Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing in the Pool: Glass Mill Leisure Centre at Loampit Vale, Lewisham

The new Glass Mill Leisure Centre is splendid and it takes only seven minutes to walk there from where I live. It's on the other side of Lewisham station. The distinctive coloured glass tiles make me think the designer must be Spanish. It's a kind of triumph of hope over expectation, too, because Loampit Vale, the main traffic artery between Lewisham and New Cross, must be one of the most grimy thoroughfares in London.

Someone told me the other day that they found swimming too boring, but that's part of its attraction for me when I'm writing.

In my opinion it's the perfect form of exercise  for any writer.
Charles Dickens walked for miles all over London, often at night. I like walking, especially since I discovered the Waterlink Way,  but it's often too distracting and not something for after dark. When I worked in China, where it was -25C for three months in Winter, the company had a mini-gym with a treadmill. But I frequently fell off it because you had to concentrate to keep at the right pace.

Swimming activates  the brain in the same way as walking but you don't have to worry about the weather or where you put your feet. I can just think about the story I'm writing or work out a new plot as I go back and forth. Afterwards I sit in the café for a while and study some magazines. On my first visit to the new pool  I bought food and drink but now I take my own sandwich, as I used to at the Ladywell baths.
 It can be inspiring, too. Often,  I like to swim with my head up to see what's happening. There was a mad woman in the first week who jumped in but couldn't swim and the attendant shouted to  her to grab the end of  a pole. Last year at another pool my husband, who favours a back-crawl, bumped into a poor swimmer. The  attendant set off an alarm to clear  the pool. Maybe it's a  coincidence, but  the first short story I sold to a magazine was set in a swimming baths. It was about a young man's first day as a trainee instructor and was titled 'In at the Deep End'!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Woman of Words: El Diccionario by Manuel Calzada Perez at Greenwood Theatre, Weston Street

I always like going to a new fringe theatre, especially one that’s easy to get to. The Greenwood Theatre is a five minute walk from London Bridge Station, off St Thomas Street. It was rare opportunity to see a play in Spanish -  the notice  relayed via the Cervantes Institute mailing list.

As the lecture theatre slowly filled, it was a treat for me to hear Spanish being spoken all around me.
'Language is no longer a communication link between people and words are too generalized and vague'. So argues Manuel Calzada  Perez in his play  'El Diccionario' (The Power of Words), through the mouth of his protagonist, Maria Moliner. In 1972 she is  living in Valencia, and her grown up children have left home; she and her  ex-professor husband are about to enjoy their retirement.

Unfortunately, Maria is losing her memory; at the beginning of the play she has her  first meeting  with a consultant.  The diagnosis is cerebral arteriosclerosis.

This moving portrait of a woman in the first stages of dementia raises wider questions about language, survival and loss. In flashback we slowly learn about her marriage and children and how her experience relates to contemporary political rhetoric.

Vicky Pena  conveys the ironic modesty which hides the intelligence of a Republic supporter and survivor of  Franco’s dictatorship, with its purges and distortions. Maria even compiled a dictionary of Spanish usage to express the complexity of human responses, and is up for an award by the Spanish Royal Academy of Language - the first woman ever to be nominated.   
It's a comic as well as a tragic play.  Maria and her husband's affectionate relationship   is conveyed in humorous exchanges.The audience laughed with delight as the plodding consultant is obliged to tear up his notes on  Maria's 'delusion', when   she produces the heavy volumes that prove her achievement.
The author writes : ‘Maria Moliner is one of the most impressive and unknown personalities of the 20th Century Spain: an intellectual determined to create a better world. This play shows that this woman also made the most difficult decision: she chose to be free.’
It's rare enough to see a play in London that's presented in the original Spanish (with sur-titles) by a company with the talents of Teatro de La Abadia  under director  Jose Carlos Plaza, who presented the play in Madrid in 2012.  I hope there'll be many more like this.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Marital Mayhem: Peter Nichols, 'Passion Play' at the Duke of York's Theatre


Zoe Wanamaker plays Eleanor, part-time music coach and chorister, happy married to art-restorer James (Owen Teale). Their 25 year relationship is disrupted by ‘good-time-girl’ and recently widowed Kate (Annabel Scholey) who had previously lured a husband away from Eleanor’s best friend Agnes (Sian Thomas).
What begins as a bedroom farce, punctuated by loud and sprightly rhythms, gradually darkens, to an accompaniment by Bach.

The appearance of ‘alter egos’ for Eleanor and James (Samantha Bond and Oliver Cotton) was dramatically effective and very funny. I thought the religious theme at the end, embodied in paintings James brings onstage, seemed both tacky and tacked on. I also detected more than a hint of misogyny in the portrayal of the women, which added to a general sense of unease.
 Strong performances came from Zoe Wanamaker and Samantha Bond in identical orange fright-wigs

Another source of unease was the cramped seats, restricted leg-room and inadequate rake. We were in ‘good’ seats in the centre stalls, but maybe this is to be expected in an otherwise impressively ‘traditional’ theatre, given that it was built in 1895. I suspect they’ve added some rows, as it’s not very large. Its main virtue is the location in St Martin’s Lane, five minutes’ walk from Charing Cross.

The programme  was is good  value at £4 ; in addition to a potted history of the theatre it has an interview with the playwright and  an  interesting overview of plays about adultery by Mark Lawson. He writes: ‘Nichols ‘Passion Play’ is part of an eternal triangle of great adultery plays written around the turn of the 80s, sandwiched on either side by Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ (1978) and Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Thing’ (1982)
Peter Nichols is best known for ‘A Day in the Life of Joe Egg’ and ‘Privates on Parade’ (1977), both rooted in the author’s own experience, as is this one.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Post Office Dramas

I was pleased when the  Lewisham Post Office changed location. Instead of the dingy purpose-built premises in the High Street it's now in WH Smiths in the shopping centre.
A friend who drove a mini-cab for a while after he retired from BT told us how much he hated dropping customers at the old post-office, which had one entrance in the High Street and a back entrance on the one-way system. Sometimes people would leap from the cab as soon as he stopped and dash through the post-office to avoid paying the fare.
It's usually much busier than this photo shows, but with all those magazine to read now waiting's  almost a pleasure. I can also check the women's magazine racks on my way out, too.  I've recently started writing for them again. The response time was appalling, but a sudden success revived my interest.
There's usually a lot going on - people chatting on mobiles in the queue and mothers scolding their kids for whizzing the display racks of travel accessories and cards.
My favourite counter number is 10, because the approach  is through a box-like structure that reminds me of a passport photo booth.
The usual purpose of my visit is to post a short story manuscript.  'Do you want someone to sign for it?' ask the assistant, and no, I don't, because I know it doubles the postage charge.  On the other hand, because  magazine editors taking six months, or even longer,  to respond, it's Hobson's. 
At least  the extra charge entitles me to a ticket that lets me  track the envelope. So I know when it reaches the magazine offices. Then I have some idea of when to remind the editor that I'm still waiting for a decision.
It also influences the choice of envelopes. I used to send the manuscript in stiffened A4 envelopes that were quite expensive because the floppy ones seemed vulnerable to mishandling. Now I figure that if a signature has to be obtained at least the envelope will be looked after, so a non-stiffened one will suit.
I used to enclose an A4 envelope with the same amount of postage, minus the signing fee. At last Friday's workshop I learned that it was OK to ask the editor to dispose of a reject and to  enclose an ordinary SAE with a second class stamp for the decision notice.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Chick-lit Authors at the Shooting Star


Writing bestselling fiction: meet the authors, an agent + Q&A  

·        Tuesday 11.6.2013 at The Shooting Star, Middlesex Street 

Join us for a evening all about writing and publishing where you'll hear from authors Katy Regan and Ali Harris on their experience of writing and getting published, also joining us for this special event will be literary agent, Kate Burke. 

Guests: Katy Regon author of How We Met

Ali Harris, author of The First Last Kiss

 Kate Burke, literary agent, Diane Banks Associates Literary &Talent Agency 

Kate Burke is a literary agent at Diane Banks Associates, a hugely successful agency which handles literary, TV and film rights for clients and negotiates deals for writers internationally. Before becoming an agent, Kate spent ten years as a fiction publisher at Penguin, HarperCollins and Random House, where she signed up many women’s fiction, historical and crime and thrillers writers and turned them into bestsellers.

We'll follow the talks with a Q&A session so do come along if you're writing, or thinking of, stories within this genre.

 A couple of years back  I found out about  a writing group that meets fortnightly  in the basement of  pub called The Shooting Star in a street opposite Liverpool Street Station. It has a mixed-age multicultural membership but most are in the mid-20s to mid 30s range, I'd say. Mainly business people, they take their writing seriously. It costs £5 to attend the normal sessions and the reading slots fill up quickly.

I don't go very often but  I'm on the meet-up list and I go to special events like the one above. There are bout 15-20 people at an ordinary session.

Also, it costs £5, although you don't have to buy a drink at the pub upstairs . I try to go when they have special events, such as the session on techniques of reading your work aloud that took place a couple of weeks back. Lisa the organiser is efficient and very welcoming.

At last night's event, chick-lit authors Ali Harris and Katy Regan told about their paths to publication. Both have backgrounds in upmarket magazine journalism  and described the transition to authorship as 'a roller-coaster ride.' 'I was on my knees with emotion,' said Harris. The rapid  delivery was hard to hear at times, although I was fairly near the front. 

Literary agent Kate Burke  was much calmer and described how she worked with writers. She handles 100 submissions a week from writers who have submitted the first three chapters of novels. I was surprised to hear that they often haven't written any more than this and it may take months or years before they are ready to be 'signed' to the agency.
Both authors  acknowledged the large amounts of editing input from agents as well as their support 'at the end of the telephone' through the traumas of the actual writing process. They authors recommended persistence.

Kate Burke, asked what stops her from taking on a writer, said she hated spelling mistakes and over-confidence, although she liked it if a writer mentioned authors who's had an influence. She hates writers who say, 'I don't read.'


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Some more militant than others...From Soap Boxes to Tea Pots: a talk about Suffragettes at the Museum of London

I was pleased when a friend suggested we go  to a Gresham College talk at the Museum of London on Monday.  ‘From Soap Boxes to Tea Sets: How the Suffragette Movement got into People’s Hearts and Homes’ sounded interesting.

Antonia Byatt, first woman director of the Women's Library,  focused on how the suffragettes publicised their cause. In the absence of Facebook and Twitter, not to mention radio and TV, addressing rallies and marching with banners was a no-choice option for the suffragettes. Chaining themselves to railings , setting fire to politicians’ homes  and getting arrested was a way to keep the issue in newspaper headlines. When Emily Davison was killed on Derby Day in 1913 by throwing herself under the King’s horse it was the climax of an escalating campaign.

 With the outbreak of WW1 the government had other things to occupy them.  Women's contribution  to the national economy proved to be the most persuasive factors in their  eventual enfranchisement. It was good to be reminded, though, of a time when women did step outside their allotted social roles to fight for justice.

I’m inspired to go back to the museum soon to see their collection of materials and memorabilia.

Monday, June 10, 2013

How to Write for Woman's Weekly: An All-day Workshop at the Blue Fin Building 7th June

I’ve been to quite a few writing workshops but none so targeted as last Friday’s. The Blue Fin Building in Southwark, home to IPC publishing, was imposing - all tight security, glass and light wood inside with a fantastic view of the skyline round the London Bridge area from the tenth floor canteen.  I nearly got lost when I got out of the lift at the 6th instead of the 10th floor, but was recalled in time to squeeze back in.
I enjoyed all of it. Friendly Gaynor Davies, Fiction Editor, talked anecdotally about changes in WW’s 100 year history, from the old ‘Pink and Blue Banner’ days. ‘In hard times for magazines, we are holding our own ‘. Funny stories included sexual restraint advice from an Edwardian Agony Aunt and a reader’s endorsement of Woman’s Weekly as a perfect cure for insomnia.
  A practical exercise in writing an attention-grabbing first paragraph showed how many inventive approaches could rise from a single prompt.

For me, the most useful talk was lively Suzanne Ahern’s explanation of how she wrote serials – 17 of them so far. Her approach was practical, spontaneous and confessional- in line with her character. She also supplied copious hand-outs. Dividing the 30 or so attendees into three groups to construct a three-part serial, complete with cliff-hangers, demonstrated the need for structure.
In the afternoon Laura Longrigg, from the MBA Literary agency, gave an overview of what publishers are looking for in women’s fiction. She responded, as well, to questions from workshop members. She regretted that the days of lavish parties were over and emphasised how important it was for agents to socialise and network because that’s how they could source the kind of writing they were looking for. Understandably, her approach was profit-driven – a reminder of what commercial fiction is about.


I came away inspired, carrying free back issues of the Fiction Special magazines.  I’d like to write for Woman’s Weekly because they pay well - £200 for a one-page 1000 word story and much more for a serial. The stories with a historical setting are entertaining and allow for a plausibly passive heroine in the way that modern stories don’t. The recently –emerging mystery stories interest me, too. I don’t like the all-too predictable romantic stories and family crises, in cosy settings, or fantasy boy-meets-girl-on-idyllic-holiday tales that make up the rest.  Ditto the many pet stories. It’s life, but not as I know it.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to write for women’s magazines – the workshop is scheduled to be repeated on future dates.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Suburban Spies : 'Pack of Lies' at The Alexandra Hall, Charlton SE7


Seats in the third row for £7, interval tea and biscuits thrown in (not literally) and a venue that's on the 380 bus route; what could be better?  To the strains of sixties hits,  we anticipated a Saturday night treat from the ever-reliable Alexandra Players.
Hugh Whitemore’s drama, written in 1983, was inspired by the arrest of a spy-ring  in Ruislip in 1961. The play is set in a neighbouring family’s home, deemed an ideal vantage point for surveillance.  It charts the family's reactions as characters step forward in turn at the start of scenes to tell the story from their differing points of view.  As a framing device, it adds depth to story and characters, but  also lowers dramatic tension in a wordy play in which little happens.

Stodgy Bob Jackson (Mark Higgins) and anxious housewife Barbara  (Sue McGeehan)   resent the invasion of their privacy, especially as the look-out point is to be their  teenage daughter Julie’s bedroom. This being respectable Ruislip, emotions are low-key, and a lot of tea is drunk.
What makes things worse for the Jacksons is that they  already know the suspects, although they're ignorant of their neighbours' shady activities. Canadians Helen (Louise Gaul) and Peter (Roy Moore) Kroger, have become their closest friends since they arrived in the quiet suburb five years before.
‘It's  just for the weekend,’  implacable MI5 agent Stewart (Keith Hartley)  tells them, but as days turn into weeks pressure mounts and the teapot is sometimes replaced by the whisky bottle.  

To cram  kitchen and sitting room, the latter dominated by a striking sixties wallpaper design, onto the tiny stage, was a tad ambitious on the part of set designer Robert Hames, although  the cast coped splendidly within the restricted space and Rebecca Williams’ efficient direction ensured the pace never flagged. Any longeurs were  down to a downbeat script where nothing much happened to disturb humdrum suburban lifestyles. The turmoil was all within. 

The acting was of  the high standard  that regulars have come expect from this established troupe. Emma Dalton brought a crisp intelligence to the daughter supposedly about to go off the rails.  Keith Hartley was a physically imposing but gently reasonable M15 agent, and Louise Gaul’s bubbly Helen,  with playful manner and off-colour remarks, was a welcome contrast to the dreary Jacksons. Sue McGeehan , as the sensitive Barbara, ably negotiated a fine line between distress and  hysteria.
All in all, I’d advise playgoers  lucky enough to live within striking distance of SE7 to put  themselves on   the mailing list for  notice of  future productions.