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Event Report From The Host: In Conversation With Claire Fuller

A photograph of Claire Fuller

Yesterday evening saw our first event at Cobbett Hub & Library in the Bitterne Park area of Southampton. Claire Fuller joined us and told many wonderful stories including the inspiration that led to Swimming Lessons (notes she and her husband left around each other’s houses), the influence of Kate Chopin on the same book, and the story of a young boy that helped inspire Our Endless Numbered Days. (Of that book she also spoke of the way the survivalist subject was written – having discovered there were no cults in Britain in 1976, the year the book begins, she brought in a fictional American.)

We had some wonderful questions, including one that led to Claire telling us about completing NaNoWriMo with one word over the requirement, and another in which she described her method of working – writing, going back and editing, and moving on.

The library proved the perfect setting, the panelled interior and wooden bookcases full of texts providing a nice colourful backdrop; all original 1930s Art Deco. We’ll most likely be making it our long term home. Many thanks to Claire, the library, and the Friends of Cobbett Road Library.

Claire’s next book, Bitter Orange is out on 2nd August. With only a few pages left to read, I can fully recommend it.

A photograph of Claire Fuller A photograph of me and Claire Fuller A photograph of me and Claire Fuller

A Jane Austen Evening: Historian Cheryl Butler At Cobbett Road Library

A photograph of Cobbett Road Library

We have in Southampton our own Jane Austen expert – a historian who knows a great, great, deal about the history of our city, too. Cheryl Butler is well known in Southampton and gives many talks, is a writer of local history books and theatre performances, and guides walks in the medieval areas of the city.

On Thursday evening, Cheryl spoke to those gathered at Cobbett Road Library, a community hub in the suburb of Bitterne Park. Now run by a small staff and volunteers, and championed by a great Friends group, it is one of if not the oldest standing library in the city, inhabiting a building that was created in 1939 expressly for the purpose of book lending; decorated still by its original wood panelling, it encompasses a stunning lobby that is the nucleus, the main library to one side, and a community room and children’s library to the other.

A photograph of Cheryl Butler

Cheryl came to the library to give her Jane Austen & Southampton Spa talk and whilst I believe everyone expected to leave having learned quite a bit, the sheer amount of information Cheryl knows was something else. Reason being – there’s not much known generally about Austen’s time in Southampton, indeed it’s completely overlooked by her time in Bath and Chawton, yet she visited and stayed in Southampton three times over the course of her life and there is good reason to believe she preferred this city to Bath. Living in Southampton, one learns a bit just by walking around and patronising the city centre – everyone knows that Austen stayed at the very haunted Dolphin Hotel near the sea’s edge, and that she stayed in a house the grounds of which were later rebuilt upon to become what is now a pub. There are other plaques baring information near the water’s edge and it’s fairly well known that she liked the ruins of Netley Abbey.

Jane first visited Southampton when her sister Cassandra’s school mistress moved her school to the city. Jane joined them; the school was based somewhere on the High Street. Cheryl believes that Jane’s talk of a similar-sounding school in Sanditon may point to an influence. Due to the movements of the military at the time – the various wars that were going on – there was a lot of disease about and Jane, Cassandra, and their cousin caught Typhus. That was the end of the first visit.

On the eve of her 18th birthday, Jane returned to the city, staying with relatives. These relatives were rich, at the upper end of society, and had connections to the East India Company. This was the visit during which the author danced at the Dolphin Hotel, in the ballroom which stretches across the first floor. (William Thackeray is also known to have visited the hotel.) Jane’s relatives are buried at Pear Tree Church, across the river from the city centre (Southampton spans two sides of the Itchen.)

A photograph of Pear Tree Church

Jane’s third visit happened when her brother, Francis, moved to the city. The Austens got a property together in Castle Square; a gothic castle had been built by the Marquis of Lansdowne with expensive houses surrounding it, the most expensive of which was rented by the author’s family. The castle no longer exists (the ruins remaining in the city are of the medieval castle) but the area is still called Castle Square. Jane wrote about their garden; she grew a flower that William Cowper, her favourite poet, had composed a work about. (Cowper was another visitor to Southampton.) The family grew strawberries. Jane enjoyed attending a theatre on French Street, a place that would later host her favourite actress, Sarah Siddons – though Jane did not see her perform here.

Cheryl believes it’s possible that we don’t know more about Jane’s time in Southampton due to Cassandra’s burning of her letters after she died. [Full disclosure: I haven’t included everything in this post.] We have some of her letters which include notes on Southampton and given this, it’s likely there were originally more. Cheryl also posed the interesting question – if Jane’s letters that include her dislike of the upstanding vicar of All Saints Church were not burned by Cassandra, then what in the world did the burned letters contain?

We have no evidence that Jane worked on her novels whilst in Southampton, but do know that she corresponded with her publishers for the return of a manuscript that they had yet to do anything with. That manuscript was ‘Susan’, which later became Northanger Abbey.

Do you enjoy learning the history of where you live?

2017 Young Writer Of The Year Award Blogger Event

A photograph of Sara Taylor, Julianne Pachino, Claire North, Minoo Dinshaw, and Robert Collins

“To be paid to write novels is the single greatest privilege of my life”. — Claire North

Last week I and others got to meet four of the five shortlisted authors for the Young Writer of the Year Award. The writers read from their work and spoke about the past and future.

From left to right of this unfortunately bad photo: Sara Taylor (The Lauras), Julianne Pachico (The Lucky Ones), Claire North (The End Of The Day), and Minoo Dinshaw (Outlandish Knight). Chairing was Robert Collins, formally of The Sunday Times.

At the now-usual Groucho Club, we talked over wine and nibbles, various bloggers, including this year’s shadow judges, and publicists in attendance. The shadow judges are yet to meet up to decide on their winner but they’ve been in conversation about what they’re reading. I’m very much looking forward to hearing their decision, which will be announced next Wednesday.

For The Lauras, Sara Taylor wrote both Alex and Ma’s stories at the same time. Alex was a gender in themselves, they were just ‘Alex’ to her. She started writing the book in 2012, before gender was a topic of discussion in the US and was writing it at the time she realised she’d be remaining in the UK. She wanted her book to speak back to Maureen Duffy’s Love Child.

Julianne found having only one setting too hard. She wrote her short stories and then saw the connections between them. The US publishers market it as a novel.

Claire North (Kat)’s parents were concerned about her having a ‘real job’, writing wasn’t seen as a career but she said they are proud. The author was first published at 14 and, now at 30, has written over a dozen books under three different names.

Minoo Dinshaw said that writing is the only thing he’s good at. He would like to try his hand at fiction in the future. He said that writing is a way of doing everything and being anyone, a thought that was agreed with by all.

I brought back with me the books I’ve not yet read and will be reviewing them in due course, hopefully before the award ceremony date (7th December) – it should be do-able in every case except, perhaps, Dinshaw’s book which is over 600 pages. Having only read one of the shortlist I can’t say I’ve a favourite yet, and judging by what we heard that may be difficult!

Hay Festival 2017: Tony Robinson, Neil Gaiman, And Stephen Fry

A photograph of Tony Robinson at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Liam Webb.

Tony Robinson wanted the house lights up so he could see everyone. Lucy Cotter introduced him as a politician and history buff at which point Robinson said “just a bloke doing his life really’. There was a fair chunk of humility that was apparent from the start.

Also setting the tone from the start were the jokes: Robinson’s mother spent World War Two defending the nation’s amateur dramatics. But on a serious note, she did encourage him to do theatre. As a teenager, the actor was understudied as the Artful Dodger and knew enough to get it right… he didn’t know the lyrics of ‘Consider Yourself’. He later went to drama school.

On the subject of school he said, “why does everything have to be a university degree?” He’s passionate about children having an education that is flexible, and said that as we don’t know what will happen in the future (what will be important then) why have just 5 important subjects?

When Robinson first read the pilot script of Black Adder he “though it was shite”, but then at that point it wasn’t what it would become. His letter, inviting him to audition for Baldric arrived very late in the creation process; he knew he wasn’t first choice. He never thought the role would change his life. There was little laughter during production; it was all about collaborative critique. “I don’t think there will be another Black Adder,” he said. The show ended on a high – even if another was written if wouldn’t be as good, nor as good an experience.

Of his TV show, The Worst Jobs In History, he said the worst was making the show; he was constantly ill from all the ‘muck’ and it took him 6 months to recover.

Cotter asked ‘why politics?’ (Robinson has joined the Labour party.) The actor spoke of hating bullying, the outrage about American history, but most importantly he didn’t want to just ‘moan about the world’ and then die knowing he hadn’t tried to do something about it. He talked about power in numbers. He’s active in his Bristol community; whilst it’s all away from his job as an actor he does realise the power of celebrity. People listen to him. He’s criticised Corbyn but says the leader had a good campaign. “We need the most robust opposition we can get.”

Robinson is also an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society. His parents both had Alzheimer’s for years; it was the ‘central motif’ of his life outside of acting. He found there was a lack of support for the condition and made a documentary about his mother, for which he received more letters than he had for Black Adder.

A photograph of Chris Riddell, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Marsha Arnold.

The evening after Tony Robinson’s talk, Neil Gaiman took to the stage with Chriss Riddell and Stephen Fry – it just made sense to link the two events together, all the more so as Robinson caused a small stir in the audience prior to the event, taking a seat in the first row. Riddell was there to ‘live draw’ the talk; the sketching was show on a big screen and for the most part Riddell drew his interpretation of the stories Fry and Gaiman were discussing, except the first drawing which was of Fry and Gaiman from Riddell’s literal point of view, a sketch of the side of Fry’s face and the back of Gaiman’s head. It was a fun talk throughout, but it was Riddell who initially set the tone.

The theme of the discussion was mythology, in particular Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology. The writer has always been interested in the topic and loved the Thor comics. The book began 9 years ago when he was asked about the subject. He spent several years thinking about how he should write it. It was important to him to write in a voice children could cope with. When it came to Loki and fighting, he stuck to one paragraph; he had looked forward to writing it but found it didn’t work dramatically.

Both author and actor read from their respective myth-inspired works; Fry’s is a book about Greek mythology.

Has Gaiman ever felt like a god, when writing and drawing? The reply: only twice – once when writing a Doctor Who script and including a stage direction, ‘interior Tardis’, and the second 30 years ago when he wrote what Batman might say.

At the end Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer (who was performing at the festival) came on stage to read a poem he had written. All in all it was a much greater event than even the description (and quoted appearances) could have suggested.

Hay Festival 2017: David Mitchell And Colm Tóibín

A photograph of Rosie Goldsmith and David Mitchell at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Liam Webb.

David Mitchell’s newest book was released last month (July). It’s a translation of Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8, written in Japanese by Naoki Higashida, about living with autism. Translated by both Mitchell and his wife – who is Japanese – the English language release is an effort towards making autism more understood; their son has it.

The speech and then talk between Mitchell and Rosie Goldsmith – who also has a child with autism – revolved around the condition. Like Steve Silberman last year, Mitchell used the hour to explain autism in real-world terms, breaking down the medical/world barrier. (Good, honest, conversation is something Hay does well.)

Historically, autism was seen as under the umbrella of clinical schizophrenia, or ‘living with the fairies’. Treatment was psychological analysis; in the 1960s, electrotherapy and LSD was used. The damage from these methods was massive and research into the condition was not worth the name.

Mitchell said, in the context of today, that the more ideas there are, even wrong ones, the more our knowledge will increase. “Just because research is faulty, [it] doesn’t mean there was nothing in it in the first place.” he said of MMR.

The writer uses the term ‘person with autism’ because people with it have asked him to; people made the adjective known to him – it’s fine when it’s a person. But Mitchell with call a person by the term they prefer on an individual level.

He does not like the assumption that a person with autism who can’t communicate is intellectually affected – it’s better to assume the reverse.

A photograph of Colm Tóibín at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Chris Athanasiou.

There were a reported 1700 people in attendance for Colm Tóibín’s talk with Claire Armistead. The two talked about the author’s latest work with ancient texts – House Of Names, a retelling of a Greek tragedy.

Tóibín talked about Antigone and Electra, working with the stories, using voice. He said that what Antigone, the character, says in dialogue is a translator’s dream; well-worded lines. He looked at Electra’s story from the point of view of her mother which gave him a different perspective, helping him with his own novel. In using ancient texts, he could get away from Ireland, the rosaries, tea, and rain – he kept the new book dry in that way. He pointed out that in retelling an older story, you can take just the story, whereas a contemporary novel has to be detailed and move more slowly. ‘Things you can just see in a play, you have to detail in a novel.’

He ended by saying that if you start to feel the weight of the historical work on you, you’re in trouble. (He just took what he needed.)

Armistead asked ‘why this story, now?’ Colm Tóibín responded that Nora Webster had taken many years, then came Brooklyn for another while as there was so much he had to use from his memory, his childhood, that he had to get right. He said that no matter how much you try to resist, some of what you know – your background, studies, and so on – will make it into a book; there’s a bit of Nora Webster in House Of Names.

The author works at 3:30 in the morning for a bit; the morning is useful for erasing bad ideas; one has time to chew on it.


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