2017 – what happened?

Obama's presidency (2)I

On 10 January 2017 President Obama made his final speech as president. The New Yorker Magazine showed its cover of November 2008 – Reflection by Bob Staake – originally published to celebrate Obama’s victory.

I ended my 2016 round-up letter by saying ‘holding our breath, let’s hope 2017 is a better, kinder, safer year for everyone.’  Well… we all knew times were about to change.  And we were not going to let it pass unremarked. In January there was the Women’s March.

Women's March 21 January 2017 (21)    Women's March 21 January 2017 (19)

Women's March 21 January 2017 (9)                 Women's march January 2017

In February the big event was a Labour Party dinner in an Indian restaurant on Green Lanes, at the bottom of our road, hosted by David Lammy our MP.  The guest of honour was supposed to be Dianne Abbott but she was ill. A surprise guest came in her stead – it was Jeremy Corbyn! Ours was his constituency when he started in politics as a local councillor.

Labour Party meal 2017 (7)

He was very charming and did the raffle. I took a moment or two with him to make some policy suggestions (more Youth Clubs! more apprenticeships!) and a good evening was had by all.

We were on the streets again in March, thousands marching to defend the NHS.

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NHS March 2017 (7)    NHS March 2017 (8)

The other big news in March was that I signed a contract with Bonnier Zaffre, a relatively new (2014) publisher which has recently added Linda La Plante and Wilbur Smith, and me obviously, to its list.

Signing (1)

Specifically, they have bought my Sixties novel, Beyond the Beehive, which will return in April 2018 as The Essex Girls. This is the new cover.

Essex Girls_final   Compare it to Woodhall Road in 1955 Woodhall (Hayfield) Road  (sister Teresa on her bike).  It could be the same street.  And the design people didn’t know!

The wonderful thing about writing books about your home town, people come out to meet you!  At an Authors’ Day in Chelmsford Library, part of the Essex Book Festival, in March I met old friends from our Estate and from my primary school.  And in April All or Nothing, the Small Faces musical came to Chelmsford. A gang of gals from my secondary school, Chelmsford County High School for Girls, dressed in mod gear – some more successfully than others, attended. We clicked our fingers, sang and only being seated in the balcony stopped us from running to the stage to dance.

All or Nothing 1.4 (5)

The other claim to fame of Gill, Amanda and Chris is that they wrote, directed and appeared in Cinderella, the school pantomime, in 1965 [See The Essex Girls, The Pantomime].

In May a wonderful package arrived in the house.

In Came Horace (2) 

In Came Horace was my favourite book as a child – my Auntie Sheila gave it to me, because at the time we had a cat called Horace.  The Horace in the story was brave and saw off any dogs that thought they could protect Horace’s little old lady owner. I lost the book years ago then recently found it online. What a treat.

On the town - posterI love the Regents Park Open Air Theatre, even if we sometimes have to see a show two or three times to find out the ending, because of the rain. In May this year we went to see On the Town, starring Danny Mac, a Strictly finalist!

On the Town May 2017 (1)

It was a great (dry) evening with a picnic beforehand – great burgers –  and a good show. New York, New York, it’s a helluva town.

And there was another treat in May – a day course on the  International Brigade and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) at the Bishopsgate Institute. It’s a fascinating, inspiring story, the struggle against Franco and his fascists. The history was well told, and then we were able to touch and leaf through the books and papers that the Institute has in its archives. That was quite thrilling.

Bishopsgate Spanish Civil War (12)          Bishopsgate Spanish Civil War (3)Bishopsgate Spanish Civil War (8)By way of light relief we went to the Barbican to see the jazz pianist, Brad Mehldau, a belated birthday present for Maureen Who Likes Frasier (WLF). I say light relief – modern jazz is a bit hard for me. I try to find a tune to follow, and then it runs away from me. The evening was enjoyed by Caroline and Maureen.

Brad Mehldau (3)June of course was the Election. Ours is a safe Labour seat (David Lammy MP) so Caroline and I went out canvassing in Brent and secured a victory for the Labour candidate!

General Electin 2017 2

July brought more open-air culture. This time for free! There was a screening of Turandot on the sloping lawns around Alexandra Palace. We took wine, food and blankets and had a fun evening of death, betrayal and high voices.TurandotThen I shot down to Chelmsford where for the first time in my life I cut a ribbon and declared something open. It was Chelmsford’s Listening Bench – an Essex Record Office scheme, funded by the Lottery Heritage Fund, putting benches in Essex towns and villages with recordings of local people talking about their past.

The Listening Bench (2)

 The big event in October was Rafi being born to my niece Billie, brother to Rudi.

Rafi and Rudi

And there was the fascinating, uplifting and heartbreaking exhibition Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern, which I’ve written about here.

Soul of a NationNovember of course marked 100 years since the Russian Revolution. There have been a couple of exhibitions, at the Royal Academy.

RA russian art (6) and Tate Modern, Red Star over Russia Tate December 2017 (94) 
both with a rather disappointing commentary, where it seems to be forgotten exactly why there was a revolution in Russia and elsewhere.  But also 30 years of my relationship with Caroline!

December – There was a knock at the door and a new(ish) neighbour from down the road was inviting us to a Christmas party.  She was just going up and down the road knocking on doors inviting people to come. And we went and had mulled wine and mince pies and met people we have never seen and never spoken to!  Such a good idea.

Throughout the year I’ve continued to be involved in Housing for Women – the charity that provides accommodation and support for women who have suffered domestic abuse, who have been trafficked, and who have just been released from prison, as well as older women.  We still go to Paris – lovely city. We were there around the time of the election which was won by Macron.

French Election 2017 (5)

And I’ve carried on with my monthly BBC Essex radio spots, when I review the newspapers – from the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph to the East Anglian Daily Times and the Basildon Echo, at 6.15 in the morning. I try to find some uplifting stories amidst the gloom – but I also talk about the gloom and try to give a different perspective whilst avoiding slander.

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It has been an extraordinary year. Let us hope for a peaceful and sane 2018. This is a cover from the French newspaper Liberation in 2016, but it may be the best we can get.

Brexit (2)

 

 

Opening the Beehive

Beyond the Beehive front cover

What a great evening at Waterstones Covent Garden on Friday night.  This was an event organised by Novel London and it was standing room only.  There were three authors, Christopher Bowden (the Purple Stain), Laxmi Hariharan (Taken) and me (Beyond the Beehive), each reading the first chapter of our latest novels.

The Covent Garden branch of Waterstones is in Garrick Street, in the middle of  busy Covent Garden.  It also has an entrance in New Row.  It is a place of nooks and crannies, layers and stairs, and shelves packed with enticing books. As I arrived, as the chairs were being arrranged and the wine glasses set out on the table, Norma Cohen who compered the show, gave the readers some last minute professional advice (only project).  Then the cameras were focussed, the mics were attached and, standing in front of a shelf with the title Smart Thinking, the evening began.

All three books were very different, mine about working-class girls in the 60s, Christopher’s about crime in Paris and London and Laxmi’s many-lives novel.  The evening was compered with enormous charm and humour by Norma Cohen.

Eizabeth Woodcraft & Norma Cohen at Waterstones Covent Garden

It was a great birthday party for me.  Several of my Christine-friends were there (people whose names are Christine) including my oldest friend Christine who is the inspiration for Sandra. Apart from arguing that she would never have worn caramel flavoured lipstick, I think she liked it (of course she hasn’t read the whole book yet) (Don’t sue me, I’m a lawyer).  There were people from my French class (merci!), writing pals, my relatives, barristerial colleagues and chums we see in Paris. I didn’t have copies of my book to sell, but I did have postcards! and there were a few copies A Sense of Occasion.  Afterwards, a few of us went to Carluccio’s across the road for a bowl of pasta and a glass of red wine and I went home with roses and gifts and cards.

So a huge vote of thanks to Waterstone’s Covent Garden and to Cameron Publicity for supporting such a great event, and of course to Novel London for setting it all up.

Beyond the Beehive front cover

Indie Author Fair

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While the Indie Author Book Fair was going on last week, on the 6th floor of the swanky new Foyle’s building in Charing Cross Road, and while the wine and the canapes made buying books an even greater pleasure than normal, I slid into a small side room and talked to Ingram Spark about A Sense of Occasion.

Book covers 002

Ingram Spark is an online publishing tool that provides access to a large distribution network for books and ebooks.  They were carrying out a series of interviews with independent writers, talking about their work, their books and what they had learned about the writing process.

You can see my video here (it lasts about two minutes)

Indie Author Fair

 

 

 

 

Jukebox Playlist – A Sense of Occasion

   London launch venue pics 016                                         London launch 009

With a Wurlitzer in the corner and the 45s specially sent over from St Louis Missouri (thanks to Bill Greensmith), the stage was set for a great party for a book launch.  A Sense of Occasion was about to hit London

Garden Court

Guests flocked to Garden Court Chambers from far and near – France, the States (OK – several years ago), Dover, Leicester, Wood Green.  The wine flowed, the Twiglets crunched – and the book sold!

London launch book signing                      A sense of occasion_white

There were at least three people in the room whose names were Christine (and another one who had trouble navigating her way round Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but that’s another story)London Launch - Three Christines

There was a great prize draw with magnificent prizes – who would not want to win a mug depicting the cover of the book, or a pen with the same image? and competition was naturally fierce.  The winners behaved with perfect modesty and stashed their booty into (suspiciously) large bags immediately.

It’s always difficult to know exactly what to read at a book launch – you want to give a flavour of the book but it needs to be a passage that has a logic of its own, a beginning, a middle and an end – and with short stories that’s difficult because they are already quite tight in structure.   So I chose ‘The Other Aldermaston March’ – which has within it the story of what happened to my mum and her sisters during the Blitz, the night they went to to their aunt’s in Woodford to have a bath, and a bomb fell onto the house.

London launch 9

 London launch 1

After the reading, the talking got louder, the music got stronger and the jukebox became the centre of attention.  Rightly, because this was an evening about the 60s.  Linda Lewis chose a few discs, assisted by ace hairdresser Frank Casali, and then there was dancing – but by then the pictures had to stop.

  Linda Lewis and Frank Casali

You can buy A Sense of Occasion here.

 

Chelmsford to London on a scooter

This is a journey I have never undertaken, although I did once travel from Chelmsford to Birmingham on a scooter.  It was a cream and green Lambretta.  I was on the back and got rather badly sunburned, but that’s another story.

Now there are feverish preparations for the London Launch of A Sense of Occasion.  A sense of occasion_white Bill from St Louis has sent a wondrous collection of 60s singles for the juke box – from the Four Tops, through the Crystals, the Supremes, Tommy Tucker, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, to Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James.

The directions on how to reach the venue in Lincoln’s Inn Fields have been circulated.  The cumfy chairs have been organised.  The wine has been ordered.  The big question of the day really boils down to one thing – ‘Will there be enough Twiglets?’

But, putting aside such grave concerns and to get in the mood, here is Martha Reeves, with the Vandellas, appearing on Ready Steady Go in 1965.  The weekend really does start here.

An Awfully Big Occasion

It is all go in Chelmsford, preparing for the launch party of A Sense of Occasion.

A sense of occasion_white

The Saracen’s Head will be humming – just as it did when mods dropped in, lurching from the Lion and Lamb, via the Golden Fleece and the White Hart, parking their scooters outside, slipping out of their parkas.

The play list for the launch has been one of the most important features.  As regular visitors to this website will know, the stories in A Sense of Occasion trace the lives of four mod girls in the 60s – love loss laughter and scooters.  So the music has got to catch the essence.  The Four Tops, Spencer Davis, Green Onions, a smattering of the Beatles, James Brown, Donnie Elbert and more.  Just listening to the tracks now is like being at the Corn Exchange on a Saturday night.  Everyone smelling their best – Old Spice or Avon’s Wishing. Everyone looking their best in their suede coats and their Hush Puppies.

Books will be on sale, books will be signed.  There will be a prize for the best mod outfit. There will be lights, there will be music.  Can’t wait!

Hear more great tracks at The Sixties Made Me

 

 

 

Brief Encounters

Looking back over a wonderful summer of ideas and art, the Last Days of Limehouse stands out as a thought provoking and interesting production, in the intriguing surroundings of the crumbling Limehouse Town Hall, telling the story of the original China Town.  Most of the buildings are gone now, pulled down in the name of modernisation, replaced by wide roads and concrete blocks, and this was the subject of the play, to a great extent.  Do we hang on to memories, dark winding alleys, small gloomy shops in old Victorian buildings, or do we go for an inside loo, hot and cold running water and maybe even central heating?

Limehouse the Last Days of Limehouse

The audience walked round the large ballroom, following the action, as the scenes played out.  Loved it!

 Limehouse Town Hall First Floor

The Musee d’art Moderne in Ceret was a revelation because it was such a fabulous place – Picasso, Chagall, Matisse –  bang in the middle of our holiday resort.  Bull fighting is not my idea of fun, but the art work was evocative and powerful, nonetheless.

Ceret (4)

Back in London there was the showing of Brief Encounter – David Lean’s 1945 film starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, at the Royal Festival Hall.  What made this a remarkable event was that the London Philharmonic Orchestra played the soundtrack – Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no.2.

Before the film began there was a complete performance of the Concerto with the pianist Leon McCawley.  Then Celia Johnson’s daughter spoke – describing what the film meant to her mother and reading from letters her mother wrote to her father from the film set, her fears, her triumphs.  And then the film.  How many times have I seen it? 3? 4? 5? and I had forgotten so much.  Its humour (Irene Handl playing the cello and then a cinema organ), its pathos, the despair at that gossiping neighbour.  The soundtrack of the film had been painstakingly removed, frame by frame, so that the London Philharmonic could play in its stead.  The result repaid the massive effort – with its wonderful rich sound, in the magnificent surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall, the whole event shared with a capacity audience – it was a great evening.

There was Matisse at the Modern.

Matisse Two Dancers (2).

The Earth Caught Fire outside the British Library.

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And there was Mondrian at the Turner Contemporary on the curve of the wonderful beach at Margate.

Margate London 6 September 019

It was a great exhibition in a light airy new building.  What did I know of Mondrian, apart from the fact he worked in straight lines with primary colours?  Fortunately, the recent BBC programme about the city of New York had given us a brief introduction to his life and work, and indeed there was a wonderful film which formed part of the exhibition which highlighted his joy at moving to New York with its straight streets and its brightly coloured taxis, as well as his love of the music he heard in the nightclubs.  But the exhibition displayed his development from his early work, a form of impressionism to the final stark representation of objects through lines and right angles.

Margate London 6 September 005

And then came the Black Chronicles exhibition at the Autograph Gallery in the ultra hip area of Shoreditch, in East London.

Autograph exhibition 003  This exhibition is still on – till November – and you should catch it if you can.

On display are fascinating images of a society rarely spoken about and even more rarely pictured.  These are photos, postcards and calling cards from the late 19th and early 20th Century of black citizens living in this country at that time.

Autograph exhibition 002

 Replete with culture, we’re now in autumn with even more delights to look forward to.

 

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?

EW

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.

#writingprocessblogtour