The Short Story

I wrote a blog entry, but didn’t post it, the day after the launch of Charlie Hill’s pamphlet, Walking Backwards, last week.  I didn’t post it, because it was simply a description of the event, with some kind words on Charlie, and on each of the other contributors.  It served no real purpose, unlike the launch event itself.

For this was no ordinary book launch – it was a generous celebration of reading and writing, and in particular, of short fiction.  It was Charlie Hill’s night, of course, but also invited to read were Alan Beard, Hannah Swingler, Peter Haynes, Melanie Whipman, and me.  In the audience were many other writers, too.  There is a distinctive Birmingham literary scene which is vigorous, fresh, bold, (and insufficiently well known beyond the city-region – but that’s another question altogether).

One of the things highlighted by the event, and this wouldn’t have been so clear had it simply been a traditional one-writer-launch, was the social function of short fiction when read aloud.  Alan Beard, who is a world class short story writer, drew little spontaneous gasps from the audience when he read his powerful prose.  His style has the concentrated imagery of poetry, and benefits from being read aloud, the better to savour his careful, spare selection of each and every word.

Hannah Swingler, who is a poet, too, read work which required declamation – performance prose, if you will.  Peter Haynes surprised me with his teasing, affectionate civic musings. I am more familiar with Haynes’ writing than with Swingler’s or Whipman’s, and regard him highly, but he struck the right tone for short fiction as performance, showing a clever awareness of his audience, and the setting for the event.  Melanie Whipman, winner of the 2017 Rubery International Book Award for her short story collection, Llama Sutra, was an assured performer of her work, bringing humour and an engaging lightness of tone which was absolutely right for a short story performance event.

Which brings us to Charlie Hill, who conceived the evening.  I can’t say that I asked him why he chose to invite five other writers to share his book launch, but it felt to me that it was a way of placing his short stories in a wider context.  He’s a bold, ambitious writer, with a very acute sense of place.  At his last book launch, Hill was asked about his use of real locations in his work, and he seemed taken aback by the question.  I get that.  Writing fiction is about ideas, explorations, insight, and craft, amongst other things, it just happens to be done in a particular time and a place.  That he chose to end his three short readings with his story Of Atoms and Curses and Souls, was fitting.  It is a story that demands to be read aloud.  For it is about one cataclysmic event in one city in 1940, and it is about the entire world and all the people in it.  A little thing and a big thing all at once.  Isn’t that what the short story at its best is meant to be?

If there is an audience for the short story – and clearly there is – it shouldn’t take the singular occasion of a book launch and the generosity of one writer to make it happen.  The loss of Tindal Street Press was a great blow to the city and to the British publishing ecosphere more widely, but there are ways and means of bringing our literary culture out of our writing rooms and into the world, and if we have to do it ourselves, why not?

 

 

 

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Speech City

This year’s Birmingham Literature Festival more or less ended with a session, Speech!, about the city’s history of notable political oratory.  There had been little expectation of a big turnout for the event, but a respectable number of people did go along, providing an audience of quality, as well as quantity.  Both playwright David Edgar, and writer and actor, Sally Phillips, made elegant and informed contributions to a discussion which might easily have lasted much longer.

The event set me thinking about political speeches.  The consensus seems to be that political oratory is a lost art, killed off by television, and a culture of sound bites, but I don’t buy that.

It is true that political success does not demand competence as a speech maker in the way that perhaps it used to.  The open public meeting is long gone, more’s the pity.  When politicians had to face their voters in town halls and community centres, up close, personal, and usually with a barrage of heckling,  voter turnout was much higher, and discontent with the political class much less apparent than it is today. For that was politics as theatre, scripted, yes, but live, and always edged with danger. It was real.

These days it is possible to become a member of parliament without ever having to address any large audience that hasn’t been hand-picked.  Fluency and confidence are necessary, but soaring rhetoric? Nice if you can do it, but it’s like playing the piano or ballroom dancing (two of Ed Balls’ hobbies).  It’s not a ‘core competence’.

Nonetheless, speeches still matter.  And that means either a natural ability to speak in public (rare) or the carefully honed skill of someone who works at it (difficult, but not impossible).

One of the most important speeches of recent times in Birmingham was that of Tariq Jahan.  In 2011, as riots swept the country, 19 year old Haroon Jahan became a victim of those events.  His father, Tariq, a lorry driver, stood on the pavement before his neighbours and peers, and made a speech of great dignity and power.  He urged calm.  He demanded that no other parents should have to endure the horror that had befallen his family.

It was, genuinely, a great speech.  Not just because of what made it necessary, but because Tariq Jahan had the right words, and delivered them with pace, cadence and electrifying effect.  In many ways it was almost an African-American style of speechmaking, with something of the pulpit about it.

The same events, but in London, threw up another example of working class oratory.  Pauline Pearce of Hackney was more firmly in the British tradition.  Like an old-style shop steward in an open air union meeting, Pearce condemned those whose arson and looting were irresponsible acts of nihilism or greed, and urged them, as fellow black people, to take their grievances seriously, and to work together constructively for a cause.  In Pearce’s case she was notable for her raw, sweary passion – and her bravery.  An older woman walking with a stick taking on a mob heady with the raucous, deadly carnival of riot is nothing if not courageous.

The only woman name-checked in the session at the BLF was Malala Yousafzai, who spoke from the same stage in 2014 on the occasion of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  We are familiar with Malala’s facility with the English language.  Her style of speech is calm, deliberate, each word carefully selected.  It is the style most obviously exemplified by Nelson Mandela.

None of my examples are politicians.  Mandela became one, of course, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Malala does, too, once she’s got the small matter of A Levels and a barely functioning Pakistani political system sorted.  But their power as speakers predates high political office.

So what makes such different people great speechmakers?  And do you need to be the author of your own words to qualify?

Speeches are about a particular kind of relationship between the speechmaker and the audience.  In normal conversation, or in television interviews that seek to simulate normal conversation, there ought to be a sense of listening and thinking in real time.  Hesitations, repetitions, and verbal punctuation (the ‘ers’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘you knows’) signal a constant flow between interlocutors.  But speeches are not like that.

The speechmaker is, or by force of oratory, becomes, the centre of attention.  He or she holds the stage, grips the microphone, is centred by the spotlight, at least metaphorically. The transmission is one way – from speechmaker to audience.  It is a relationship of power and authority.

That is the case whether the words flow from the heart, and perhaps the pen, of the speaker, or whether they have been provided by a speechwriter, or even a team of speechwriters.  Though I’d argue that a badly read speech (I’ve heard a few of those) is nothing more than a dull person reading some words.  It doesn’t really qualify as speechmaking.

Whereas a good actor can invest his or her script with the electricity necessary to connect with an audience.  President Reagan, after all, had the lead in King’s Row, a movie nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in 1942.  Speechwriters are perhaps the most self-effacing of all writers, for they would be failures if they became better known than those for whom they craft the words.

I made my first political speech in my teens.  I have no idea what it was about.  I used to go to student union meetings on my own, and sit silently, listening intently, trying to work out how to vote.  One day, I put up my hand, walked up to the microphone, and spoke.  I was shaking by the end.  I don’t know whether it was any good.  But I did it, and went on to do it many more times.

What I learned is that beyond those occasions where there is an immediate and urgent need for wholly spontaneous speeches – as in the riot-related examples above – by and large, a speech is an act of composition, whether written in full, or a structured improvisation based on notes.  Sally Phillips, in an earlier session at which she was a speaker, described how as an actor working in a setting that called for improvisation (she cited her work with Steve Coogan on Alan Partridge as an example), she effectively ‘wrote’ her improvisations in advance.  Perhaps politics really is showbiz for ugly people?

The speech is a form of creative writing, crafting words to have resonance and emotional reach.  So next time you listen to a speech, get your lit crit head on, and judge it as you would any other form of writing.

The Writing Class

Sitting on a bus yesterday, I began to tune in to a conversation between two women.  Initially my interest was piqued by the name of the child who was the subject of their discussion.  She appeared to be called Tirana.  Perhaps the rest of the family includes Bratislava, Talinn, and Ljubljana? But I digress.

Let’s set the scene.  The lower deck of a bus. An array of passengers of many colours. And two young white women, both seriously overweight, both with baby buggies and bags of shopping.  These women were talking about Tirana in bellowing tones.  Had I wanted to avert my attention it would have been difficult.  I was tempted to put my fingers in my ears merely to protect against the danger of ruptured ear drums.

So I listened, and watched. A little boy threw his bottle out of the buggy onto the bus floor, and when mum picked it up and handed it straight back to him, I did my middle class flinch at the lack of care for basic hygiene.  The women’s voices rose, not shriekily, but with a throaty, aggressive power.  I began to think of something someone said (I don’t recall who) during the general election campaign last year – that politicians are frightened of their voters.  Being in the presence of these women might easily have felt quite scary.  For they embodied, perfectly, the modern stereotype of the white working class.

This was a kind of irony in passenger form, for I was on my way to a discussion of literature and social class, more specifically, working class writers and writing.

It was easy enough for the panel to describe the narrowness of London publishing culture, the apparent lack of interest in working class stories, the burden of representation, to re-appropriate Hall’s term, placed upon the shoulders of ‘working class writers’.  These are the whinges, which I often echo, and with good reason, with which we are familiar.  The gatekeepers of our literary culture are pale and posh.

But were we looking at the question the wrong way around?  How do working class people experience and consume ‘culture’?  What do they read? What would the women on the bus say?

The answer to that question is, I think, very complex.  We have a problem in this country with the education of those who will not go into higher education, but most people are still literate.  They read, they watch TV, they go to the cinema, they consume stories, and they tell stories. If anything, the role of narrative in our culture, including our political culture, has never been stronger (and more suspect – but that’s another question).

Who buys books in supermarkets, and charity shops, and at car boot sales? Well, I do, sometimes.  But so do many working class people.  Sitting in the session on working class writing last night, I remembered my mother, when I was a child, buying second hand books from a stall in the Rag Market.  When she read them, she returned them to the stall, and got a refund to put towards the cost of a ‘new’ book.  She read romances, historical bodice rippers, but also anything that got into the news in some way, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to The Godfather.  She was recognisably ‘tuned in’ to literary culture.  I’ve no doubt that the same sort of thing happens now.

There’s also a deliberate refusal in the literary world to take seriously, at a critical level, working class reading choices.  Across the country there are regional best-selling writers whose greatest fans are usually working class women.  We should be interested in fiction that seems to speak directly to lived experience, rather than ignoring its power and reach.

Nor is there just one way to be working class.  Gender and ethnicity play a part, but in ways which are fluid.  I’m particularly interested in the immigrant experience, as my parents were immigrants, and I live in a city of immigrants.

Immigrants are usually the young, the curious, the adventurous  It takes guts to move from the familiar and to try to start again in an unfamiliar place and language.  When I sit in the library I hear many accents and languages.  When the library service in the city looked at library usage by council ward, it was the lowest income, but most diverse wards that had the highest library usage.  Sadly, the white working class periphery had the lowest.  When I see parents taking their kids to the library on a Saturday morning, they are often clearly migrants.  They are our working class, too, descendants of the autodidacts of old.

So what might I have learned if I had talked to the two young mothers on the bus?

Their loud conversation, aggressive in tone, was actually rather sad.  They were discussing an educational issue with a real and anxious engagement.  One of them said, at one point, “I really need some help with this, but I don’t know who to talk to.”  The ‘bad mother’ passing a dirty juice bottle to her toddler was probably doing his immune system a favour, in contrast to the neurotic middle class parent who imprisons her child in a sterile, antibacterial isolation ward of a home.  These women on the bus are part of our shared culture.  They consume stories, whether in magazines, on soap operas and TV drama, in box sets, or, no doubt, in books.  And they have their own stories to tell.

We must open our ears, and hear their voices.

And the moral of this story?  Go by bus!

Civic Stuff

Last night, a book launch. The usual thing – arty middle class people milling around discussing their latest projects, the odd peal of laughter, the more ‘important’ people in the room trying to avoid being cornered by bores and no-hopers, and the writer, the poor, bloody writer, looking anxious and clutching a large glass of red. I like book launches.

So it was with the launch of Charlie Hill’s latest novella, Stuff.  His last launch, for Books, had been at the Ikon Gallery.  I’ve been to a few launches there over the last few years, before they mostly moved to the Library of Birmingham. Now it is the turn of Waterstones to host such events.  Each venue says something about the times. It was William Gallagher, blogging after the launch of the Birmingham Literature Festival programme, who put his finger on the question of the baton for literary Brum being passed from our beautiful, sad library, to the old Times Furnishing building. And it’s not about the sorry state of Austerity Britain – it’s about the re-vivication of Waterstones as a bookshop rooted in the lives of its readers and writers, and the restoration of the judgement and autonomy of its staff.

But that’s only part of the story.  It was as Charlie Hill was being interviewed that I began to see further connections between writers, readers and the real and imaginative worlds.

Charlie was asked a question about the importance of location in his work.  It was a pertinent question; he had just read a passage from Stuff featuring a walk through Kings Heath.  Locations are important in Charlie Hill’s work.  I recall finishing reading his last novel in a cafe in a converted school hall in Harborne, which was somehow appropriate. His The Space Between Things features a Moseley more like the grungy place of youthful memory, rather than today’s place of farmers’ markets and smart restaurants (he returned to the location in his short story ‘Odysseus Weeps….’, but this time the Moseley of million pound houses, not shabby flats over the shop).

Location, Charlie Hill said, could be integral to the purpose and texture of fiction, or it could be incidental.  He’s right, but he’s not right.  For the writer’s conscious purpose in choosing a location is a part of how a geography of cultural esteem is constructed.

Last night was both like, and unlike, many ‘arts’ events I attend.  Clothes, haircuts, spectacle frames, warm wine in plastic glasses, the signifiers of book launches and private views the nation over were certainly on show.  But so were the accents of the city.  That’s not been quite such a feature of many cultural events of late.  People were speaking in Birmingham accents!  ‘Nice’ Birmingham accents, David Stafford on Radio 4, but even so. It’s almost a revolutionary act.

When I got home I pulled a book from the shelf. It’s called Made In Birmingham: A Book of Verse and Prose, and was published 100 years ago, in 1916. It was published in the city by Cornish Brothers, and at the back it lists its many other publications from children’s books, to critical studies of William Morris, from play scripts, to technical accounts of the construction of the Elan Dam.  All books by the city’s authors for the city’s people.

The nation was in the middle of the First World War when the book was published.  We know how the following century transpired. But the book was a small symbol of a confident, thriving city in a confident, some might say over-confident, Imperial country.

Since that time, power and cultural legitimacy seems to have been sucked to the centre. The power brokers and the taste-makers come from a tiny caste with little ambition or imagination beyond promotion of their own. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not an outright lie.

So last night, listening to intelligent conversation, stimulating ideas, and in the company of like-minded citizens in a pleasant environment, and knowing that it was all deeply rooted in our city was just a delight.

No, not just a delight. A skirmish in a battle; a battle to re-shape that geography of cultural esteem to better reflect who and what we are now.  This has implications for everything, from literary culture, to civic identity, to political power.

I think, like most people I know in the arts, that the recent vote to leave the European Union was a bad mistake. But it can be read in many ways, not least that a lot of things have to change, and radically. Culture is part of that, both in the making, and in the reflecting, in the empowerment of new voices, and in the resistance to the forces limiting our creativity.

So last night was the launch of a book. And a statement of confidence in a city that’s taken a battering, but still gets up and carries on making things.

National Writers’ Conference

The first National Writers’ Conference took place on Saturday in Birmingham. It was a warm summer day, and outside the venue, on the leafy campus, marquees being prepared for graduation celebrations gave the place a festive air.  But as everywhere in Britain today, the appearance of normality was deceptive.

We writers, clutching our freebee tote bags (thank you, Penguin), clustered in to the Elgar Concert Hall to hear the opening plenary address by the journalist and broadcaster, Rosie Goldsmith.  Goldsmith, a linguist and champion of European literature, took for granted that she was speaking to an audience of confident Europhiles.  No doubt many in her audience, like me, remembered her High Impact tour of writers from the Low Countries, which introduced us to our witty and diverse colleagues writing in Belgium and The Netherlands.

Goldsmith addressed the question of the Brexit vote head-on, not in political, but in cultural terms.  Urging us to become “literary activists” to resist “a Brexit of the mind”, Goldsmith raised our spirits and challenged us to seek out the best creative work of writers and translators across the continent of which we are, and will always be, a part.

This very much set the tone for the day.  Even before Goldsmith’s talk, I’d had conversations with old friends and new ones which tended to be along the lines of,”…the first thing I remember with a groan when I wake up is morning is…”  Creative practice is not a delicate thing detached from the world, but integral to it, and sometimes we must feed on the grit to transform it into a pearl. Quite an angry pearl, if you can imagine such a thing….

Take Stuart Bartholomew from Waterstones.  It was a line said in passing, but I noted it as striking.  Asked to describe his customers, he used a new coinage among marketing descriptors.  He said, “Our customers are Remainers”.  No one seemed surprised by this, or in need of further explanation. ‘Remainer’ has become a shorthand for those who are curious, cultured, knowledgeable, open-minded, nuanced, empathetic, reasoning.  And I can anticipate the objections of those who see this as the self-delusion of the loser, but they are wrong. ‘Remainer’ is now an accepted term for a range of virtues. If anyone objects to that, as one of the ‘Leavers’ said on Any Questions a couple of weeks ago, “Suck it up”.

After the discussion on the book trade in which Bartholomew had made his comments, I went along to a session on working with agents and editors. It felt to me that the rumbling political undercurrent was felt there, too, in part in the diversity of voice and outlook represented by those edited by Ailah Ahmed, but also in the inspiring curiosity of all three panellists, the agent Carrie Kania and Nine Arches publisher, Jane Commane.  I can’t say that I learned anything new in the session, but it is useful to have the lessons reinforced by people as inspiring as Ahmed, Kania and Commane.

The session that most troubled me was after lunch, when I went along to ‘Changing the Writing World: Projects and Campaigns’.  Possibly the fault was mine.  I’d expected a very different kind of session, though to be fair to the panel, Nikesh Shukla, Melanie Abrahams and Tina Freeth, who all spoke compellingly, they may also have expected a very different audience.

This is my problem.  I’m an old hack when it comes to this sort of thing (a Father Ted-ish circumlocution for the dread word ‘diversity’).  My heart began to sink as I heard yet again the same old arguments and experiences I came across two or more decades ago.  The old phrase, then new, invented by the late, great Stuart Hall came back to me – “the burden of representation”.

Hall was talking about the ‘burden’ minorities carried in the world of cultural production.  They – we – were ‘expected’ to represent not ourselves, as individuals, but all our ‘kind’.  And that is unfair and impossible.  Yet most of my working life has been devoted to carrying the ‘burden of representation’.  It was what I taught, what I researched, what I wrote, until it nearly killed me.  That’s why I wanted to write fiction seriously.  Because when I ‘make it up’, I am freed of the burden of representation. I am liberated to be myself, to just tell stories.

So what I wanted from the session was to hear tales of uplift, of change, of the newly possible.  That I didn’t get that brought me close to panic, gave me an almost physical sense of being unable to breathe.

Thank goodness, then, for Bali Rai, who gave the closing address.  He continued the theme that had so depressed me in the previous session, but in ‘Being The Diverse One’, Rai gave it an ‘eff you’, kick-ass, charge of energy.  ‘Burden of representation?  No way. You, mate, are the burden, now get out of my way.’ That, in summary, was kind of the message, and very welcome, too.

As always, some of the best bits of the day came in conversations snatched between sessions, or over lunch or coffee.  Writing is a solitary business, but writers are a garrulous lot!  I came away at the end of the day energised, inspired, and keen to get back to work.  Thanks to Jonathan Davidson and the team at Writing West Midlands for the best conference yet.

Writer’s Musings And Other Stuff

I’m Yasmin Ali, and here I’m a writer, though I am many other things besides.

The things I’ve published down the years scarcely sit together on one author page.  I began with the earnest and the political, though in a strictly non-party way, and I’ve never quite given up the habit of political commentary (see my other blog for that).

This is the space for me as a writer of fiction.  It is something I wanted to do from childhood – write stories – but somehow I didn’t believe I could.  I didn’t know anyone who wrote books, and the names of authors on the library books I borrowed might well have been the names of gods or space aliens, so distant did they feel from my life and the lives around me.

My first short story was published in an anthology of crime fiction in 2009.  It was first time lucky – the first thing I submitted for publication was accepted.  I didn’t realise that actually I’d achieved something that most writers, good writers, often have to slog away at, sending submission after submission.  Fortunately I soon learned that luck only gets you so far.  Writing is hard work and takes constant application.

I’ve since published a few short stories, had the great good fortune to become a member of Tindal Street Fiction Group, the acclaimed writers’ group established in 1983, made my debut at The Birmingham Literature Festival, and taught creative writing in a variety of settings.  For more details see My Amazon Author Page.

My first novel awaits a publisher!  In the meantime, I’ll get on with the next…..