Places please…

Why do I do it?  Why oh why do I delay going shopping until I am almost faint with hunger and struggle to carry it home again?  I don’t do the thing of buying more than I need, though this is because alcohol and chocolate is already on the list and I am not more imaginative with “sinful” food than I am with the good stuff.  Well, I am home now and happily revived with the Saturday lunch of bread, cheese and tea (also known as the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday lunch) and it is time to write this week’s blog.  It has been a busy week, for once I have had very full days.  Well last weekend was a bit boring but I did manage to find the Anglican Community in Bonn.  I must admit that my motivation was not deep religious conviction, nor even the “Twitch upon the Thread” apropos Father Brown but the deep conviction that if I didn’t put myself in company soon I would go bad – and not in a Hollywoodesque, creative way.  It’s a 40 minute walk from my current flat and involved crossing the Rhine (not the Rubicon, haha – sorry).  I set out at 8am and got there ridiculously early for a 9.30am start.  They were very friendly and it was a nice service.  Now, I like vestments, incense and would be quite up for hearing the whole thing in Latin.  [Of course I’d understand!  I’ve sung Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Panis Angelicus, what more Latin do you need than that?  Oh, of course.  Well ok then, Caecilius est in triclinium.  (Eurage!)]  Well this service was very informal but it was very welcoming and also very funny – can’t remember ever laughing so much during a service.  Well, not without being prodded in the back and glared at by my fellow choir members in Chichester (at least 20 years ago I hasten to add).  So all good.  Unfortunately I had forgotten to check my purse before turning, had only shrapnel for the collection and had to make up an excuse to avoid the tea & coffee afterwards.  This week I shall be better organised.

Monday, as my last free day before my Berlitz training began, suddenly became quite full.  I had to go off and buy my weekly ticket for Ratingen, then I went out to meet a new tandem partner.  Nice chap, solicitor-in-training from Cologne and quite prepared to make me speak German (all hail!).  Tuesday started at 6.30am.  The journey went quite well until I got to Ratingen Ost at which point it fell apart completely as I could not find the street on which the Berlitz training centre was situated.  I did manage a complete tour of Ratingen and got completely soaked (it was raining) before finding my way back to the station and consulting the map board.  The Google directions that my Bonn supervisor had sent me were wrong.  They said left when they meant right.  I was in fact only 10 minutes from the Berlitz centre – and an hour late for the class.

It wasn’t a problem, the trainer and my fellow students were all very nice and, as it was the first day, I hadn’t missed much (phew).  So began a very long week of training in the Berlitz method.  Not a million miles from the CELTA I already have so it served as a very timely reminder.  The travelling is rather punishing though, being 90 minutes – 2 hours each way.  Still I get to stay in Bonn on Monday and then there’s only 3 more days in Ratingen so it’ll be fine.

What I did learn, talking to the other students, was how cheap it is to study at university in Germany and – stop press – some Masters courses are offered in English.  For a (6 month semester) you pay something like 250 euros and for that you get a travel card for the area (not just the town) you’re in.  It also entitles you to student rates on things like medical insurance.  Fantastic!  I will do another MA for the fun of it, free travel is just another bonus.

Well, I’ve been looking and it appears that most of the courses are for scientists and engineers.  I could of course go to Berlin but it has also just occurred to me how close I am here to Flanders, the Netherlands, even London (5 hours by train, 1 hour by plane).  Do I want to live in Berlin for two years for the dubious delight of studying English literature (again)?  What I was looking for was Literature or History and Religion / Theology.  Probably still trying the expiate the C I got for A’ Level RE and vaguely thinking I shouldn’t have declined the place Sussex University once offered me to do an MA in Literature, Religion and Philosophy – though I am pleased that I went to London and did History of Medicine & Science instead.

Well, I’m dead in the water on that front.  The only option was an MA in Ecumenicalism but (a) I’m not entirely sure what that is (b) it’s not really what I’m after.  When I come to write the sequel to Healed I will need to know about the Anglican church in England between the wars (and potentially it’s reaction to Fascism), Lutheranism and German religion in the same period.  I could just buy a book.

I read a book this week which was quite entertaining (genre-wise, think Jilly Cooper – without the sex – or Penny Vincenzi) but was badly structured, showed no character development and, having established quite a number, suddenly stopped mentioning most of the characters – obviously there is no need for every loose end to be tied up by the end of a book but 80% of the characters should not be “missing in action”.  What killed it for me, though, was the snobbery of the writer.  As I hinted in my reference to genre, this was a book concerned with the upper-middle classes; artists, journalists and MPs.  Everyone is either beautiful or at least beautifully dressed.  The main character though was described as lower-middle class (from a town in the South London Borough zone 5).  OK, no big deal.  We do exist, but this character was constantly embarrassed about the fact and her parents were viewed, even in her own eyes (she had been to grammar school and then Cambridge) as ignorant and socially inept.

Two things: as a writer constantly rejected by agents and therefore denied access to the mainstream publishers, I look for superiority in those that get through.  I find it; Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain… they are out there, no argument.  But I also find other books, books that have no literary merit, no originality and yet they are still accepted by agents and publishers.  It isn’t fair, it isn’t right and it isn’t good for the reputation of English literature.  I am not, by any means saying that this imbalance can be addressed by the mainstream publication of my book; it couldn’t, but there is an imbalance.  Now you might hate my book.  It is not a page-turner, it is not designed as one, it is a work of literary fiction, it is also historical fiction; it does not seek to proselytise or alienate.  It is a story about an army chaplain on the Western Front, that is it.  Now, you might want to tear it up and down and jump on the remains but you will never be able to say, fairly, that it is badly written.  That is not the only criteria of course, nor should it be.  Agents look for all manner of things; gripping stories, strong characters &c, &c, maybe my book doesn’t deserve an agent – it is a first novel, it won’t be perfect, the next ones, I hope, will be better – OK, I’ll take that, but if all that is true, why am I being asked to read debut novels that are badly structured and ultimately don’t deliver?  I quite enjoyed reading this book – until the snobbery started to become blatant – but it wasn’t well done.  Did an agent even read the book before accepting or just the biog?  One must wonder.

As an actress (I was a terrible actress) I have auditioned for badly written plays (in one the line “je ne sais quo” was so badly misspelled it was almost in Spanish) for directors who had little going for them but a dubious surname and the ability to wear a scarf indoors).  As a theatre writer I have had my writing dismissed as “just a witty monologue” and, most memorably a monologue about knife crime was dismissed because the director did not feel that the reference to a Victoria sponge (or maybe I was the doily) did not ring true in a monologue from a working class character.    In fact I hadn’t written a working class monologue, I’d just used my own background – the point being that knife crime effects more than those on the London sink estates.  “We don’t expect Shameless!” was the patronising cry but that is exactly what they expected and they did not have the discernment to understand why they hadn’t got it.  And that is why theatre continues to be elitist.  You don’t open up the Arts by setting The Miser in a DSS office, you do it but ending the assumption that everyone who lives on a council estate is a giro-dependent junkie.  And by dropping the ticket prices.

Sorry, that turned into a bit of a rant, didn’t it.  Wasn’t intended, honest.  But it is interesting to see who exactly makes up the majority of UK English teachers.  There are the young ones after the experience, but there are also one or two older teachers who got frustrated with not being able to get anywhere in England – despite the degrees that should have meant something to someone – and were lucky enough to have the means to clear out.


About afewwordsinpencil

An English writer of novels and theatrical pieces. My first novel, "And I Shall Be Healed" (Quickbeam Press) follows the experiences of a young army chaplain on the Western Front 1916-7. This and some theatre writings are available on the usual websites.
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2 Responses to Places please…

  1. thenoveilst says:

    But at least it’s honest 🙂 I’ve recently published two books in the UK, but I still don’t feel like an author. I feel there’s always room for improvement in my writing 🙂


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