Wolsey Writers workshop starts this Sat 19 Sep at New Wolsey Theatre, 10am, £13.50. More details here and a clue below about our first theme . . .
I’m running a “Meditations on Art” course for Ipswich Institute members: Tuesdays, 22 Sep – 1 Dec, 6.30pm. Here’s a link for more details and a little preview slide of what we’re going to discuss in week 1.
The winner of the New Angle Prize is the fabulous Kate Worsley for “She Rises”; the runner-up is the splendid Ronald Blythe for “The Time By the Sea”. Here are the notes from the judges’ speeches last night because we really did love all six titles. An honour to have been part of this, thank you to the organisers and sponsors. K x
Being here with you all this evening is a real pleasure and I mean that.
As a writer of fiction, I’m usually to be found on my own, in my pyjamas, struggling with a paragraph I can’t make work; usually, I’m talking myself into carrying on or thinking of reasons to give up; usually, my existential crisis is interrupted by the cat pestering me to be fed again. So having dinner in the company of actual, breathing people, as opposed to imaginary ones, is a treat for me.
[To reiterate] I’m giving the first set of judges’ feedback; Carol will give the second set; it’s alphabetical by surname, so there are no clues as to the outcome.
But I cannot think of this as feedback, as such, when it’s simply doing one of my favourite things: talking about books I love. Furthermore, it’s a privilege being allowed to share my thoughts with other authors.
And it is to you, my writing brothers and sisters, that I now speak. We writers are solitary beings and yet we have a shared experience. And while I’d prefer to do this in a more intimate setting, I respect you too much to tell you anything other than the truth. In fact, this could work a whole lot better for me, if everybody else wasn’t here.
So if you’re one of the people who is not shortlisted for the New Angle Prize this evening, please feel free to tune out for the next 5 minutes; you can use this time to finish your bread rolls, check your phones, whatever you like . . .
Ronald, Mark, Esther, Jason, Alex and Kate . . . Let’s pretend it’s just us for now, okay? Good.
Ronald Blythe, your memoir, “The Time by the Sea.” Here we meet the likes of Benjamin Britten, E.M. Forster, Imogen Holst, musicians, painters, poets. You show us a familiar Aldeburgh, Aldeburgh as we know it now, but also an Aldeburgh lost to us – and that exists only as memory. And Ronald, you are qualified like no other person to write on this subject. It’s fair to say that of all the writers we read this year, you know Suffolk the best. You shared with us a moment from your history, took us to the heart of this artistic community. However, it is difficult for me personally to remark on your work without sounding glib, for you have done so much and I have done so little. If I tell you that you write beautiful prose, Ronald, I know you’ve heard it before. If I tell you that I aspire to a career like yours, that risks sounding ludicrous because the real world will never allow it. So let me tell you this instead: when I read your book, it made me feel that I should try harder to write well.
Mark Cocker, “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet,” which are journals of your walks, mainly around a Norfolk village. This is a celebration of the natural world from the microscopic to the charismatic, but it isn’t an ordinary, sciencey book, is it? We readers feel that yours is an inclusive point of view. Your ears are better than ours, more attuned to birdsong, to the whispers of seasons as they come and go; your eyes see details in creepy-crawlies, and in the soil under our feet, we simply would not notice if you didn’t show them to us. For me personally, Mark, your writing is a mixture of the consolations of mindfulness – with an underscore of anxiety, because you make us aware how fragile the natural world is – without resorting to shrill clichés. On the contrary, you use precise description to inspire wonder in us. I could see the slickness of an otter as it dove beneath the surface, or the mumuration of starlings as it switched direction – I could see this movement exactly as you saw it and that’s an astonishing achievement.
Esther Freud, your novel, “Mr Mac and Me.” You tell your story through a boy called Thomas, about the arrival Charles Rennie Macintosh (the Scottish artist and architect) in a small village. Your novel explores what it means to be an artist living in harsh times and the paranoia of impending war. At its heart is this friendship between Thomas and Mac, two people who don’t fit in, which you never lose sight of. Well, Esther, we readers were gripped from the start. The way you evoke the voices of Suffolk, the landscape of Suffolk, is authentic. Stylistically, your writing has a sparse quality. And I have a personal attachment to your book, because I also wrote what might be called an ‘art history novel’. I wonder, if you’ve ever been asked how appropriate it is to fictionalise the life of a real artist, somebody who lived and left work to know them by? I find this an awkward question, but the next time somebody asks me, I have a good answer for them: your novel is how to do right.
I love all three of these books, and the three more Carol will comment on later.
And the books we love are strange creatures, aren’t they? For isn’t it the case that they appear to us, whole and fully-formed, as if out of thin air? This is fantasy, of course. A finished book is the outcome of hard work, of inordinate effort and failed attempts. Nothing kills the romance of being a professional writer, like being a professional writer – and nobody knows this better than we do.
To my brothers and sisters, I say . . . Your job is to make the writing look easy and this is how your readers love you best . . . But I know it isn’t. I know you’ve had difficult days, that you have doubts, that you spent hours on pages and chapters which have never made it to print. And you’ve heard the word ‘no’ on more occasions than you care to remember.
Let me take this moment to remind you that you survived the dark times. Out of these pains, you created magnificent work and you shall again.
Ronald, Mark, Esther, Jason, Alex and Kate, please accept this in the spirit it is intended: We praise your effort. We celebrate your achievement. We’re so lucky to have read your book and we feel as if you wrote it for us.
I’m not here to give you feedback, I simply wish to tell you something true: I believe in you. And even if you work in solitude, with the uncertainty, and the emails, and the social media, and the criticism, and the cat pestering you for cat food – whatever else gets in the way, you are not alone – there are others who understand.
So in the years to come, on good days and bad days, please, please keep writing. Keep writing. I’m looking forward to what you do next.
And, thank you.
Jason Hewitt: The Dynamite Room
Fic: Debut novel.
Alternative history based on rumours of thwarted German landings on the Suffolk coast during WWII. 11-year-old Lydia is taken hostage by a Nazi soldier, Heiden. The narrative concerns the claustrophobic dynamic in this remote cottage: POV switches between hers and his. Both have reason to be afraid of one another, and dependent on each other for survival. Both try to probe the other for information: very psychological. It reminded Katie of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; and The Separation by Christopher Priest. I thought it was a great idea of fictionalizing a real event. At times it was necessary to suspend my disbelief, but I did tha gladly because I was so caught up in the story. I also think it would make a cracking film!
Alex Monroe: Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things
Alex Monroe is a jewellery designer and his most famous work is perhaps the bumblebee necklaces. My daughter has one, and I think I’ve seen Fiona Bruce reading the news in one too! Alex grew up in Suffolk in the 70s: and we join his memories of building go-carts and going boating with his brother. It’s quite a sensory experience of these places. Likewise he writes with real honesty about designing and making his designs, cutting the first bumblebee out of the metal, how it takes shape, how it can go wrong. We liked how the bee emerged from the natural material, it was somehow about bringing nature to life. A great sense of place naturally, and just having had a family holiday in Suffolk, I’m really rather taken with the county. Mention the wasp man!
Kate Worsley: She Rises
Another debut novel, this time beginning in Harwich.
Louise Fletcher is appointed as a ladies’ maid to Rebecca, the daughter of a wealthy sea captain. Rebecca is vain, spiteful, beautiful . . . How will Louise cope in this house, working for someone so impossible? While she’s there, Louise’s mother wants her to search for Luke – the brother who has been lost at sea.
We then have Luke’s point of view, this poor boy being press-ganged into His Majesty’s Navy. Luke is the one who is in peril. He might not survive the brutality of life on board a warship, with these violent sailors, storms, fist-fights and all that goes with such a hard life at sea.
There’s a twist in the tale – and all I’ll say is … actually I’m not going to say that. But Sarah Waters gives a jacket quote, “Immensely Enjoyable” and her endorsement is apt. I didn’t want to finish this book, and I very much liked the tone of the voices, which I found wholly authentic.
Let me tell you that right now it is 10:14pm on Monday, 8 June 2015, and I’ve just walked home from Ipswich town centre on my own. What’s more I felt safe and was safe. I’m not advocating that women walking alone at night in urban areas is a good idea and depending on how late and dark it is I’m more likely to get a lift. But it’s important to state that I feel safe this evening in Ipswich, the town I’ve called home for 12 years.
Tonight I saw a special preview of London Road, the film adaptation of the stage musical and this technically is a review so here are a few details: the screenplay and lyrics are by Alecky Blythe and the composer is Adam Cork. The director is Rufus Norris. All the words in the theatre show – now immortalised – are ‘verbatim’ performances, speech taken from recorded interviews with real people, set to music and shaped into narrative. London Road offers a perspective on how the murders of five young women in the winter of 2006 numbed and horrified a community. Like a lot of Ipswich people, I have a vivid recollection of events unfolding at the time. Seeing this film brought back emotions and details I’ve forgotten. I didn’t want to see the show when it was on at the National Theatre in 2011, no matter how good it was, because it felt too soon for me and so I can only comment on the screen version.
Here are my thoughts. The work is sensitive and honest. The cinematography is stylised with a muted colour pallet like Nordic Noir and shot (thankfully) in another location. You can tell that it’s based on theatre and the transition isn’t seamless, but credit for staying true to a vision, plus, you have to admire anybody who succeeds with an original musical in this day and age. The performances, including those by Olivia Colman, Tom Hardy and Anita Dobson, are top-notch. The presentation of Ipswich people is slightly skewed towards ‘yokel’ and a little insulting. Of all the things the movie might’ve got wrong, the inclusion of a football supporter wearing a red scarf was the biggest clanger of all. (Red? Really? Unbelievable.) And yet some of the interpretations of real people were so brilliant we knew immediately who they were. Councillor Carole Jones, played by Claire Moore, is as fab-oo-luss as she is in life.
A personal aspect
Since being published in 2011 I have avoided at all costs mentioning that I was involved in local partnership work to address street prostitution before, during and after December 2006. My author biography in print and online mentions jobs in the public and charity sectors, working for a member of parliament and at a women’s refuge. However I didn’t want to draw attention to such a recent, dark episode in our town, nor in any way to be misconstrued as benefitting from it while I had a book to promote. The unfortunate truth is that for many people – outside of lovely Suffolk – Ipswich reminds them of the murder of those girls. While the memory was still fresh it’s all they wanted to talk about. When it was happening here it’s all we could talk about too. It was dreadful.
Is a decade is a long time? Long enough, I hope.
Sumac: the five murders
Just to be clear there are no inside scoops here. I was very junior, my job description was a mishmash of objectives set by different agencies temporarily funding my post and I don’t believe I made a tangible difference to anyone connected with Operation Sumac (the case name after the five victims were linked) nor to those at risk of street prostitution, the way Iceni, Suffolk Constabulary and local community leaders did for example. I didn’t have the skills or influence. I was on a steering group but arguably I was meat in the room.
Some things I recall distinctly.
The underwhelming response by local agencies to street prostitution before Sumac. The issue was entrenched and there weren’t many resources to address it. This was not from lack of sympathy, it was simply that other issues had higher priority and so harm reduction and enforcement stayed at low level.
I remember being told in the meeting that 19-year-old Tania Nicol was reported missing and how our colleague hunched over when he said this.
I remember hearing that Gemma Adams, aged 25, was missing and the feeling of creep. The national press hadn’t caught on yet, but they were about to.
CCTV footage of Anneli Alderton, 24, on the train from Colchester was released following her disappearance. You may remember it also, she was the girl checking her hair in the train window reflection.
I remember being in a room with police officers who keep their radios on at all times, even while their drinking their tea, a burr of signals and information in the background so constant you stop hearing it; I remember the chatter fell silent as news came through that another body had been found and then, moments later, another. Annette Nicholls, 29, and Paula Clennell, 24, had been discovered in close proximity to one another.
As a town we were used to being ignored because Ipswich isn’t sexy. Now the world’s media descended upon us and gave a view in every editorial. Residents were pestered. People who had gone to school with one of the victims, even if they hadn’t spoken to her for years, were tracked down by journalists. Ipswich is a smallish place and many felt a personal connection to what was happening. A condolence book was opened in the town hall. One newspaper criticised the decision to hold a minute’s silence at an Ipswich Town football match (I’ll leave you to guess which one).
This was Christmastime and streets were empty after dark. Workplaces paid taxi fares for their female employees and a local businessman offered a reward for information because the women working in his company were the same age as the victims. Thousands of personal attack alarms were given away, a detail shown in London Road. Suspicion, loss and uncertainty, also shown. Some of us regarded our male friends differently for a time (sorry guys, it was nothing personal). No one was feeling festive and the local economy suffered deeply.
Street prostitution went from minor nuisance – to top priority, along with the resources and wherewithal to back it up. This is what happens following a tragedy: it focuses attention on a problem which was invisible before. Other towns now looked to Ipswich for best practice, for leadership, believe it or not, and organisations worked at the highest level to devise and deliver an action plan that had at its centre helping women exit.
I was given an action which surprised me. I was asked to do a literature review, which means reading and summarising all relevant information for my colleagues. Here’s why such a project is worth doing. Health practitioners, police officers and local government officials are experts in their fields and, at times of uncertainty, tend to revert to what they know. But prostitution with a street drugs component is such a complex subject, you need for everyone to take a rounded view. Admitting what you don’t know can be difficult. Accepting that there is no silver bullet and the only possible solution in the real world is a holistic one can get on people’s nerves.
Here’s some of what I learned and here’s what I think.
- ‘Prostitute’ is an offensive word. Call them sex workers please.
- What happens between consenting adults who don’t harm anybody is none of our business. We shouldn’t interfere with what is safe, orderly, discreet and done by people acting of their free will.
- I do not support legalisation of prostitution-related activities (and this is not a contradiction with the above). However, decriminalisation in consensual contexts remains worth exploring.
- Prostitution is like a spectrum of activities, ranging from the lucrative, lawful and freely acting . . . all the way through to modern slavery which includes violence, rape and a frighteningly high proportion of disappearances and murders, virtually all of them young women. ‘Prostitution’ is a catch-all term for these categorically different activities bearing little resemblance to one another. Street prostitution is its own thing and needs a unique response. Other types of activities require a different approach.
- Street prostitution is often linked with problematic drug misuse. This is when the question of consent becomes iffy because we’re into the realms of serious, complex social problems of which selling sex is just a part. I am loath to use the word ‘chaotic’ although it’s difficult to think of a better one. The women involved are marginalised and the help available to them severely limited. It is not safe, orderly or discreet when drug addiction plays a massive role.
- Helping women exit street prostitution is possible when the difference between urgent, basic support needs (e.g. harm reduction, drugs treatment, homelessness) and other support needs (e.g. counselling, debt advice, training for employment) is understood. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful model. A support package has to be holistic and woman-centred which means taking into account the full range of issues she faces and allowing for the possibility of relapse.
- Society has a hissy fit when the rights of sex workers are mentioned. People panic and it’s weird. This isn’t helpful, we cannot have a proper discussion with raised voices.
As part of the literature review I read about a very sane policy proposal from the Home Office a few years ago which would’ve decriminalised a sex worker who is based indoors, say in her flat, working with a maid for safety. Needless to say such an incremental, practical and controversial improvement didn’t make it to the statute books.
With so much insight and expertise out there, why aren’t we capable of giving this subject the consideration it deserves?
Stigma is what comes up time and again. Being a sex worker invites condemnation like no other job. This is demanding, risky, physical work – as indeed is servicing city drains, coal mining, waste disposal, being a professional soldier, working in a prison, and caring for adults with serious mental health disorders. Because it is mainly women, however . . . Because it is sex, however . . .
One of the saddest aspects to recur when sex workers become victims of crime is the view (from a minority, I hope) that they somehow brought their fate upon themselves; also the idea that the lives of sex workers might be worth less than those of women whose sexual practices are more ordinary. I for one do not think the lives of Tania (19), Gemma (25), Anneli (24), Annette (29) and Paula (24) were worth less than mine. I do not think there was a single choice they made that could ever, ever justify what happened to them.
In Ipswich people donated money to a fund called Somebody’s Daughter and later this helped to build Talitha Koum, a residential centre for women with addictions. As a direct result of their deaths, other women were helped and are still being helped.
There will always be women whose choices are limited and who are vulnerable as a result. There will always be more we can do to act responsibly, show our strength and give support. There will always be the majority who are compassionate – if puzzled – and individuals who emerge as leaders to address complex social needs. There will always be uncertainty.
Shortly after Sumac my literature review was put on the steering group agenda. I remember coming into the meeting room at Grafton House to find perhaps 20 colleagues not talking to each other because they were reading my paper. It was circulated by email and online for a while. I can only remember one piece of feedback: ‘Before this I didn’t know a lot about prostitution and now I feel that I do.’ Strange, because I wasn’t much wiser myself; research tends to raise more questions than it answers.
Outside of lovely Suffolk, Ipswich is still associated in people’s minds with the five murders and that’s regrettable. A movie musical based on these events reinforces the connection and gives me mixed feelings. Nonetheless after the preview we clapped because the work is good. The screening took place at Ipswich Film Theatre, a small, artsy cinema that has had its funding cut and is being kept alive by a band of committed volunteers. Alecky Blythe remarked on this as fitting. I like that.
I like that we have the New Wolsey Theatre here, officially the country’s most welcoming theatre. I like parkrun. I like Pulse festival. I like music day and the craft and vintage fairs. I like our historical connections to Cardinal Wolsey, Constable and Thomas Gainsborough. I like our more recent connections to Ed Sheeran, Richard Ayoade and Jimmy’s Farm. I like the Willis Building which was one of the earliest designed by Norman Foster. I like Ipswich Institute, Christchurch Mansion and Suffolk Book League. I like that an author called Eric Blair took his pen name from our river and became George Orwell. I like the Waterfront which has several of my favourite places to eat and drink, University Campus Suffolk, and Dance East. I like how people support ITFC (although football has never been my thing). I like Sutton Hoo, Aldeburgh, and that Nazis and UFOs are supposed to have landed nearby. I like that Ipswich people are generally kind and tolerant, and they come out in force for community occasions. I like knowing my neighbours by name. This place makes the writing possible and I feel safe here.
I tweeted the five Ipswich parliamentary candidates one question: “Are you a feminist?” Here’s what they said.
David Ellesmere (Labour, @davidellesmere)
I love the conviction of this one word reply with an exclamation mark – no messing around. David clearly understands the nuance of what’s being asked here and responds with assurance. If he was on Twitter enough to reply the same day, it would’ve been fab. Having said that when I resorted to email he came back to me within 1 minute. (Somebody get this man an app.)
Maria Vigneau (UKIP, @UKIPipswich)
“I am a woman and most definitely support the equal rights and status of women. I have spent a lot of time in African countries, working on projects to get girls in secondary education and beyond.”
I confess, this threw me! I love that Maria has real world experience of a complex feminist issue – there’s passion there. And yet I can’t help wondering if her response is incongruous with the party she represents? All in all, unexpected. Maria does not appear on Twitter, and the local UKIP ignored me, but her email reply was swift.
Ben Gummer (Conservative, @ben4ipswich)
“I’d like to think so – depends by what definition I suppose . . .”
Me: “The @OED definition ‘feminist n. An advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women’ Clarify?”
Ben: “in that case yes!”
Had I let his first tweet stand with those hesitant, lacklustre ellipses . . . As our MP since 2010, I hope Ben would already have established his feminist credentials. Has the question really never come up in the past 5 years? But respect for giving it thought, tweeting effectively and coming out on the right side. Feeling rather pleased that I appear to have converted a Tory MP, from an equivocal feminist, into a firm one.
Barry Broom (Green, @IpswichGreens)
“We certainly support feminist causes, but it is a huge issue. Are there any specific concerns u hav? [. . .] Let us know of any feminist campaigns or causes you deem urgent to back!”
Evidently someone at Ipswich Green Party is keeping an eye on their Twitter, but I don’t think it’s Barry. I was disappointed by the reduction of feminist from noun to adjective, as this dilutes the level of commitment. Although well-intentioned, I wasn’t keen on being asked to suggest issues. I’m persuaded on balance of a support of feminism here, however, he/they don’t strike me as leaders.
Chika Akinwale (Lib Dem, @LibDems_Ipswich)
“As a female and a mother of 2 – a toddler and an infant – I’m keen on women to be given equal opportunities to flourish so I am definitely a feminist. This is also a strong view within my party and is also embedded in our party constitution . . . We reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, age, religion, sex, etc.”
Chika is absolutely right to consider feminism in the context of other types of discrimination and I like the way she brings this to the fore; I also like that she identifies both the personal and party aspects of the issue as important. Although the Ipswich Libs don’t seem to completely grasp Twitter, her email reply was same day which is great.
Ta-dah! The New Angle Prize for Literature shortlist. Got your recommended reading for the Easter break sorted:
‘The Time by the Sea’ by Ronald Blythe (Faber & Faber, Jun 2013)
‘Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet’ by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cape, Oct 2014)
‘Mr Mac and Me’ by Esther Freud (Bloomsbury, May 2014)
‘The Dynamite Room’ by Jason Hewitt (Simon & Schuster, Mar 2014)
‘Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things’ by Alex Monroe (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)
‘She Rises’ by Kate Worsley (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)
The shortlist was featured on BBC Suffolk today. You can listen again to Lesley Dolphin’s show (starts at 1hr 9mins, after ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles).
Congratulations to all the authors,
My latest intellectual crush is British philosopher Mary Midgley. She writes with brilliance on, among other things, dogmatic science, the way we use art to help us understand our place in the world and most eloquently on the mind / body problem. I haven’t read philosophy for fun in a long time and this was like going to my very own festival of thought, in a private park, all in my head. ‘Science and Poetry’ is surely destined to be a classic; I also recommend ‘The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene’ and ‘Are you an Illusion?’ She’s 95 by the way – and amazing.
I’m one of the judges on the New Angle Prize for Literature this year along with Carol Bundock and Jules Pretty. Even if we say so ourselves, it’s a good list!
Ronald Blythe, The Time by the Sea (Faber & Faber, Jun 2013)
Mark Cocker, Claxton. Field Notes from a Small Planet (Jonathan Cape, Oct 2014)
Esther Freud, Mr Mac and Me (Bloomsbury, May 2014)
David Gentleman, In The Country (Full Circle Editions, Sep 2014)
Jason Hewitt, The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster, Mar 2014)
Amanda Hodgkinson, Spilt Milk (Fig Tree, Penguin Books, Feb 2014)
Alex Monroe, Two Turtle Doves (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)
Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood (Profile Books, Jun 2014)
Jo Riccioni, The Italians at Cleats Corner Store (Scribe UK, Jun 2014)
James Runcie, Sydney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (Bloomsbury, May 2014)
Saskia Sarginson, Without You (Little Brown Book Group, Jul 2014)
Kate Worsley, She Rises (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)
You may be surprised to learn that I didn’t consider myself an artist until quite recently – long after publication, in fact – and I’ve been thinking a little about what it really takes to be an artist, and I’m going to share some of these thoughts with you.
Bear with me please because I’m going to start with Blackadder (we’ve all seen Blackadder, haven’t we?) and the final episode filmed for the millennium. This is when Baldrick invents a time machine which transports Blackadder to important moments in history. In so doing, he meets famous historical figures and gathers priceless artefacts to bring back with him to the present day, in order to win a bet. One of the items is a signed play by William Shakespeare: Blackadder time travels to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and runs into Shakespeare in a corridor (who looks suspiciously like Colin Firth) and in his hand he carries the original manuscript of Macbeth. Blackadder offers a pen for Shakespeare to sign his autograph, relieves him of the pages, then punches Shakespeare in the face. He tells him, that’s for all the misery he’s going to cause generations of school children in English lessons and exams hereafter – and how dreadful Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour Hamlet is.
I know what you’re thinking and, honestly, I’m as shocked as you are. Macbeth is not an Elizabethan play, it’s a Jacobean play. I have no problem, actually, with Baldrick being the greatest genius who ever lived by virtue of the fact he invented a working time machine, but I have to take issue with the glaring inaccuracy; Macbeth was written during the reign of James I, not Elizabeth I. We’ll skip over that part.
Of course what happens is this: Blackadder inadvertently changes the course of human events. Shakespeare is so traumatised by the encounter, that he does not go on to become the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Instead he fades into obscurity, having made but one contribution of note: he becomes the inventor of the ballpoint pen.
Now, I like a ballpoint pen as much as anybody, but the thought of having lived a life without Shakespeare . . . having never seen a Shakespeare play at the theatre or read the words on the page . . . the thought of it I find genuinely upsetting. It would be a personal tragedy for me, never mind the rest of you, or the actors and scholars who’ve devoted their careers to him.
A life without having cried at Othello. A life without laughing at the lovers’ quarrel in Much Ado About Nothing. A life without seeing Mark Rylance play Hamlet at the Globe (he is better than Branagh) and without hearing Cleopatra described in this way,
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.”
No Romeo and Juliet either. The entire Wars of the Roses cycle, 8 plays – and I’ve see all of them more than once – gone, blinked out of existence. As is the Merchant of Venice, and all the controversy that perturbs us even now.
No Tempest! What? No one who thought or wrote,
“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep.”
I would be poorer without this work. I wouldn’t know myself. The very language I speak, the idioms that are so familiar, would be obliterated.
The idea that Shakespeare doubted himself horrifies me. But I bet he did. He was the son of a glove maker, the grandson of a farmer. Based on his family history, there was no reason to suspect that this boy from Stratford-upon-Avon would become one of the greatest artists to draw breath. And I reckon those nobles at court didn’t let him to forget where he came from. Even now, there are people who believe that the man we call William Shakespeare could not possibly have written all those plays and sonnets – and they call their prejudice, ‘The Authorship Question’. It’s insulting.
But it is, perhaps, useful to remind ourselves that the artists we love and admire most have dark moments too, that they know fear and failure as much as any of us. There were times when things got so bad, that they just wanted to give up and throw it all away. What stops them? How do they carry on? And when we face difficulties in our work, our meagre offerings, how do we carry on?
What does it take to be an artist? Not a great artist. Not even a good one. Just being an artist.
I’ve wanted to write fiction since the age of 19, but it’s only recently that I began to have a sense of what the answer to this question could possibly be. So here goes.
Delight. I believe it’s imperative that you enjoy your work, every minute. You may’ve heard the saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” This is vital for the working artist, especially when things go wrong. I do not subscribe to the idea that it’s somehow necessary to suffer for your art. Yes, as artists, we tend to live a lot in our heads and we’re predisposed to having doubts. This is the challenge. At the very least the creative process can have a therapeutic effect and at its best we are elevated by it – we ourselves change and are made better. Delight in the effort. Delight in your work when it’s finished, including its flaws. If the creation and the outcome bring you pleasure, then that’s the achievement.
Bravery. Critical voices are everywhere, but be brave if you can – if you dare to. Work that pleases you because it’s strange and unusual is all to the good. If you play it safe and try to do what’s popular or conventional, you can’t unlock any real power. There’s no force behind it. Your work will be bland and fade quickly. You need bravery in the face of criticism and disappointment and, to be clear, these are coming. All artists have to face it some time or another, including the best. Sometimes it’s insulting; sometimes it’s motivated by jealousy or rooted in private pains. Worse still there are artists, even today, who endure intimidation, perhaps imprisonment for what they do. Those critical voices – don’t let them get to you. Whether they’re in your head, on your Twitter, or out there in the real world – they don’t deserve a moment of your time. When Blackadder punches you in the face, don’t give up your Macbeth in favour of the ballpoint pen. Show bravery in spite of everything.
Staying power. There are lots of ways to describe tenacity, determination, patience, practice . . . I think ‘staying power’ covers all of it. Because to have staying power is to acknowledge that this is a marathon, not a sprint. One theory holds that in order to be accomplished in anything – music, sport, chess, whatever – you have to practice for not less than 10,000 hours. This means that if you practice your art for 8 hours a day, 6 days per week, you would have to work for 4 solid years to reach your goal – without stopping to earn your living or take a day off, other than Sundays. And of course if you used that model, you wouldn’t have much life experience at the end. You’ll neglect your friends and family, compromise your wellbeing and you’ll not have time to enjoy the works of others. You’d be a hermit. Actually, you need life experiences to inform your work. If you’re an artist, you’re a long distance runner and you need take all this in your stride. Steep hills and rough terrain should be negotiated with care. Set a pace you personally can maintain (never mind anyone else and how fast they’re going). Recover and rest when you need to. This is the knack of staying power.
Allies. You have allies, believe it or not. They are the other artists who’ve been there. They are people who care about you, whether you succeed or fail. I think there’s no phrase in the English language as appealing (or as loaded) as the words, “I love you”. But to the ear of an artist there are sweeter, gentler words, a phrase which resists tarnish and that cannot be spun with ease. Because they’re spoken so rarely and by someone with nothing to gain, when the hearer is in most need: “I believe in you”. When your friend says this (your colleague, your partner, maybe) magic happens. The phrase “I believe in you” can make the difference between whether work gets made or it doesn’t. Take comfort from your allies and don’t forget to reciprocate from time to time.
Insight. Your art is informed by life experience, by the things you have discovered to be true. If in all your years on this planet you’ve gained one insight worth sharing, a single piece of wisdom that you can pass on to another human being, then do so through your art. Art without insight is merely decorative. Great works of literature, great paintings, great performance needs above all clarity of thought. Transmit your thought in the most direct and ingenious way possible, like a poet. The lessons you’ve learned may well have saved you; now is the time to put a message in a bottle because they may save somebody else one day.
So to recap: it takes 5 things to be an artist. Delight; Bravery; Staying power; Allies; and Insight. And of those 5 things, delight is the most important. Because even if you’re a bad artist – and I might include myself in that description – if you’ve delighted in the creation of your work, then you haven’t wasted a single minute of your time.
But 5 things are a lot to remember and I don’t expect anyone to be taking notes. So let me give you one word instead which captures all of these things, one word to imprint on your brain and keep on a post-it note above your desk. Integrity. You are an artist if you have integrity. Integrity will see you through the good times and the bad. People admire integrity, even if they can’t stand the work you’ve made. Hold on to it and everything falls into place. Integrity redeems your poorest effort. Integrity makes your best work fly. If you can keep your integrity, then I can honestly say, “I believe in you”.
And yet it might not be enough. That’s frightening, isn’t it? The fact is as artists we might never succeed in creating anything of worth. For instance, it has taken me two thousand words to express what has been said before – briefly and far more elegantly – by the avant-garde Irishman of letters, Samuel Beckett.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
This is a copy of a speech given by Katie to Ipswich Arts Association on 5 March 2015
On page 67 of Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, Peter Stothard acknowledges what the reader knew some 60 pages earlier. ‘This is becoming a book about me. That is not what I intended.’
Based on the cover, one might assume this to be a conventional history of Cleopatra; born 69 or 70 BC, the last pharaoh of Egypt, the woman who murdered and seduced to advance her political ambitions. Theatrical motifs from her life are scored into our collective unconscious. It is said that at 21 years old, she was smuggled past Ptolemy’s guards in a carpet and unveiled to Julius Caesar, then over 50, and became his mistress. She dissolved a pearl in a cup of wine and drank it to vex her other famous lover, Mark Antony, in a bet over who could feast the most extravagantly. And her grand finale, a spectacular suicide involving (if Shakespeare and the Victorian painters are to be believed) a basket of figs and an asp. There have been countless depictions of her story rendered in art and print, and yet since the age of nine, Stothard has wanted to make his own version.
This book is partly about Cleopatra and partly about the author watching himself trying to write about her. For this is Cleopatra the eighth, as in, ‘precisely the eighth time’ Stothard has attempted this biography. ‘I never intended to write so much here about my own life,’ he reiterates later in the book, getting a twinge of writers’ doubt over past promises unfulfilled:
‘But I do select every memory by how much it connects to those promises. It seems random. But there is a reason, a pattern and, in the end maybe, a picture too.’
Yes. I can confirm there is a lucid and rewarding whole.
This is a history book because I now know more about Cleopatra’s life and times than I did before. It is also a writer’s journal, a record of false starts when one has a project in mind that eats away at you if don’t get it down on the page. It is travel writing, about Stothard’s days in Alexandria in January 2011 and the prelude to the Arab Spring. And it is memoir, recalling the author’s intellectual awakening and most especially two friends, Maurice and V, who, though not so very close to Stothard in the usual sense, both challenged, frustrated and inspired him.
Peter Stothard is the editor of the TLS. He was the editor of The Times from 1992 to 2002, chronicled Tony Blair’s war from inside the goldfish bowl, is a survivor of cancer and a classicist. These accomplishments make it difficult somehow to reconcile this as the author of Alexandria, an object which represents childhood wish fulfilment. The prose is as clear and elegant as you would expect, but the tone is surprising. Alexandria is meditative, sentimental, written from the heart, not from a journalistic imperative.
One of themes in this book is how written language, the most indelible method we have of recording human thought from one century to another, is fragile. Names of the ancient Egyptian dead, cut in stone to guarantee immortality, were later chiselled out by enemies to obliterate souls in the afterlife. The burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria is another motif Stothard evokes when he describes going to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a vast, modern complex built to recapture the spirit of the original. (Of course, Stothard does what any procrastinating author might be tempted to do: he looks himself up.) Even his writing, many hundreds of thousands of words over the course of a career, is vulnerable. ‘Most have sunk deservedly deep beneath the library sea,’ he says.
Words have permanence when they’re not lost or destroyed.
Sometimes a mere fragment survives from classical antiquity for scholars to pore over. There is, Stothard explains, one example of Cleopatra’s handwriting discovered recently on a papyrus used as post-mortem packing material. It is a tax exemption for one of Mark Antony’s generals drafted by a secretary upon which Cleopatra writes in Greek, ‘ginestho,’ meaning, ‘let it be done,’ ‘make it happen,’ a single queenly command passed down through the ages.
In Alexandria, Stothard concentrates on the ephemera of his Cleopatra, different incarnations rough-written, partially typed, bits copied or sellotaped together. He arranges them in his hotel room and his mind. He’s drawn into spaces of the past, schoolrooms, college bedrooms, red tents, drab offices, while giving the reader a sense of this as unfinished business as though the decades spent on news and politics were an interruption.
It is possible, perhaps, to read too much into a bereavement or health scare as the motivation for making work. Books have a spirit of their own. Sometimes authors don’t realise what they’re writing until they’ve written it, and this memoir is unusual because it lays that process bare. The people on the page, whether they lived long ago or are alive and well today, are captured as an impression – a reaction – a mood. It’s a way for the author to understand these relationships. Stothard has succeeded in writing his book about Cleopatra, yet her presence in our memories was already assured. It is the people history probably wouldn’t remember, his friends, his teachers, his colleagues, his guides, that he has done a real service to. This is writing from kindness.
Alexandria – The Last Nights of Cleopatra by Peter Stothard
Published in the UK by Granta, June 2013