Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Philip Pullman's call to defend 'the republic of reading'

You're probably aware of the rising tide of bewildered rage and campaigning fury across England and certainly in my local region, Oxfordshire, at the prospect of the closing of library branches. In Oxford city alone, Summertown, Headington, Old Marston, Littlemore, Blackbird Leys and Kennington are due to close - and this is to say nothing of branches outside the city. The Council advocates that everybody makes their way to Oxford's Central Library, blithely ignoring those who are strapped for bus fares, strapped for time, struggle to find child care, or are physically disabled.

Or, maybe they won't close them: a poisoned chalice is offered us. Yes, you may keep your branch libraries, on the condition that you run them yourselves. All very well and good in nice bourgeois areas, perhaps less likely in deprived ones. So, er, what if you're struggling to find a book or a resource? Isn't it fairly important to be able to turn to a professional, someone who is fully trained and cognisant with sources, locations and connections? If I pop up to the John Radcliffe Hospital with heart palpitations, do I expect to be treated by somebody who likes reading medical books and once did a first aid course, but doesn't have any other qualification?

The council will of course bleat that they have to cut such services as libraries in order to preserve more necessary services - but this sort of excuse just makes my blood boil. We never seem short of money to send officials on junkets and fact-finding missions, to advertise non-jobs whose descriptions and pay-rates beggar belief. To say nothing of unimaginable expenditure on bank-bailouts and pointless wars.

When I was a child, it was an utter joy to go down to the local village library and work my way along the shelves, reading anything and everything that came my way. I expanded my imagination and my knowledge. I made serendipitous discoveries. One of my dearest friends has been a librarian all her working life - is all her experience, her dedication, her enthusiasm to be devalued in this way?

We all seem to be existing these days in a state of gasping indignation: What? They're planning what? They wouldn't! They mustn't! We sign petitions against selling publicly-owned forests (if you haven't as yet, please do!), and now to save a service which since the nineteenth century has been a source of national pride: check out The Bookseller's Fight For Libraries campaign - go to or to the Fight for Libraries facebook page, or follow them on Twitter - @fight4libraries.

Finally, I urge you to read Philip Pullman's speech, given in Oxford last week, and posted at : it's a wonderfully articulate explosion of indignation, which not only defends libraries but celebrates the power of reading itself. He witheringly condemns the council for its lack of respect: thinking 'the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea', he expresses hate of 'the bidding culture' where all sorts of good causes are forced to compete with one another for limited resources, he talks of his own relationship with libraries, celebrating what goes on 'in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book', and he worries that government and publishers fail to see value in any other than financial terms: 'the only measure is profit'. He reminds us that libraries are a reminder that 'there are things above profit.'

I hope he won't mind my quoting from him: please do read the whole article. Find out what's happening in your locality: libraries are precious. Don't take this erosion of a vital service in our society lying down.

Friday, 21 January 2011

In Memoriam

Here it is again,  the darkest day, lurking at the dawn of the year.

George Johnston Fergusson
Elizabeth Hay Findlay


'There is a photo of the two of them at some shindig  before they are married. My father wears a suit but it looks saggy, bauchled - and under the jacket is a knitted waistcoat. I remember it: dark wine in colour, banded in beige. His lop-sided smile is part Frank Sinatra and his eyes sparkle. His arm is round my mother's waist. She's wearing a frothy creation, with a ruffled bodice that does her no favours and tiers of chiffon skirting, all very Fifties. Her skin is gorgeous: she glows. Her smile has a shyness to it: she looks happy to have his protective arm around her.

Later, in the black and white wedding photo, my Aunt Eunice sits in a froth of grey pastel, my cousin Dorothy is pixie-cute as the flower girl, and the best man, Ecky Mo, looks like a character from a comic-strip with his surprised stand-up hair and his square little face and button eyes. My Dad leans towards my Mum and he is in the full flowering of his handsomeness. My grandmother told me how, at the reception, he was taking a little too much to drink, but when she chided him for it he turned to her and said, 'Ae, Mam, I'm jist sae happy!' My heart clenches at that simple, pure outpouring of joy.'

Monday, 10 January 2011

Booking Opens for my Spring Courses!

I'm delighted to announce that I've now posted full details of my next fictionfire courses on my website, and booking is now open: there's a special Early Bird rate for bookings by 28th February. I do hope you'll join us!

Here are brief summaries:

7th May: Essential Story Construction

As a writer, you're a fabricator: you make things up but you also have to put your invented elements together in a way that will not only make sense to your readers but which will grip their attention. This day course will examine the components you need to build your story - with particular emphasis on plot.

21st May: Creating Narrative Perspective and Voice

One of the crucial choices you make as a storyteller is to choose who's telling the story. The effective creation of point of view will add colour and draw your reader into the world of your characters. In this course we'll use published examples and practical exercises to explore the options available to you when choosing narative perspective, how to convey attitude and voice and the importance of controlling just how much information the reader is given and how it is pitched. You're aiming to use your skills to intrigue your readers and keep them engaged.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year, New Beginnings

Well, that's Christmas over with - and it was a very good one down our neck of the woods. We're now standing on the threshold of the new year in a month named after the two-faced god of doorways. We look back - with some degree of nostalgia perhaps, although many of us seem to be glad to be putting 2010 behind us (my sister especially, who's had a bad year, health-wise) - and we look forward, perhaps with excitement at the prospect of a fresh start, perhaps with trepidation because the future is uncertain.

I wanted to share with you these brilliant lines from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding, which Daisy Hickman posted on Facebook:

'For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice ...
And to make an end is to make a beginning.'

Many of us are reviewing what we did, what we read, what we learned, what we lost - and what we wrote, during the year that's gone. If you're writing, take the time to think about how much progress you made, look at what went well, what didn't go so well, the rejections you perhaps had to assimilate - do all that. Taking stock is important. And feeling proud of what you created - whether it was a whole novel or a four line poem - that too is important. But then ... move on. It's a new year: new beginnings come out of old experience. New words await for your brain to mint them.

I wish you all imaginable riches.