John Petherbridge 1943-2014

John Petherbridge (2)

John Petherbridge died in April.    On Monday, a month later, a memorial party was held in the upstairs room of the Rising Sun pub in Long Acre, not far from City Lit where John was a tutor.  It was a great party, good food, good company, friends, family and colleagues.  People from all aspects of John’s interesting and rich life were present. I was asked to speak about John as a teacher.

John was a writer, a tutor, a lover of film, a radical.  I first met him in the mid 1970s when we were both involved in Women’s Aid – he was a worker at the Wandsworth refuge and I was working in the National Office and we were both on the Press and Publicity Subgroup.

Roll forward 20 years.  I signed up for a radio play-writing workshop at City Lit.  It was a summer course and we spent a wonderful sunny week in a hot glass class room led by John, who guided us imaginatively through the stages of writing plays for radio.  At the end of the week he brought in actors to read our work.  It was magical.

So then I signed up for his Saturday afternoon Creating Fiction class and I loved it. I had tried other writing classes but none had suited me.

John Petherbridge (1)This is what I liked about the way he ran the course.  He created a perfect world – like the Eden project, a world you’d like to live in.  The class started on time and John made it clear that arriving late was simply impolite.  The format of the class was clear and the aims and objectives were set out.  There were no favourites, there was no question of the same people being called on every week to read their work.  There were no in-jokes.  And there was no sexism.   John would have none of it, no sly comments, no lewd remarks.  If anyone said anything inappropriate he would ignore it.  In extremis he would say something, but usually he didn’t need to.  Extraordinary really.

This is how it worked.At the beginning of the class two or three people would read and then the rest of us would critique.  He wouldn’t allow anything unpleasant.  If a book was of a style or genre that was out of the ordinary or simply not terribly popular – for me Science Fiction for example – the class simply had to knuckle down and deal with it.  And then after the class had given their views he would add his own comments which were of course the ones you always wanted.  Rather like Masterchef – no one cares what Greg thinks, they want to know what the real Chef, John Torrode, thinks.

Then there would be an exercise on a particular subject – perhaps two people in deep conversation interrupted by the arrival of a third person, or something embarrassing that happened to you as a child, maybe the description in words of a piece of music that you like – and we would have half an hour or so to write something.  We would drift off to our favourite writing place and then we would come back to the class and read them out.  If we wanted.  I loved it!  Two pieces of mine from that exercise later won competitions.

I knew what his politics were – from Women’s Aid days and I knew that he’d been in  CND and although he was a bit older than me we had lived through many of the same social changes so I was able to feel safe in my material.  I wrote about being a mod girl in the sixties, the music and the clothes, Tamla Motown, Green Onions, Georgie Fame, and wearing a CND badge on my suede coat.He did ask me – as only someone who had been in CND could – whether it was the cheap sixpenny badge or the smaller more expensive half a crown one.  He assumed that for a mod girl, it would be the expensive one and felt I should have made that clearer in the piece.

Each term he would give us the name of a book to read – usually books I hadn’t read so it was a very pleasant time of discovery, books I would never have read, some forgotten classics like A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin, or newer unusual works such as Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding – and then he would take us through the book, showing us how it worked, why it worked. 

And he brought an agent in to meet the class.  The agent asked for manuscripts – I had only finished about a third of my book but John encouraged me to show it to her.  The rest – for me – is history. The agent, Annette Green, took me on and secured a publishing contract for me.

Last year I went to John’s 70th birthday party.  He was as always, funny, friendly, interesting and interested.  He gave a speech that had everyone roaring with laughter.  His story of some alleged damage to the door of a railway carriage was wonderful.  As was the speech by his partner Zoe Fairbairns.

John Petherbridge with Zoe                                   John Petherbridge with Zoe (2)

Zoe and John were together for 40 years and the fun and love that passed between them on that day was a joy to behold.  At the party on Monday Zoe spoke again, this time about John the writer.  This is part of what she said:

      A woman is off work with a cold. She’s lying in bed sniffling and eating grapes. Then her boyfriend arrives. For him it’s a normal working day; but he’s decided to come round in his lunch hour to see how she is. Soon however he is crawling under the duvet with her.

   The point about this scene – which comes from one of my favourite of John’s early plays, The Flying Bedstead, (1976) – is that it is not mere carnal desire which gets the man into bed with the woman.  The Flying Bedstead, which was performed at the Head Theatre in Hammersmith, is not a steamy sex romp. I mean it’s not just a steamy sex romp. That would be predictable, and, just as John was never quite predictable in his life, he wasn’t a predictable writer either.  What motivates the man in the play is envy – the envy of the person who has to go to work for the person who doesn’t.  Haven’t we all felt that?

   This sort of insight – these moments where you recognise yourself – are hallmarks of John’s dramas.

   John’s writing focused on the small,  the intense, but he always had his eye on the wider society. He followed William Blake’s injunction to see the world in a grain of sand. When he wrote about anti-nuclear campaigners in his radio play Toys from the Boys, he looked at the strategic and political issues, but he also evoked the smells of vegetarian food cooking over a paraffin stove at a peace camp.

   He wrote about imprisonment: a large subject, but one which, in his play Bluebottle which came second in the 2012 Brighton New Ventures competition, is reduced to the maddening buzzing of an insect.

     His radio adaptation of the Robert Graves novel Antigua Penny Puce told the story of a lifelong rivalry between a brother and sister over another small object: a postage stamp.

   He wrote about domestic violence, its victims, its survivors and its perpetrators. In his play Passing Through one of the most terrifying moments occurs when a fist breaks through the panel of a door. This fist is all you see – everything else is implied. Audiences at the Upstream Theatre screamed.

   One of John’s last plays was called The Secret Pleasures of Dining Out. It grew out of a conversation he and I had some years ago with a friend of ours who was a taxi driver. The taxi driver told us that when he picked people up after what he called a ‘middle class dinner party’, he always knew what was going to happen.

   While the hosts were seeing the guests off, the air would be filled with cries of thanks, flattery and appreciation of the wonderful evening the guests had just enjoyed.  But once the taxi moved out of earshot, it was a different story. Then the eavesdropping driver would hear the guests getting out their hatchets and laying into the rudeness of their hosts,  the horrible food, the vulgar house and its tacky furnishings,  the unfashionable clothes,the pretentiousness of the other guests, the low standard of conversation. The entire evening would be torn to shreds.   John’s play imagined whole gangs of party goers, driving around, sharing horror stories on their mobile phones, awarding points to, and deducting them from their erstwhile hosts.

Meanwhile, of course, their erstwhile hosts are doing exactly the same thing, phoning each other to do share critical reviews of the clothes, hairstyles, conversation and  table manners of their departed guests.

So I’d just like to finish by saying I hope there won’t be any of that when the party finishes this evening, because I hope you are all enjoying everything. Thank you for coming here to celebrate John’s life in a way that he would have enjoyed.


Writing Process Blog Tour

Kit Habianic is the author of the recently published novel Until our Blood is Dry, the powerful story of two families’ struggles in the 1984 Miners’ Strike.  She has also published short stories in an awe-inspiring number of literary magazines and anthologies.

I spectacularly failed to get into the launch party for Until our Blood is Dry – there was a problem with doors and the enormous amount of people and a desire not to interrupt a reading by Dannie Abse – and yet she has asked me to take part in the Writing Process Blog Tour.  This is ‘a kind of whistle-stop tour of writers exploring their writing process – they answer four questions about their work, then send you on to the next writer’.  This is a wonderful initiative. It’s fascinating to read the methods that other writers use to get the work out there.  Sometimes it’s a reminder of temporarily forgotten but well-loved pieces, but also an exciting introduction to poetry and other writing that originally slipped by.  Kit has provided her answers and has now handed over to me. I am in august company – she has also asked Martina Evans, poet and writer, the author of the Betty Trask award winning novel Midnight Feast, to share her experiences.

Here are the four questions with my answers:

What am I working on?

My first two books were crime novels (Good Bad Woman and Babyface), but I have just published a collection of short stories about life in the 60s – A Sense of Occasion.

VespaFor some time I had been working on a novel based on the same characters – Beyond the Beehive – and couldn’t stop tinkering with it, adding chapters, moving characters round.  I was getting nowhere.  Then, at a writing group I’ve been involved with for some years, I met a woman who had just published her novel as an eBook.  She said, ‘I simply had to get it out there so I could move on.’  And I thought, That’s what I should do.  A Sense of Occasion was really me dipping my toe in the water, to see if I could do it.  It’s terrifying not having the protection of a big publishing company behind me, and I’m not very good at marketing.  But it was a real buzz to get the book up there and see it on a computer screen, the stories gathered together as a real book.  So now I am fired up to publish Beyond the Beehive.  Then it’s on to the Seventies.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A Sense of Occasion and Beyond the Beehive are about Chelmsford – I don’t think there’s much out there about that part of Essex, certainly not about mod girls in the 60s.  And I’ve tried to reproduce the humour, I think there are some laugh out loud moments in the books.  Sometimes that’s not evident in novels about working class life.

Why do I write what I do?

I’m really proud of my upbringing, my dad’s union work, my mum’s socialist principles, coming from a council estate, the great friendships I had.  When I started writing my 60s stories – about 25 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of interest in that.  What I try to do, and I know I don’t always succeed, is get some politics in – socialist politics, feminist politics, not necessarily obvious, just there, how it was as I was growing up.  The way people talk to each other, the issues they care about, their moral codes.   I think we need those politics now more than ever.

How does my writing process work?


The word ‘process’ for my writing regime is a good vague word.  Before my first books were published I used to get up at 5.30, make a cup of tea and write till the sun rose and everyone in the house woke up.  It’s been more haphazard than that since then.  I write when I can.  Giving myself a deadline is good.  For A Sense of Occasion I decided, Right, it’s now or never, and I pulled a date out of the air.  30 April.  I got cold feet after a bit, because life was particularly hectic, and I changed the date to 1 May.  24 hours.  I felt much more relaxed then.  Having a cover to the book – a design by the fabulous Christine Wilkinson – also kept me on track.  But I was altering things right up to the moment when I pressed Save and Publish.

writing room

Now I hand over to two of my favourite people.  The American writer Sue Katz recently published a collection of wry and inspiring short stories Lillian’s Last Affair – the lives and loves of seniors.  VG Lee‘s award winning novels have delighted and amused me for many years.  VG’s Facebook posts brighten the darkest day.  These two great writers are about to tell you how they produce their work.