkeley because a group there were interested and there were not enough of them to carry on on their own. In the later stages of the year we also included a woman’s prison. They voted on the final five books.

C.D: Do you think that changed the voting?
G.G: I noticed there was not a single vote for the Stella Rimington book - the rest were equally divided. But this did not alter the final result.

C.D: Is it mainly women who read?
G.G: Yes, unfortunately. There are some men but we are trying to get more men involved - trying to find books that interest them - they tend to prefer non-fiction.

C.D: How about the age range?
G.G: That is quite broad. It ranges from pupils in Christleton High school (interested sixth formers) to a group of young married women with young children and then a large block of people in their fifties to sixties up to the very oldest inhabitants.

C.D: One hundred people out of a population of two thousand is quite a proportion of the village.
G.G: Yes, especially if you take away the children. It’s quite good.

C.D: Would you say it had changed village life?
G.G: Yes, definitely - I can’t say in a concrete way, exactly, but it has changed villagers’ perception of the village and themselves.

C.D: I suppose it has put Waverton on the map.
G.G: Yes, something you wouldn’t expect for a village this small.

C.D: Have you any anecdotes from your visit to France?
G.G: We thought the final ceremony was quite amusing because it was quite different from ours. Our results are announced at the village fete and we realise that people’s attention span is not gong to be that long so we get it over with quite quickly. But in France it is far more intellectual - there are readings from teenagers, and awards for stories, and presentations of bound volumes - the stories have been collected together and bound into a book and the winners each receive one.

C.D: That sounds good.
G.G: Yes it was, but it took such a long time, and our French wasn’t that good - and we’d not much idea what they were saying and every now and again they’d look at us and laugh and we would have to laugh too...

C.D: How long did it take?
G.G: Oh I don’t know, you’d have to ask Wendy. A long time, and they were so laid back - they started an hour late because they needed to find tables and loud speakers and so on.

C.D: Where in France is this place?
G.G: In Provence, a hilltop village, La Cadière D'Azur.

C.D: Have other places expressed an interest in starting up a similar award?
G.G: After we were on the culture show we were contacted by various people, but I haven’t heard whether any went ahead.

C.D: I heard there was one being set up nearby, in Upton, but not heard anything more about it recently. Was it a lot of work to set the award up? Did it require a lot of organisation?
G.G: Yes! Well for Wendy and I it has pretty much taken over our lives. We decided to put a bit of our own money in to set it up and then after we’d decided to do that we went to Borders to buy the books - she started at one end, and I started at the other and after a time we met again and we’d only managed to find a couple of nooks each. It’s then that we stated looking on the internet. There is a website devoted to debut novels now. It didn’t exist when we started. There haven’t been so many this year, but they have been of higher quality.

C.D: Has the book award initiated any interest in the readers having a go at writing themselves?
G.G: No, not really - one funny thing I noticed at the end of one of our meetings was that when someone suggested to the readers that they had a go at writing themselves the reaction was one of complete horror...

Which seems a good place to end.

Wendy and Gwen were finalists in Granada TV's 'Local Heroes' Competition and the photographs above show them each receiving certificates from Granada's Marketing Director.

My Busy Little Life

For the next few weeks I am going 'ON THE ROAD', yes just like a rock star, except the only illicit substance inhaled will be from the Upton Heath Post Office photocopier, there will a distinct lack of groupies, and I shall be going by 'Saver Return' most of the time so maybe I should more accurately describe myself as going 'ON THE RAILS' (or maybe balancing on them, precariously). However I shall be away from my desk and seeing places I have not seen before, which is all that counts, and I am looking forward to it... but fear not, beloved blog-reader (I am very much hoping there is one, though there is little evidence at the moment) I shall be keeping up with the blogs...

Anyway, the sell-out performances (both mine - unless no one comes which is quite possible - and those of other people's I am set on attending) are as follows:

Wednesday 28th September Society of Authors AGM London;
Friday/Saturday 30th September/1st October Society of Authors North, Newcastle;
Wednesday 5th October Bishop Auckland Town Hall - talk on Wegener's Jigsaw;
Thursday 6th October Chester Poets;
Saturday 8th October WordFest Basingstoke - talk on madness;
Tuesday 11th Octber Cheltenham LitFest - writing dialogue;
Wednesday 12th October Salley Vickers at Hawarden;
Thursday 13th October Fleur Adcock and Wendy Cope in Chester LitFest;
Tuesday 18th October Jake Arnott at Chester Litfest;
Wednesday 19th October Literature and Science talk, Chester Litfest;
Thursday 20th October Introduce and read at Chester Writers Evening;
Monday 24th October Heaton Chapel talk on Wegener;
Tuesday 25th October Madness talk at Chester Litfest;

Then, like all good rock stars I expect there will be the inevitable breakdown resulting in a week of therapy (alas not at the Priory but chez Dudman - a couple of scented candles and matching bath oil) before heading down to Shropshire to give a talk to an Age Concern Reading group there.

There are further details of these events on my website.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Arts Council England's Response to the Government Green Paper 'Youth Matters'.

Arts Council England are consulting artists in order to respond to a Government Green Paper called Youth Matters. The paper can be downloaded from the link here. It is proposed that ‘Young People’ (also known as teenagers) are to be issued with ‘Opportunity Cards’ in an effort to get them to try a little exercise or culture - an excellent idea.

The Arts Council obviously wants to make sure that the Arts are involved - that these cards also encourage the young to experience the theatre and the studio as well as the sports field and gym - also a very good idea.

Young people will have a card entitling them (and thereby encouraging them) to join clubs and societies of their choice as well as receiving discounts on things like theatre tickets. The card would also serve as means of identification.

However it is also proposed that those young people that misbehave will have their Opportunity Cards withdrawn. Since one of the main objectives is to get the disillusioned youth off the streets and doing something useful this seems to me to be a bit self-defeating and contradictory. I think maybe it would be better if just some activities were withdrawn if the young person is disruptive - with the possibility that credits on the card could be earned back again if behaviour improves.

Also it is proposed that parents will be encouraged to buy top-up credit on the cards. I think this could be divisive. Those young people who are disadvantaged will see themselves as even more so. The points should be awarded for good behaviour, co-operation and improvement - and nothing else.

It is also proposed that young people are ’empowered’ to shape their own local services. In my experience some young people (usually the most vocal and therefore influential) are harsh judges, make rash decisions and are overconfident in their ability. They are, by definition, immature and inexperienced and have a lot to learn. They need guidance. By all means give them a taste of power, but only a taste - save the main meal for adulthood.

But there are lots of good ideas here and I think the scheme could be quite exciting - I particularly like the proposal that young people should be encouraged to volunteer and help the community - I think anything that gets the young active and interested is a good idea. It will set them up for life.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Coffee is good for you

Ah coffee, some days I feel I am lurching from one coffee break to the next, rewarding myself with a handful of beans, grinding them by hand if I'm feeling energetic, or using one of those plastic all-in-one filters if I'm not. There are shelves of jugs, filter machines and cafetieres dedicated to the process at chez Dudman, and three types of milk frothers, a cocoa dispenser and special cups, spoons and mugs (the one you see here is my favourite, donated by a friend). And then there are all the things that go with coffee, special little almond biscuits wrapped in tissue paper, or small chunks of chocolate praline wrapped in foil - nothing too large because it mustn't distract from the main event...

According to an article in the New Scientist by Richard Lovett this is one guiltless pleasure - coffee, it turns out, is good for you. The feature ends with ' Too much caffeine will give you the jitters and keep you up at night. It might even give you disconcerting but largely harmless palpitations, and you'll suffer mild withdrawal symptoms if you stop. But all things considered, caffeine is your friend. Worry about something else.'

According to the article caffeine may be guard against colorectal cancer, Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and alcohol-related liver damage, it also reduces the risk of kidney stones and gallstones and is a mild antidepressant. Filtered coffee is better than unfiltered coffee because filtering removes a substance which causes increased cholesterol, and pregnant women should avoid ingesting huge quantities just in case - but the rest of us are free to indulge with gusto. Coffee, it turns out contains polyphenols, the antioxidants found in red wine (hurrah), chocolate (yes), and tea (also good) and is the number one source of antioxidants in the US diet.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

CAFE IN AMSTERDAM - a debut album by Alan Wall

CAFE IN AMSTERDAM - cover designed by Steve Lloyd (email:

I first heard CAFE IN AMSTERDAM, the first track in Alan Wall’s debut album, over the telephone.

‘Listen to this,’ he said, ‘What do you think?’ and on went the music. Even in these slightly bizarre circumstances I was impressed. Alan was a poet before he became a novelist and he is also a Bob Dylan devotee - and these tracks are obviously heavily inspired by the great man. The lyrics are poetic, but not pretentiously so, and the music is very infectious. By the second playing I was humming along and pretty soon I think I shall be singing along too.

The first track is possibly my favourite but there are some close contenders. It is also the the most musically complex with Alan on acoustic guitar, Dave Greenold on accordian and Ken Morris on soprano sax. Alan’s son, Michael provides an enchanting glockenspiel embellishment and the four instruments with Alan’s voice meld together very well.

MAKE LOVE TO MY SHADOW is a title I love for its slight wickedness - Alan’s voice is gruffer here and there is a very Bob Dylanish bit of harmonica playing, as well as acoustic and slide guitar and Steve Lloyd on tambourine. It is an American sound -perhaps the most ‘country’ of the selection.

The next track, ROY’S SONG, is a didactic piece. ‘She don’t love you any more,’ the narrator observes, and goes on to explain why . This song is poignant and also very successful - with a strong main theme.

AFTER THE WAR is descriptive and suitably gruff, and there is another piece generally anti-war in flavour: SOLDIERS OF THE ISLANDS.

There are also two very short acoustic guitar pieces with no vocals: WHERE MARY’S GONE and ANNIE which show off Alan’s playing to good effect, a traditional song called LORD FRANKLIN which refers to the loss of Franklin in the Arctic, and a touching short song called SONG FOR CLARE-MARIE written to the artist’s daughter. It is affectionate and playful, neatly avoiding the obvious rhymes with a striking ending.

CAFE IN AMSTERDAM is already in my blood. It is a latte-sized cup of American-roasted Bob Dylan sprinkled with the exoticism of English cocoa. I shall sit back and enjoy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A TOUCH OF THE SUN by David Evans

One of the writers at the HERE & NOW event was David Evans. His debut A TOUCH OF THE SUN is published by Crocus Books and was the winner of the North West Commonword novel competition. I (and luminaries such as Michele Roberts, Barry Unsworth and Jimmy McGovern) think it is a fine piece of work. It is a personal novel in some ways because it seems to closely mirror the author's own history - like the protagonist in the book David Evans was jailed for his protests against apartheid in South Africa before coming to England to teach and write. I suppose this experience adds verisimilitude to his account, but his writing about those experiences shared by all of us is also superb. I could go on about this book for a long time but here is the review I wrote a few months ago on Amazon...

When I was at university in the eighties there was a place called Nelson Mandela Hall. I didn't know much about South African politics then - had just some vague idea that there were separate spaces and rules for those born white and those who were not. Of course I knew it was wrong, but it was just somewhere far away, nothing to do with me. Then I remember Mandela being released, and the unexpected smallness of his face, and I knew something had changed and thought I understood, but having read this novel I know now that I did not.

A TOUCH OF THE SUN brings that era before the end of apartheid disturbingly alive. Simon is a reluctant hero: he is not liberal, not idealistic, his views are of the conventional racist white man. But gradually, and very believably, he changes in spite of himself - it is something that he tries to deny but it something he cannot resist. His sense of what is right and what he must do and how he must fight becomes inexorable and in the end he can do nothing but succumb. His changing friendships and loyalties are expertly portrayed and the unfolding story absorbing. The character of Simon, especially his adolescent obsession with sex, is fiercely frank and the last scenes especially poignant. But the most important and gratifying aspect of this book, which makes me feel very glad that I have read it, is that I now I feel I understand the passions and story of the fight against apartheid in South Africa in a way I could never have hoped to glean from any other source. I think I now understand, as much as any white person can understand, what it must have felt to be the wrong colour in this place - the way the system could cause you to feel dirty, inferior and hopeless.

A TOUCH OF THE SUN has changed the way I see the world, will be a book I shall always remember, and given the renaming of that multi-purpose hall a new significance.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

HERE & NOW - Promoting writing in the North West of England

Going to the Liverpool Central Library is always an occasion. The building is a splendid structure - to the right of the entrance is a semi-circular facade with columns and inside a large tiered circular room called the Picton Reading Room (Victorian Liverpudlians called it the Picton Gasometer), built in 1875 to emulate the Reading Room at the British Museum. It would make a respectable amphitheatre.

It is part of an impressive series of civic buildings built in the last half of the nineteenth century, largely financed by a local MP William Brown who was subsequently honoured by having the street named after him. There is a very good selection of history books housed in the Picton and apart from the odd man quietly singing an opera to himself at one of the desks it is quiet and a good place to study. The modern entrance to the library is more quiet - hidden to the side of a 'six-column Corinthian portico with attic...severely Graeco-Roman style' and the interior is a more conventional cuboid, with floor after floor of books, almost, it would seem every book in the world, except, sadly, for MY latest tome - at least last time I looked in their catalogue. Maybe they will be able to afford to buy a copy as part of the fifty million pounds refurbishment which is to start soon - in time for 2008 when Liverpool becomes European City of Culture. Unless, of course, they decide to replace books with computers.

On Thursday I explored new territories - to the right through the automatic doors, and up two floors above the circular library to where there was more wooden panelling, and another drum-like space full of books, then through this to the Hornby Room, which has the high ceiling and rectangular floor of a small church.

Libraries in the North West of England have a new initiative starting this week until early in 2006 called HERE AND NOW. They are going to promote novels with a North West interest in the local libraries and Jane Mathieson, the Regional Reader Development organiser had invited local writers to come and network with the region’s librarians.

Anne Caldwell (editor of TIME TO READ - a summary of best practice in Reader Development work with adults in North-West England 2000-2004) gave the introductory session, then there were sessions showing us how we could work with libraries (by author Cath Staincliffe part of MURDER SQUAD), how we could use different methods to promote our writing in libraries by Tom Palmer, a speed-dating session where we given five minutes to tell various librarians what we could offer, and something called a ‘breakout session’ where we discussed ideas on how we could encourage more readers into libraries.

The day was a lot of fun and I found it extremely useful - not only did I meet a lot of interesting and interested librarians but I also had the chance to talk to eleven out of the twenty-one writers who attended - many of whom I intend to blog about in the future.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Freda Hadwen and the Chester Literature Festival.

Freda Hadwen has been the organiser of the Chester Literature Festival for the last ten years, and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her work as organiser of the festival but we began with a few general questions:

About snails...
CD: Do you have any memorable encounters with snails?
FH: I dislike snails intensely, they eat my plants and so I obliterate them from my patch, either by throwing them onto someone else’s garden or 'doing' for them with various preparations.
CD: Not a snail lover then. How about slugs?
FH: Slugs almost fall into the same category because they perform the same act on my plants.

About life...
CD: What is your proudest moment?
FH: Becoming a mother - that’s meant a lot to me throughout my life and now being a grandmother, that’s been an absolute delight.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event?
FH: Going to live abroad for 10 years in the middle-east, with all the experiences that entailed. The person that went out didn’t return. For the first time I was able to live a life for myself after a period of having to work to educate my two clever daughters. I could read books without feeling guilty, played sport, which I adore, as well as living in a multiracial society which I found very exciting as I learnt a lot. I also met some very strange people...
CD: How were they strange?
FH: They had lived nomadic lives - from when they had left university they had spent their lives travelling and they were lovely, interesting, open people. We lived just three days from where Saddam Hussein was bombing and one of my friends hid in a roof in Kuwait during one of the raids and was not discovered. The country itself interested me - the Sultan of Oman was deposed by his son - this son was educated in the UK and during his rule changed Oman from something biblical - girls were not educated at all in 1960, and boys, educated at Koranaic schools, had to leave the country if they wished to continue their education - to a modern state. I found this fascinating and read extensively about the country.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever seen or heard?
FH: In Birkenhead Market I once saw a very old woman, clean, you know, but she was trying to sell these two or three sprigs of mint that she’d taken from a garden. So I just gave her some money and asked her to promise me that she’d buy herself a dinner.
CD: If there was one thing you could change about yourself what would it be?
FH: That I had continued with my education - I always made sure that my two girls knew how important it is to be equipped for life, to be able to stand on their own two feet. It is always necessary for a woman to have the means to earn a living.
CD: If you had continued your education - what subject would it have been in?
FH: English I think.
CD: What is happiness?
FH: Happiness for me?
CD: For anybody.
FH: I learnt from my own experience that a background of encouragement was really important for a child - so I always encouraged my children in what they wanted to do. So I suppose happiness for me is seeing that they’ve turned out well and capable and that they are good people...and that’s another thing too - getting on well with my fellow human beings that's important for my happiness too.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
FH: I always get up well before my husband. I like the peace and quiet of the first part of the day. So I get up and I make myself a cup of tea from a special pot and have my breakfast and look after the cat who has walked in on me - I used to have a Persian who treated me like dirt, but this one just walked in on me - I think he’d been dumped.

About Chester Literature Festival...
CD: Who runs the Chester Literature Festival?
FH: The committee of nine people - two from the bookshops (Waterstones and Bookland) and the rest from interested parties e.g. representatives from the Friends of the Chester Literature Festival, Chester Poets and Chester Writers - and there are subcommittees too which meet when I need them to meet.
CD: How often do you meet?
FH: Once a month or as required.
CD: How does your work vary throughout the year? Starting say from the end of the festival in October?
FH: November I’d start with bills (in conjunction with the treasurer) and write thank you letters to numerous people involved with the programming. Then I deal with the events that were proposed too late to be used but are interesting enough to be considered for next year's. Some are an immediate ‘Yes’ but others need to be debated by committee. I get a massive amount of enquiries. I have to tell some of them to come back to me mid-February or mid-January, and then we’ll talk, and then the programme committee goes through them. A lot of this has to be filed.
Then there are catalogues from the publishers - they’re very good about sending these - and I trawl through these, thinking yes, yes...putting my yellow stickers in, then I get in touch with David - the manager of Bookland (an independent bookshop) and he goes to these book fairs...
CD: Frankfurt?
FH: No London, and some others (in this country), I don’t think we’d run to Frankfurt. He rings me with tips on what he's seen and I chase his recommendations immediately. Then I look in the newspapers and listen to book programmes and all that sort of thing - I try to listen to as many as possible to see what’s going on there, and I also keep last year's catalogues because then you've got the paperbacks, and some of those you might be able to get on as well...So I do the complete programme...and well, it is a year’s work.

CD: So the compilation of the programme starts mid January...
FH: Yes, and goes on continually really until July. An important part of the job is reassurance - reassuring the publicists that things will run smoothly,that their authors will be comfortably accommodated. It is part of the publicists’ job to ensure that during the author’s two weeks of publicity there is a neat journey of events e.g. the author could be with us at lunchtime for an event and then go down to Cheltenham for the evening because our festivals run at the same time.
One of the frustrations involved is getting a ‘yes’ - the whole thing is a bit of a lottery and you have to make sure your head is above the surface. It is one fo the biggest growing industries...
CD: Is it?
FH: Oh yes, really big business.
CD: So we’re through to July. The programme has been finalised between May and June?
FH: Yes.
CD: Then in July it goes off to the printers and then in August it's back from the printers?
FH: Yes.
CD: And in the meantime you’re finalising things?
FH: And getting things ready. Getting the envelopes all ready, with the address labels - it’s like a production line...and then I let the TIC know...
FH: Tourist Information Centre. They start to get asked by customers.
CD: Do many people from overseas come then?
FH: Yes, and people home on leave, and people from other parts of the UK who love coming to things like this.
CD: Do you think the Liverpool as European City of Culture in 2008 is going to have an impact?
FH: Yes, if it is handled properly it should be of benefit. There should be a lot of interest.
CD: So we’ve worked through virtually the entire year now, just missing out the most important part - the actual festival itself and the time just before. presumably that is the time of your heaviest work load?
FH: Yes, in late August I’m just getting all my show cards organised, and then I’ll be liaising with the Gateway Theatre about seating, and then there is my big job - my head list. I take each event apart and note what is required - then take it to the committee for them to sign on the line what they are going to do - who is going to meet the authors, introduce them, give the vote of thanks, who is going to be on duty, do we need a float, will there be drinks - looking after all aspect of the events.
CD: Then in October ...?
FH: I go to a lot of the events - I went to 28 events last year. I also have to do the refreshments which can sometimes be a problem, as some authors have quite specific requirements - so I have to liaise with catering firms.

CD: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
FH: Without doubt seeing people having a wonderful evening. I know that without an organisation like this Chester would not have the opportunity to see these people, and Chester would be a sadder place as a consequence.
CD: Who was your favourite guest?
FH: Benjamin Zephaniah. He’s a vegan so I had to provide a special meal from caterers, and they did a wonderful job...and Benjamin, he couldn’t eat it all, so he took it home with him, then thanked me later. Lovely man, really intelligent. Another favourite with everyone was Martin Jarvis, he was quite delightful and very appreciative. Also liked Mike Nicholl - the tornado pilot who was tortured in Iraq - a great favourite with the ladies at the Grosvenor Hotel.
CD: Have you ever had any embarrassing moments?
FH: No, to be honest, I can’t think of any, so far, fingers crossed.
CD: Is there anything you would like to change?
FH: I think it would be a good idea to hold a spring festival as well, and to have double the events so people have a choice, have it more concentrated.
CD: What is the point of literary festivals?
FH: I think they have two purposes - one to educate while you enjoy (and that is for as wide a spectrum as possible) and the other is for fun. I think it is important that events should include as many people as possible.
CD: And my final question - what would you say are the ideal qualities someone needs to do your job?
FH: Tenacity, to keep chasing things, and follow them through; to have a good telephone manner; be good at making local links with the community and keeping these going; to have the ability to generally get on with people; to be approachable, but at the same time give the person you’re talking to the impression that you are in command.

Since Freda has taken over the running of the festival the programme has gone from strength to strength. Successfully maintaining a festival like Chester's must be a huge amount of work, and Freda has obviously built up a valuable network over the years. However the forthcoming festival in October will be her last - she is planning to leave in order to pursue her many other interests including looking after her new granddaughter. I know that she will be very much missed.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Corpse Bride

This looks promising...Tim Burton (writer of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS- who I suspect is the literary descendent of Struwwelpeter) has made a new animation about a man (Johnny Depp) who marries a corpse (Helena Bonham-Carter)...

You need a bit of time to spare to work through the trailer but it is worth perservering. According to Rolling Stones Magazine it is 'warped' and 'darkly erotic'.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Molluscan Love Dart

In my search for everything about snails I came across this fascinating webpage. There are pictures. Apparently after a courtship of anything up to six hours the romantic snail initiates mating by sending out a love dart. These are calcified horns which punctuate the skin of its partner. Mutual mating then ensues (as you might recall from a previous blog snails and slugs are hermaphrodite and sometimes self-fertilise). Love darts are not produced by virgin snails. They have to learn to produce them by mating. The love dart produces a chemical which stops sperm being digested so they are a very good idea - for a snail.

However, what I found particularly provocative about this webpage is the phrase "The snail is native to Europe, where it may have picked up its curious courtship and mating rituals." No chance of it picking up this sort of thing in its adopted residence of California then.

This is just crying out for a 101 word metaphorical short story but unfortunately I am going to have to quell my creative urges and fill a tax form in instead. Maybe later.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Contrast

I have had such a good weekend. I have read two novels - 850 pages - complete contrasts - THE LONG FIRM by Jake Arnott and the excellent GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS - Joanne Harris’s new novel. I have had a fine time. I am hoping to interview these two authors this week.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Another September

It is almost that time of year again: when summer becomes autumn, when things change, and I think of that time when I thought the world had changed forever.

I was in a heliport when it happened - the Greenlandic language sputtering from a loudspeaker, my last day in Uummannaq, an island off the west Greenland coast and I was watching an iceberg. At that time I was writing, obsessively, pretty much like now, reams and reams of words, trying to capture the place: the ice lurking at the top of cliffs, the exhilarating chill in the air, and the light - low, odd, difficult to get used to - early morning turning immediately into late evening at noon - making me edgy, anxious that the day was ending, even though sunset was still eight hours away.

As soon as I had landed in Greenland I had started walking, out through the settlement onto the tundra, edging around small bogs and onto the high outcrops of rock. Old rock. Ancient rock - the remains of another land mass even older than Pangaea. I was after something more recent. At Illulisat there is the most productive glacier in the world and I was determined to see it. At last I did - a vast lake of ice with a dirty blocky surface and in front of it the great calved icebergs in a calm sea. Nothing appeared to move. It was magnificently quiet. I looked around and something grabbed at my insides then and told me how foolish I'd been. I was alone on the top of a high plateau of rock and I didn’t know quite how I’d got there or how much daylight was left. I wanted to go on, I’d read there were the remains of a prehistoric settlement further down the fjord but I had brought nothing with me, just the clothes I was standing in, so I turned back and began my descent.

The ice fascinated me. That September I spent so long looking at the shapes that floated imperceptibly by. It was like looking at the coal fires in my grandmother’s house. We used to watch them together - coal houses and mansions tumbling down - villages, towns, empires. The ice crumbled more slowly. Each day when I woke I would look into the bay and there would be a different block floating in the sea.

I was watching one of these shapes from the window of the heliport, imagining it to be something different, when I heard it 'WORLD TRADE TOWER' in amongst the ‘a’s and ‘i’s of the Greenlandic commentary. Then the only other person that spoke English in the place, a travelling salesman from Denmark, rushed over to me and told me world war three had started.

‘Come,’ he said, and we forced our way to the office behind the counter where the man in charge of the airport was staring at the small screen. ‘New York’ he said, but I couldn’t believe it - too much like a film, too many people screaming, covered in dust. I am not sure when I believed: maybe during a steep ascent from Qarsut in a small plane when the Danish journalist that was sitting next to me clutched the arms of his seat muttering that this was a bad day to fly, or when I saw my Inuit companions staring silently at the TV screen at the airport at Upernavik, or, and I think this was the time - when I curled up into the seat of my third aeroplane that day, 73 degrees north, at last heading south - my husband's voice still in my head after I'd managed to reach him on the phone saying: ‘Just come home.’

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Voices: Black Writers for Relief

Just saw this on Jeffrey Ford's blog (September 5th) (via Vanderworld) - sounds like a good idea to me...

'Professor Laura McCullough, has helped put together a literary event to aid the victims of hurricane Katrina. The event will be held on Sept. 20th at Brookdale... It is called Voices: Black Writers for Relief. She's assembled a great line-up of poets and fiction writers...

she is also going to run a signed book auction. All proceeds from this event and the auction will go toward hurricane relief. If you are an author out there and you have a book, and if you want to help, sign a copy and send it on to:
Laura McCullough
703 Nacote Creek CT.
Galloway, New Jersey
Remember, time is of the essence since this event will be held on the 20th of September. Just one book per author, please.'

THE HAPPY FAMILY by Hans Christian Andersen

I am happy to report that like all literary giants Hans Christian Andersen felt compelled to write a story about SNAILS. THE HAPPY FAMILY is sadly not his best work but has some excellent touches. It is about the two great white snails who come from 'the most aristocratic race in the world...The forest had been planted for them, and the nobleman's castle had been built entirely that they might be...boiled till they became black, and then were laid on a silver dish'.

They adopt a 'little common snail' and the story is about their quest to find this snail a bride. Slugs ('black snails without houses') are given short shrift since they are 'so vulgar and conceited too', and in the end a little lady-snail is found, who shows her breeding by taking eight days to make the journey to the wedding. The young couple produce numerous progeny but as the 'young ones were never boiled or laid in silver dishes', they conclude that all the people in the world are dead and so the whole family are'entirely and perfectly happy'.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN exhibition at the British Library

I was supposed to be reading John Gardner’s highly recommended THE ART OF FICTION with its unnecessary subtitle NOTES ON CRAFT FOR YOUNG WRITERS in a crowded British Library yesterday but I couldn’t concentrate. So instead I wandered around the place until I accidentally came upon their exhibition on Hans Christian Andersen.

Paper sculpture has always fascinated me and here was an enormous paper swan, tens of metres long hovering over the exhibition with wings outstretched, suspended by fine cords - the whole structure articulated and moving slightly in the currents of air as people passed by. Underneath this magnificent bird was the story of Hans Christian Andersen laid out in pictures and editions of his books and paper cuts. There is a guide to the exhibition which sounds interesting but didn’t see, and the PDF format text of this - 'Hans Christian Andersen by Jackie Wullschlager' can be downloaded from here.

Like many of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the story of the Ugly Duckling was autobiographical. He came from a poor family who lived in one room in Odense, Denmark. One day an old woman told the young boy’s future. She said that one day his fame would be such that the city would be lit brightly in his honour and he said that his small family were much cheered by the prospect. Eventually Odense did light up for Hans Christian Anderson but that was only after many years of suffering. When Hans was just twelve his beloved father died, and when he was fourteen he left his despised alcoholic mother in Odense for Copenhagen to try and become a performer on the stage.

It is the small details that are the most poignant. He seems to have been of uncertain or ambiguous sexuality and when offered support by a wealthy family fell in love with both the young son and daughter of his patron. This was unrequited in both cases. When, years later, the ugly duckling asked the brother if he could use the familiar term of address that young swan refused. Social class seems to have been as important to the Danes then as it was to the British. He felt an outsider all of his life, unappreciated by his homeland, and with a compulsion to travel.

He told and retold his life in his fairy stories which were sold first as stories for children before becoming popular with adults too. Some were retelling of traditional tales and others were new - but all seem to have a special poignancy. Those lanterns in Odense must have seemed like a proclamation that the poor son of their city had at last become a beautiful swan - but I wonder if Hans Christian Andersen had ever believed that he was.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


Great excitement - my book 98 REASONS FOR BEING has actually been reviewed by a reader on Storycode(UK)/(US)

Alas, just ONE STAR which presumably means whoever read it would not recommend it to anyone. I had to search for some time for a book with a similarly low rating, eventually coming across an obscure book by one Chaucer, G. - an episodic type of novel about a disparate selection of people called CANTERBURY TALES. It will never catch on.

SHRIEK by Jeff Vandermeer

Over the last few days I have had the privilege of reading the manuscript of SHRIEK: AN AFTERWORD by Jeff Vandermeer. In fact I have done very little else. It is an unsettling, moving and thrilling book - dryly funny on one page and beautiful on the next. One Janice Shriek - an erstwhile artist's agent and gallery owner and sister of Duncan - has written a memoir. This has subsequently been found by her brother and it is the interaction of the siblings - through his annotation of her memoir - that forms the book. It is an unusual and highly effective form and I enjoyed it immensely.

Jeff Vandermeer has invented a city called Ambergris which is infected with a colony of fungal creatures called Gray Caps. The effect of this species on the city mirrors much in our own civilisation and Vandermeer uses them as effective analogy to pursue themes such as underclass, colonialism, and the belief and dogged pursuit of ideals. Vandermeer has invented religion, culture, history, wars and politics for his world (which has already been described in his anthology of short stories CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN(US)/(UK)). It has an appealing strangeness which adds to the pleasure derived from establishing connections and allegories.

The last part of the book was particularly moving at the moment because it deals with the destruction of a city. The descriptions are so fine and involving it was difficult to surface - and when I did it was to read accounts of the destruction of New Orleans on blogs and on news accounts. For a short time I found myself in a strange surreal world - both real and unreal at the same time.