Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Summer School, Presumption of Guilt, and the Best Read this Year

My annual summer school week for the university's Department of Continuing Education finished last Friday, leaving me (and, I suspect, my students) pretty exhausted. It was a wonderful week, though, even though it was so full-on. I had a lovely class - fourteen people who were all motivated, cheerful, hard-working. If any of you are dropping by this blog, I wish you lots of luck with your writing: keep going, and let me know how you're getting on.

Last year, you may remember there was a huge debate about the issue of printing age ranges on children's books. I was very much of the view that you shouldn't. A campaign was waged by big-name children's writers and it looks as if most publishers backed off. Now we have another issue causing indignation: new legislation that requires that any author visiting a school will have to be registered on the Independent Safeguarding Authority database. Registration will cost £64, paid by the author, not the institution hiring them to visit.

Now, I've been looking at opinion on both sides: an author (Joe Craig?) on Breakfast News the other day said there were risks involved when authors visit schools, even if you wouldn't think so, given that the author is in a public environment and accompanied by adults. He said that kids often ask authors for the chance to communicate by email and so on - and that an author could get hold of these contact details and start grooming a child for abuse.

Nobody doubts that abuse does happen. There are evil people in this world, evil, screwed up, manipulative sad-sacks.

But my first point is, in agreement with writer Gillian Cross, that even when checks and systems are supposed to be in place, we have no idea how successful they are when preventing abuse. Time and again we are told that social workers and social work systems are being checked, yet horrendous cases of brutality towards tiny children still happen. No lessons seem to be learned; what we are told will never happen again always does.

Secondly, there is the assumption of guilt, of nefarious intention, of children as potential victims, of authors as potential abusers - all part of our siege-mentality culture. We bring up our children to fear and suspect others, and this is very very sad.

At the Winchester Conference last week, Michael Morpurgo, with his passion and idealism, demonstrated all that is good in the world of children's writers. He wants the best for children. He runs a farm in Devon where deprived children can breathe clean air, stroke the animals, learn to trust - sometimes, even, learn to speak. If he refuses to sign up to this legislation, are children in schools to be denied his wonderful enthusiasm and enthralling stories, each with a message (without being didactic or patronising) of love, imagination, seeing the best in other human beings?

One writer who is not signing up is Philip Pullman, angry that this legislation implies that 'no adult could possibly choose to spend time with children unless they wanted to abuse them.' He adds: 'I suppose, I shall never be allowed into a school again. I shall regret that very much, but I refuse to be complicit in any measure that assumes my guilt before I've done anything wrong.'

What's your view? When does protection become suffocation? When does legality become tyranny? It's all part of the debate about CCTV, ID cards, 'Elf and Safety. I'm reminded of the animated film 'Wall-e', where in the distant future the remnants of the human race are all on board a spacecraft like a cosmic cruise ship, where robots and computerised systems do absolutely everything for them: they're like plump babies whizzing about in reclining chairs, sucking nourishment up through straws, their limbs atrophied to weak little flippers.

Finally, for the next few weeks, oh joy, I'll be reading books entirely for my pleasure, not because I have to analyse them in class! Currently I'm reading the best book I've read all year - and I fully expect it to hold onto that position. It's Christopher Rush's 'To Travel Hopefully'. I discovered it in the travel section of Borders, yet it's not really a travel book. Or not only a travel book. Rush lost his wife to cancer; the first section is an utterly harrowing account of her illness and death, and his inability to come to terms with it. There's a terrible beauty in the language and a power and honesty in what he records that will break your heart. To heal himself, he decided, rather madly, to retrace the footsteps of his hero, Robert Louis Stevenson, travelling with a donkey through the Cevennes in France. That's the stage I've reached now - and the exquisite language, the range of literary references and meditative power of this book are still taking me by surprise at every page.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Winchester Report

So, the Writers Conference at the University of Winchester is over for another year. I meet friends there on an annual basis and we can never believe (a) just how many years we've been attending and (b) that a whole year has rolled by since the last one.

This year's one went particularly well. My mini-course on Friday was totally enjoyable. I had a pretty large class of 22 but they were all lovely people and we had a happy positive, productive day together. When I set writing exercises I was so impressed by the quality of their offerings - and as an audience we found ourselves amused, chilled, thrilled by each other's stories, several of which, it seemed to me, had real potential. So thanks to the class for being people it was a joy to teach - and thanks also for the appreciative comments: it really matters to the teacher when there's positive feedback.

On Saturday I gave a lecture about how best to make the transition from short story writer to novelist - trying to squeeze that into an hour was the challenge!

The opening plenary Conference speech this year was given by Michael Morpurgo. He was an absolute joy - insightful, idealistic, acerbically critical of our educational system, anecdotal, wise and hilarious. I've been to see Philip Pullman several times in Oxford and there were similarities - not just that they're both excellent children's writers but that they have been teachers in the past. They both have a fantastic sense of timing and the ability to balance information and entertainment that a good teacher needs. They're both supremely confident and full of enthusiasm and verve.

The Conference as a whole was the usual frantic mix of beginner writers, experienced writers, speakers, agents, editors. Over the years I've seen its scope broaden enormously and the focus change: when I started, there was little emphasis on children's writing (it began to seem to me this year that everyone in the whole wide world wants to write a children's book!) and on the skills of editing and pitching your work - now these are given, quite rightly, enormous stress.

In addition, there are one-to-one appointments: fifteen minutes where you can pitch your work to an agent or editor (they're the ones with a haggard, persecuted look to them by the end of Saturday!). Your dream may come true: the agent may like your work, ask to see more, even take you on. At the Conference dinner on Saturday, the writer Lola Jaye, vibrantly full of enthusiasm and disarming verve, described how she was taken on by agent Judith Murdoch at the Conference - she is now published by HarperCollins and is as happy as a clam. Even if an agent or editor isn't blown away by your work, they will say why - and this is so helpful, if you are prepared to listen to advice and work on improving your writing. Most delegates are delighted to get any feedback - and indeed one of the major functions of the conference is to give writers a sense that they are not alone. There is camaraderie and mutual support available - along with a lot of laughs - and delegates value this very highly indeed.

As for me, I came home with a vile sore throat and spent Sunday afternoon and a fair chunk of yesterday lethargic and unable to engage with things - but now I have to rev up again, as my summer school here in Oxford will start on Saturday - and that also is very INTENSE!

Welcome, by the way, to any new readers who've come to Literascribe because of the Conference: I hope you enjoyed yourselves, I wish you luck with your writing - and I welcome comments on this blog!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Winchester Weekend

Just a quick post today because later I'm off to the Writers' Conference in Winchester, where tomorrow I'll be teaching a mini-course, 'Making Memorable Scenes', and giving a lecture on Saturday on making the transition from short story writing to tackling a novel. Of course, the weather has been blistering - which doesn't help at all when you're trying to get your thoughts in order! If any Literascribees are going to be at Winchester, do come and say hi!