The Forum at the Writers' Arms

Go to the forum at the Writers' Arms if you want to start a discussion on any topic that interests you, or if you want to comment on what other people have said.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Book Night in Fitzrovia

The North London Reading Group has launched Bookstock, its first literary evening, to be held at 7.30 tomorrow, 31 July, in the upstairs bar at the Blue Posts public house in Newman Street, Fitzrovia.

The group's website says the event, which has been widely announced in the capital's press, is almost sold out already, so if you are in London and fancy a night of books, poetry, comedy and the odd pint then book online now.

Fitzrovia - the area roughly north of Oxford Street and west of Tottenham Court Road - is famous for its association with writers of the thirties, but in fact the area has played host to such diverse writers over the decades as Thomas Paine, Virginia Woolf, Aleister Crowley, George Orwell and Ian McEwan as well as leading literary soaks including Paul Verlaine, Dylan Thomas and Julian MacLaren-Ross.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

UK literary festivals - August

Below are a list of literary festivals taking place in the UK in the coming month. If your festival is not on the list, let us know and we will add you.

Chapel Allerton, Leeds
30 August - 5 September 2010

In 2009, the Chapel Allerton Arts Festival included a mixture of live music, short films, dance and drama as well as stalls and food.

Contact: Pat Hunter
Regent House
15 Hawthorn Road
Tel: +44 (0)113 2371039

4 – 31 August 2010

Though not exclusively a literary festival, drama and poetry are included in more than 1,500 events taking place. Children's shows, comedy and revue, dance and physical theatre, music, musicals and opera, talks and visual art are also represented.

Contact: Owen O'Leary (Press and Marketing Officer)
180 High Street

Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh
14 – 27 August 2010

The Edinburgh International Book Festival describes itself as the largest celebration of books in the world. Without a doubt, there is a great deal to read, listen to, watch and do. Check out the website.

Contact: Amanda Barry (Marketing and PR Manager)
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Scottish Book Centre
137 Dundee Street
EH11 1BG
Tel: +44 (0)131 228 5444
Fax: +44 (0)131 228 4333

31 July - 7 August 2010

The Eisteddfod is the great celebration of Welsh culture in all its forms, a travelling festival taking place alternately in the north and the south of Wales. A great range of musical, literary, theatrical, artistic and sporting events, and more besides, are included.

Contact: Festival Organiser
National Eisteddfod of Wales
33 Bridge Street
NP20 4BH
Tel: +44 (0)845 120 9555/ Ticket Hotline: +44 (0)845 122 1176
Fax: +44 (0)1633 265 104

1001 books you might like to read

You may well have read or at least come across the literary reference book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Without getting too far into what sort of 'must' is being used in the title (presumably must meaning strongly advised rather than required), I'd like to put down a few thoughts about the book, or more specifically, the list in the book. The 'books' in the title, incidentally, refers to works of fiction.

Since the book appeared, there has inevitably been a fair amount of disagreement about what was on the list and what left off. In the healthily disputatious world of reading and writing, where ever serious reader has a shed full of opinions they are eager to share, such disagreement is about as inevitable as night following day.

One of the main criticisms of the list was that there were too many English language writers and some of these authors were over-represented. Perhaps to address this criticism, a new edition of the book has recently been brought out, still with 1001 titles, but with a different mix of novels. Some of the additions were published since the original edition, for example Ali Smith's The Accidental and Ngo Chimamanda's Half of a Yellow Sun. But the greatest number of additions are older books not written in English. Under Satan's Sun, written in French by Georges Bernanos and published in 1926, is now included. From Egypt comes Nawal al Sadaawi's Woman at Point Zero. And from Japan, there is Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki. Carlos Fuentes is now on the list, with his book, The Death of Artemio Cruz.

To accommodate these changes, other writers are now represented by fewer books; Charles Dickens has gone from 10 to 4, Graham Greene from 8 to 5, Ian McEwan from 8 to 3, Margaret Atwood from 6 to 3, and J M Coetzee from 10 to 5. Not that all this will end the arguments. Admirers of Dickens and McEwan will no doubt feel they've been done. And only one book from Carlos Fuentes? Where's the justice in that? And quite right, too. It's all an excellent source of pub discussion for those who don't greatly care whether England plays the 4-4-2 formation or who replaces Maradona, and especially for those who have no idea what 4-4-2 or Maradona are.

But does the inevitable disagreement reduce these lists to irrelevance? I don't think so. I've come across several books on them that I might not have found otherwise and they've prompted me to read people who I already knew about but had not got around to exploring.

Incidentally, the writer of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a professor at Sussex University. In today's Guardian Gabriel Josipovici, also a professor at Sussex and formerly a professor of comparative literature at Oxford, is reported to have said many of the most prominent contemporary British writers - the likes of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie - are unworthy of their prominence and virtually indistinguishable. Josipovici seems not be a fan of creative writing masters programmes either. Perhaps he could be persuaded to give us his list of novels not to be missed.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The TV Book Club - Stone's Fall

Episode five of the current series of Channel 4's The TV Book Club focused on Iain Pears' novel Stone's Fall, published by Jonathan Cape in 2009.

Iain Pears, author of a dozen books, has also worked as a journalist and art historian. He is the author of the series of detective novels featuring the adventures of art historian Jonathan Argyll.

Stone's Fall begins as a detective story in the London of 1909, when a journalist, Matthew Braddock, is paid to investigate the bequest to a child by John Stone, whose death from a fall in St James's Square, London opens the narrative. The second part of the novel moves back in time to Paris in 1890, and the third part to Venice in 1867. With successive shifts in time, each with a different narrator, more of the mystery generated by Stone's death is explained.

The book's narrative thrust and the complexity of the plotting found favour with the TV Book Club's commentators, as did the deliniation of the characters. Reviews in the press have also been generally very positive. If you have read Stone's Fall or any other of Iain Pears' books, why not post a comment below?

Just a closing thought. How would you compare the crime fiction of Iain Pears - an art historian - with the detective fiction of Fred Vargas, the French historian and archaeologist?

Episode five of the TV Book Club can, at the time of writing, be watched on Channel 4's website.

Patrick Eden wins the CWA Debut Dagger for 2010

Patrick Eden has won this year's Debut Dagger, awarded by the Crime Writers' Association for his novel, A Place of Dying. The novel is described as an atmospheric noir tale. The Debut Dagger is open only to authors who have yet to have a novel commercially published. However, the prize often attracts the attention of publishers and we can hope to see Patrick Eden's book in bookshops at some time in the future.

Sandra Graham was also highly commended for her novel, Case No. 1.

The judges' decision was announced at this year's Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate on 23 July. See my post on 15 July for more information about the festival.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Tindal Street Press, publishers of Beauty, and their advice on short story writing

The other day, I was looking at the webpage for Beauty, Raphael Selbourne's first novel (and also the winner of Costa's first novel award). This book is yet another example of the fine writing that comes out of the independent publishing houses, in this case Tindal Street Press.

Beauty is the story of a twenty-year-old woman of Bangladeshi ethnic origins who returns to the UK, having fled an abusive arranged marriage. The encounters she makes with life and work outside her own commmunity (in particular with a friendly, Staffordshire Bull Terrier-breeding ex-offender and a middle-class underachiever) bring her to examine her life and her family responsibilities. The quality of the writing and the depiction of contemporary Britain has won the book praise from Maggie Gee and newspaper reviewers.

The book is also interesting in that it appears to go against the recent convention that novelists should not attempt to write about main characters outside of their own culture. That has always seemed a debilitating and silly bit of self-censorship to me. Surely it would depend on what is written in each case, rather than some bossy general principle. And in any case, is the quality of a genuinely multi-cultural society that no one ever says anything about anyone else in case they tread on someone's toes, or is such a society one where people (including writers) genuinely try to understand and interact with the people living around them? Nor, of course, do we place the same restriction on foreign correspondents, film makers or soup opera writers.

While I was on the Tindal Street site, I came across their series, the Short Story Challenge Master Class. The ten essays, originally published in the Birmingham Post, offer the advice of some Tindal Street authors on short stories and how to write them. If you haven't come across them before, why not check them out? The page also has links to the Tindal Street Press's submissions procedures.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The TV Book Club - The Bed I Made

Lucie Whitehouse's The Bed I Made was the subject of this week's episode of The TV Book Club on Channel 4.

From the beginning of the book, it is clear that the main character, Kate, is on the run, though from what we do not at first know. Kate, a lonely woman living in London, has met and been taken in by Richard, a man whose confidence and glamour conceals something very dark. What follows explores the development of an abusive relationship.

The building unease created by the narrative means that this is more than simply a relationship story and involves, as the author herself says, a thriller element. The Isle of Wight, where she had before been happy and to which she now escapes, becomes a prison and where Kate, isolated and vulnerable, has to deal with the situation that she has got herself into.

You can view the episode at the programme's website. Should you wish to participate on air in a future programme, you might be interested to learn that Channel 4 is looking for reading groups who would like to feature in the next series of The TV Book Club. To find out more about how to apply, click here.

The Bed I Made is Lucie Whitehouse's second published novel and is published by Bloomsbury. To read more about what inspired the author to write The Bed I Made, click here.

If you would like to add your views about The Bed I Made, why not post a comment below?

Allan Guthrie's Savage Night, from Polygon

If the economic mess we're in  has one benefit, I suppose it's that there are some great bargains about (if you have the spare cash to pay for them). This certainly extends to bookshops. I hate to think what these cut-price deals are doing to authors' incomes, but at least these incentives are getting people to buy books. I came across an extreme example of this when I went into a branch of British Bookshops a couple of weeks ago.

As I was casting my eye along the shelves, I noticed the Polygon label on the spine of a book. Polygon is one of the independent publishers that I wrote admiringly about a few weeks ago. The independents often bring out interesting books that, I suppose, don't fit the profiles that the big publishers work to. So I pulled the book from the shelf.

It was Allan Guthrie's Savage Night. It is Guthrie's fourth novel, and like the others is a crime novel of the hardboiled variety. There are no gentle lady gardeners in hot pursuit of erring butlers through the cucumber-sandwich-strewn gazibo here. This is a story of revenge between hard core Edinburgh villains, and instead of cucumber sandwiches there is blood and body parts.

The narrative writhes and surprises, tracking back and forth in time and between the various protagonists. The writing is both vivid in its description of the bloodletting and also at times very funny. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I wasn't surprised to find that brilliant writers such as Ian Rankin and Val MacDermid are fans of Guthrie's writing. If you come across Savage Night I would whole-heartedly recommend it to you.

Incidentally, when I came across the book in bookshop, it had been marked down from £8.99 to £7.99, and then further reduced to £3. But when I got to the till, the cashier told me it was now only £1. Which is a bargain, of course, but how can that even pay for the paper and the delivery costs? You can imagine how little money I put in Allan Guthrie's pocket in exchange for his very gripping story. But if someone reads this post and buys a copy, I'll feel that I've done something to repay him!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate

Four days of crime in the charming Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate awaits those with a propensity for that sort of thing. From 22 to 25 July, some of the biggest names in crime fiction - too many in fact to single any out here - will be participating in the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Check out the website for its extensive list of events. Check out the prices, too. The winner will also be announced of the competition for Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, for which the votes of readers are still being sought. Vote here.

For those that practice the gentle art of literary murder, two events stand out. One is Creative Thursday when, from 9.00am to 5.30pm at the Crown Hotel, workshops and a Q & A session allow crime writers to hone their skills. There is also a chance for writers to present their ideas to a panel of literary agents and editors in a two-minute pitch, in a session they call The Dragons' Pen (geddittt!). Finally, the winner of the alibi Search for a New Crime Writer Competition will be announced at a reception that is invitation-only, but for which invitations can be had by booking a Creative Thursday place. Check out the website for details.

The other event of particular interest to writers is The Crime Writers Association Dagger Awards to be held, also at the Crown Hotel, on Friday at 6.00pm. Among their many awards, the Debut Dagger provides another opportunity for an emerging crime writer to gain the attention of publishers and agents. It runs every year. Submissions for this year's prize closed in February and the winner will be announced at Harrogate. But that doesn't mean you can't apply for next year. Don't forget to sign up for their news letter. (I sent in a submission a couple of years back though they haven't got back to me yet. But as we all know, dealing with rejection is just part of the fun of writing.)

Harrogate, of course, has a bit of form itself. After Agatha Christie famously disappeared in December 1926, it was at the Swan Hotel in Harrogate that she was spotted by one of the hotel's banjo players, where she had checked in under the assumed name of Mrs Teresa Neele from Cape Town. And in 2007, treasure hunters found a hoard of loot hidden near the town by the Vikings in the 10th century, product of their notorious and nefarious goings on.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Writing your own movie

A couple of years ago, I did an excellent course in screenplay writing at Birkbeck College, London University. It lasted about six months, was conducted online and resulted in each of us in the group producing our own screenplay for a ten-minute film. It was a marvellous experience and taught me things about writing that go far beyond cinema.

As you might imagine, writing a screenplay and getting your screenplay turned into a movie - even a ten-minute one - are not at all the same thing. But it seems life may be slightly easier for the budding screenwriter than for, say, the budding director. Loads of film school students want to be the next Scorsese or Jackson or Zeffirelli, and a whole load more want to be the next Jolie or diCaprio or Gambon, but hardly anyone - we were told - wants to be the next, well the next instantly recognisable, world famous screen writer. Writing screenplays for movies, it would seem, is like making the sandwiches for your national football team. It lacks the glamour factor. Which makes it an opportunity.

If you're interested in exploring screenplay, you could do a great deal worse than by reading Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which is a very accessible classic of this type of writing. And just to get you started, here are ten tips from The Times.

Competitions and prizes are not what writing is all about, but they can at least help get people noticed. There is a ready supply of short film competitions that call for the skills of the screen writer. Many can be found on the Internet. Here is a small selection of them.
2 Days Later Short Film Competition
The End of the Pier International Film Festival
The Canadian Short Screenplay Competition

If you want to let us know about any others, write a comment below.

The Song of Lunch

The most unexpected bit of information for me to come from last Thursday's poetry reading at Oxfam Marylebone (see my post on 12 July) was that filming is underway of Christopher Reid's narrative poem, The Song of Lunch. Novels, plays, comic books, even operas sometimes provide inspiration for the movie industry, but poetry hardly ever. The dramatisation, being made by the BBC to mark National Poetry Day on 7 October, stars Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.

The Song of Lunch tells the story of a disgruntled London book editor and failed writer who has arranged to meet up with a former girlfriend, now living a glamorous life in Paris. He has chosen the Soho restaurant which, 15 years before, they used to frequent. Will things develop as he hopes?

Christopher Reid won last year's Costa prizes for best poetry book and also the overall best book for A Scattering, the very moving account of his wife's death.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The TV Book Club - The Legacy

Episode 3 of The TV Book Club on Channel 4 discussed Katherine Webb's debut novel, The Legacy, a story entwining the lives of two women from the same family born too far apart in time ever to have met but still powerfully connected by actions and their consequences. The book moves between Oklahoma in the 1900s to a manor house in present-day Wiltshire and explores how the effects of decisions and actions across the generations. The writer, Katherine Webb, in an interview for the programme says, "If something goes wrong, you need to deal with it, not run away from it. If you run away from it, it will come after you." This episode of The TV Book Club can be viewed on the programme's website.

While still writing her book, Katherine Webb posted the opening chapters on the peer review website,, and it was very positive comments by readers there that caught the publisher's attention. To find out more about the website, go here.

The Legacy is published by Orion. You can watch a video clip of Katherine Webb talking about her book by clicking here.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Poetry evening at Oxfam Marylebone

Oxfam's Marylebone High Street shop last Thursday evening hosted a poetry reading event, one of many events in this year's Oxfam Bookfest, which I mentioned in a post on 26 June.

With scarcely an empty chair in the shop and softened up by a glass or two of wine and the summery evening heat, we heard readings by eight very different English-language poets from around the world. The name given to the event was 'Christopher Reid and Guests' and I suppose the best-known of the poets was Christopher Reid himself, the winner of last year Costa's best poetry book award as well as their overall Best Book of the Year for A Scattering, a collection of poems dealing with his loss of his wife to cancer. But each of the poets brought something different to an evening of considerable variety and energy, with poems that explored miso soup, the French Revolution, Thesalonius Monk and a great deal more besides.

Rather than try to do justice to each writer, I've decided to give you the opportunity to read more about these poets and enjoy a little of their work by clicking on their names in this list:

Christopher Horton
Rachel Lehrman
Declan Ryan
Kelina Gotman
Sam Riviere
John Menaghan
Paul Perry
Christopher Reid 

It was a fine evening, and I hope Oxfam managed to raise some cash from it. Another poetry evening, Days of Roses, is taking place at Oxfam Marylebone tomorrow evening. For news of other events in the Oxfam Bookfest 2010, which runs until 17 July, click here.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The travel writer in you

In a former life, I used to be an English teacher. It was a career that took me to many countries both for jobs and for travel. Among the people who live this sort of life, it is not unusual to find some who have supplemented the often modest income of a teacher with a bit of travel writing. In fact, I know a few who have made the switch from English language teaching into a regular writing career.

For those who regard the writing as a sideline, this might involve producing travel articles for business magazines, furnishing information on hotels and restaurants plus a bit of historical background. For those with the skill and the equipment, it's possible to upload pictures to commercial photo libraries. I think the worst project I ever got involved in was proofreading (which really meant rewriting) a city guide aimed at business travellers to a certain city in the western Mediterranean area. One of those guides that has loads of information about mean average rainfall and height above sea level and a random selection of uninteresting restaurants and none of the useful stuff like how to get from the airport or where you can change money. I doubt it was ever useful to anyone. Still, they paid me.

The travel industry is of course big business, even in these recessive times, and with that comes a demand for travel writing. From travellers' accounts of their journeys to guide books to magazines to novels set around travel, getting away and how to do it seems to be one of the obsessions of our time. This would seem to be an area where there's bound to be an opening for the freelance writer. There are workshops and courses offering guidance in travel writing. There are travel writing websites. And of course there are prizes. (Does anybody know of an area of writing that doesn't yet have a prize?) 

What is your experience of all this? How receptive have you found publishers, magazines and newspapers to be to your ideas? How would you describe the travel writing you have done, or any courses you have attended? Why not post a comment below?

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Arthur E Copping, novelist

A couple of summers ago, I was browsing through the novels at Foyles here in London when I came across a little stand displaying a few books from their secondhand department. There was a small red Nelson Library hardback among them. These little books, published early in the twentieth century, always catch my eye, and I picked it up. It was Gotty and the Guv'nor by Arthur E. Copping.

I bought it and read it almost immediately. It's a lovely little book: funny, cheerful and mildly adventurous, the story of a man of modest private means, a fisherman - Gotty - from the Thames estuary and their ill-advised jaunt along the south coast of England in a small sailing boat. Published in 1907, it's of the same time and chraracter as W.W.Jacobs and perhaps George Birmingham's Spanish Gold. I suppose it is the charm of it that stayed with me, and so I recently tried to find out more about this writer of light comedy.

Arthur Edward Copping was born in Middlesex in 1865, the son of Rosa and Edward Copping, a journalist and author. They were, it seems, well-to-do but not rich. Sadly, Rosa died by the time Arthur was 15. There were five children of the marriage, and they lived - along with two unmarried sisters of Rosa's and a single servant - at 18 Lady Somerset Road, Camden. One of Arthur's brothers, Harold, was to become a book illustrator and he was later to provide pictures for several of Arthur's books, though not for Gotty and The Guv'nor, Arthur's first book. Gotty in Furrin Parts followed in 1908, but is now much harder to come by.

Arthur Copping's next book in 1910, Jolly in Germany, was in a similar vein, a light-hearted tale of an Englishman's holiday in Germany. However, before he began his (short) career as a comic novelist, Copping had already established himself as a journalist writing on social issues and poverty in London for the Daily News. In 1910, he set off for Canada to explore the social conditions there. Three books followed, The Golden Land: the true story and experiences of settlers in Canada (1911), Canada: today and tomorrow (1911) and Smithers: a true story of private imperialism (1913). The last of these described the experience of a Barnado's boy who emigrated to Canada.

Copping's view of the British Empire may seem rather unquestioning now, but his interest - as the last book illustrates - is on the endeavour and suffering of the little man, not the arrogance and exploitation of the great imperialists. In fact, Copping was deeply religious and it was through the practical, non-conformist Christianity of the Salvation Army that he saw the world. In 1911, the Religious Tract Society published his book, A Journalist in the Holy Land: Glimpses of Egypt and Palestine, this time illustrated by his brother, Harold.

"The Salvationist's accustomed daily tasks," wrote Arthur Copping, "lie largely among the fallen, the criminal, the suffering and the wretched, whom he or she succors in a spirit of compassionate love." In his view, the success of the Salvation Army lay in "the simple, thorough-going, uncompromising, seven-days-a-week character of its Christianity."

When the First World War started, Arthur Copping - now 49 years old - put his Salvationist principles into practice. With the support of the Salvation Army's General Booth and the War Office, Copping worked along side ordinary British soldiers. During the war, he was attached to several battalions as a non-combatant Salvation Army officer and witnessed at first hand the suffering and the bloodshed in the front line. He described his experiences in Souls in Khaki: being a personal investigation into the spiritual experiences and sources of heroism (Hodder and Stoughton, 1917).

The year in which this book published was also the year of revolution in Russia. From 1918 to 1920, Arthur Copping (now well into his fifties) was the Russia correspondent for the London Daily Chronicle, the first British journalist to report from the new Soviet Union. Some of these stories, which were syndicated around the world, can still be read in the New York Times archive. His opinions may now seem naive, but there was a resloute optimism to Copping, however you may interpret that cast of mind.

During the twenties and thirties, Copping produced two more books on a Salvationist theme, Stories of Army Trophies (stories of Salvation Army conversions) and Banners in Africa. You can no doubt guess the theme of this last title; a review of the Salvation Army's activities in the continent. But this was not done from the comfort of his armchair. Now in his sixties, Copping toured Africa, visiting what was then called the Gold Coast, Rhodesia, Portuguese East Africa, the Zambesi and the Congo. Needless to say, this was before the comforts of air-conditioning and jet aircraft.

Arthur Copping married Annie Knaggs, born in the same year as him and also from Camden, in 1889 at St Paul's Chapel, Kentish Town. Sadly, she was to die aged 38 in 1903. Arthur's brother Harold died in 1932. Arthur died in Salisbury in the summer of 1941, aged 75.

His religious views may not be very fashionable now, and Gotty describes a very different class-divided society than our own. But it seems to me that middle-class Arthur Copping was gentle-hearted and benevolent rather than - terrible contemporary sin - patronising. Nor was he afraid to experience some of the worst things of his age. If you come across a copy of Gotty and the Guv'nor, I would encourage you to pick it up and take a short holiday on the Thames estuary circa 1907.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Olufemi Terry wins the Caine Prize

Sierra Leonean writer Olufemi Terry has won this year's Caine Prize for his story, 'Stickfighting Days." The story was described by Fiammetta Rocco, one of the judges of the prize, as presenting "a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception." He has lived in many parts of Africa as well as the UK and the US. He is currently living in South Africa and working on a novel. He has also worked as a journalist.

You can read 'Stickfighting Days' at the Caine Prize website. The other stories on the short list can be read here. The Caine Prize for African Writing was first awarded in 2000 and is regarded as one of Africa's most important literary prizes.

The TV Book Club - The Man Who Disappeared

This week's edition of The TV Book Club on Channel 4 looked at Clare Morrall's novel The Man Who Disappeared, the story of how the wife, Kate, and children of loving family man and successful accountant, Felix Kendall, deal with his disappearance following allegations of money laundering.

One of the panel, Stephen Tompkinson, asked whether, when the people who caused the economic crisis we are all suffering have gone unpunished, it is easy to have much sympathy for a dodgy accountant: an interesting point. It might in any case be tempting to heep blame on Felix's head for running off and undermining the family's way of life. In the interview segment, however, author Clare Morrall discourages the rush to vituperation: "Perhaps one can't be quite as judgemental as one would like to be. Things are never as black and white as they seem."  

The book raises many questions, not least those which in previous decades might have been derided as bourgeois. What would I do if the money dried up? How would I manage without his (or her) salary? What if we lost the house? Clare Morrall is refreshingly positive on these points; people survive, families adjust, life goes on.

More deeply, the book also provokes us to wonder how well we know those closest to us. Felix is not, after all, the man that Kate imagined him to be. In the view of one of the members of the Swanage reading circle featured in the programme, The Man Who Disappeared is a good summer read: not an easy one, but thought provoking. What do you think?

The programme can still be viewed at Channel 4's website.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Skeletons, written and directed by Nick Whitfield

Last Friday, we went to the London premiere of Skeletons at the Renoir, Bloomsbury. This comedy of the paranormal is Nick Whitfield's first full-length film as writer and director, yet still won the Michael Powell Award for the Best New British Feature Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Small budget movie that it is, the lovely summer evening was splendidly undisturbed by stretched limos and hired muscle with the bits of wire coming out of their earholes. In fact, as the 6.20 start approached, the people who made the film were if anything less dressed up than the other clumps of people, many of whom after all had come straight from work.

The actors, with the exception of Jason Isaacs (the less-than-loveable Lucius Malfoy of Harry Potter fame and here playing the Colonel), are not as well known as they should be and, with luck and justice on their side, their very funny performances in this movie should bring them to greater prominence. As in Harry Potter, Skeletons takes place in a world similar to but significantly different from most people's experience of modern Britain. Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley are psychic employees of a company that exorcises the skeletons in people's closets, largely - in the part that we see - in the Derbyshire area.

The first part of the film, establishing this world, finds ample opportunity for humour in the worries and bureaucratic routine of the main characters, agents of the paranormal drudging away in the seemy world of private detectives. As the Colonel at one point remarks, "I've got a couple of Saxe-Coburgs next week. Imagine the filth!"

But an out-of-the-ordinary job takes these two and the film into darker, deeper areas of loss. While the humour and the exploration of this paranormal parallel world continue, the story becomes richer and more thoughtful. One of the closing credits may explain why Nick Whitfield was prompted in this direction.

The audience at the Renoir, like the jury in Edinburgh, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the film and I would urge you to see it if you have the chance. It surely deserves a greater exposure than the screening page on the film's website currently advertise. But don't take my word for it; here's what the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph thought of it.   

Friday, 2 July 2010

London Literature Festival 1 - 18 July 2010

For those who can make it to London over the next couple of weeks, there is a lot - really a lot - to do at the London Literature Festival, which opened yesterday and goes on to 18 July. The range of the festival extends from the death throws of capitalism to the perfectibility of the human body, from parallel universes to poetry, from novels to neuroscience, plus Brazillian football, Congolese music and the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and that's not the half of it. Some are free and some are not.

Arvon Poetry Prize 2010

A reminder of another prize, this one for poetry, should you wish to enter. Entries are being sought to this year's Arvon International Poetry Competition. The biennial competition was first held in 1980, founded by one future Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, and won in that year by his successor, Andrew Motion, for his poem The Letter. In addition to the competition, the Arvon Foundation runs courses in many areas of writing. 

This year, the judges are Carol Ann Duffy (in the chair), Elaine Feinstein and Sudeep Sen. Entries must be made by 5pm on 16 August, for which the fee is £7 per poem. Check the competition website for details.

Barbara Demick wins the Samuel Johnson Prize 2010

Barbara Demick's book, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, has been awarded this year's Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. The book reveals what life is like for the people in this grotesque state by exploring the stories of six ordinary North Koreans living in Chongin, the country's third largest city. Everyone by now has heard of the absurdities of the political regime, which would be comical were it not for the horror of the people's everyday lives and the danger of the government's nuclear weapons programme.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea is published by Granta.

Click here to watch an interview with Barbara Demick on YouTube.

Answers to Quiz Night at the Writers' Arms held last Friday 25 June

The responce to last Friday's quiz could best be described as modest in the extreme. I forget which of Samuel Beckett's plays has the stage direction that a door should be imperceptibly open, which is to say closed. Replies to our quiz were, I'm afraid, similarly imperceptible, and as a result the highly desirable prize - a Penguin paperback of Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is Laid - will be returning to its normal place, the pile of books between the TV and the lawnmover.

Here, however, for the sake of those interested and the illumination of future generations, are the answers.

1 - A Christmas Carol.
2 - Octavo is the largest.
3 - Eyind Johnson, author and member of the Nobel prize panel, won the prize in 1974. The others were found not to be quite up to scratch.
4 - Winchester Cathedral.
5 - The Midnight Bell, from Patrick Hamilton's novel of the same name.
6 - Finca Vigia. 'Finca' is 'farm' in English and 'vigia' means something along the lines of 'lookout', which name derives from the fact that Hemingway's place is on a hilltop.
7 - On Beauty by Zadie Smith, author of The Autograph Man in the question.
8 - Palmers Green. The poet was Stevie Smith.
9 - Pier Paulo Pasolini: Il Decameron (1971), I Racconti di Canterbury (1972), Il Fiore delle Mille e una Notte (1974).
10 - 'A', Edgar Allen Poe, was born first, on 19 January 1809. Next was 'C', Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born 14 June 1811. Last to be born was 'B', Emily Bronte, who was born on 30 July 1818.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The TV Book Club returns with The Help

The TV Book Club on Channel 4 launched a new series on Sunday 27 June. Among other things - this episode looked at the electronic alternative to the traditional book - each episode will discuss a particular book. Not only do the panel of contributors say what they've made of the week's book, but also the views of A Celebrity are sought as well as those of book clubs around the country.

The book of the first episode was Kathryn Stockett's The Help the story of three women on either side of the racial divide but with intersecting lives in sixties Jackson, Mississippi at the time of the civil rights movement. As the author reveals in interview, there is an autobiographical element to the book, and some of the contributors were initially somewhat uneasy about the assumption of the author, a well-to-do white woman, that she could present the viewpoint of a black maid. Nevertheless, the other qualities of the book - the characters, the story-telling, the humour, the musicality of the dialogue - convincingly won over Jo Brand and the rest of the panel.

 If you didn't get to see this first programme of the series, it can still be viewed at the time of writing at the Channel 4 website.

If you'd like to share your thoughts on The Help or the programme, put them in the comments box below.