Read all about it: the power of the pen

Everyone's doing it - writing, that is. Steven Russell speaks both to a professional author hoping not to provoke the neighbours and some 'ordinary people' putting their stories in the public eye THERE'S always comic potential in a pompous twit's spectacular tumble from his position of privilege, as the seeds of his decline have been sown largely by his own hand.

Steven Russell

Everyone's doing it - writing, that is. Steven Russell speaks both to a professional author hoping not to provoke the neighbours and some 'ordinary people' putting their stories in the public eye

THERE'S always comic potential in a pompous twit's spectacular tumble from his position of privilege, as the seeds of his decline have been sown largely by his own hand.

QC Robert Purcell, academically more than able but emotionally stunted, finds satisfaction and status in the minutiae of the law but is hopeless at personal relationships. As his bohemian sister says, he needs to learn to love and become more free-spirited.

As his professional life soars, so his personal life falls apart. After a number of scrapes, he's faced with a decision whose consequences would swap all the things he holds dear for a stay at Hollesley Bay prison.

“I love the idea of someone falling from grace who has extraordinary intellectual and oratorical powers,” says Jon Canter, author of A Short Gentleman.

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“Do you remember when (disgraced politician and businessman) Jonathan Aitken talked about wielding the sword of truth, and suddenly the sword of truth becomes this ironic, wonderful phrase? You're not just falling from a height, you're falling from a rhetorical height.

“It gives you a tone for the book, and that's what excited me: an extraordinary gift that great rhetoricians have of arguing themselves out of a corner and always, always contriving somehow to be in the right.

“There's a phrase on the flap of the book that says this character is an intellectual giant and an emotional pygmy. I certainly met people like that. Growing up, I certainly thought there was a direct correlation between getting good A-levels and being a success at life, and I've learned that's not the case.”

Two years ago Jon's debut tale, Seeds of Greatness, drew on the differences - and the strong relationship - between two chalk-and-cheese childhood friends. Jack grows rich and famous as a TV chat-show host, while David earns peanuts in a Suffolk bookshop.

He wanted his second offering to be different in tone and voice, and not at all veering towards autobiography, but there are still parallels, surely?

“That's true enough. I did study law, my father was a solicitor, so law runs deep. And that tone of voice was one I was very familiar with - not just from my dad but from my earliest study of law books. There's a certain grandiosity of term that came quite naturally, I must confess . . . worryingly!

“However, my background is not like Robert Purcell's - not as grand and not nearly as English: a Jewish, middle class, Golders Green background, which doesn't compare to his. The tone of the book is familiar to me, but the events are quite fictional”.

Jon certainly didn't do what his main character does: write out his future Who's Who entry at the age of eight, including school at Winchester and then Christ Church, Oxford - “logical deductions, given my pedigree and aptitudes”, says the fictional Robert.

Playing a large part in the tale is the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh, Jon's adopted home for the past 15 years. In the book it represents tradition and all that's good about life, along with a slight air of complacency and claustrophobia.

The author says it's a town where you can still smell the 1950s.

“For example, if you walk down the front in Aldeburgh, you have an uninterrupted view of a front that probably has changed very little in the last 50 years.

“What's always struck me is there are a lot of people here who can't wait to turn into their parents. It's not a criticism, just an observation. There are people in their 20s and 30s who clearly have never wanted to go away from their parents or rebel against their parents' values; they just want to get on to their parents' boats and into their houses. It's traditional - literally, in the true sense of the word, meaning things handed down.”

Probably, he agrees, because life's so idyllic there's no point looking elsewhere.

He's slightly anxious a few locals might take umbrage. “I bumped into a woman on the High Street only the other day and she'd heard a play on Radio 4 in which Aldeburgh featured and she was complaining about the snide tone. I said 'Oh dear. This may be the last time you talk to me!' Let's see. She may be a barometer.”

It's unlikely the book will ruffle too many feathers: the tone is heavily affectionate, after all.

“Yes, exactly. It's a kind of love letter to Aldeburgh, but of course the man himself is not . . . what can I say? . . . that fine an advertisement for traditional Aldeburgh values because it all goes wrong for him, so you might almost see it as a kind of debate about the value of being conservative with a small C.

“I must say, when I was writing him, and it was my job to feel what he feels, I understood why he was the way he was, and identified with some of the things he said and not other things.

“I wait to see whether I'm drummed out of town . . . I just hope they give me a good price for my house!”

After studying at Gonville and Caius - he was president of the Cambridge Footlights theatrical group in 1974 - Jon opted not to pursue a career in the law. He worked in advertising and then, in about 1980, became a freelance scriptwriter.

Among the comedians he's worked with are Clive Anderson, Rowan Atkinson, Dawn French, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones.

In the early 1990s he began a fruitful collaboration with Lenny Henry, spending five or six years as Lenny's right-hand man on his live shows.

After “a few years off”, the pair have revived the association. Jon's worked on the comedian's last tour and is due to write for the next. It follows a similar pattern: Lenny sending over his written observations and ideas and Jon tweaking, adding to, fine-tuning and fleshing out.

“I still love it. Writing novels hasn't dimmed the joy I get from that; particularly travelling round with him.” Last year he spent a week travelling around Ireland with Lenny.

“That's the cruelty of stand-up touring. The joke you write in the afternoon, about the one-way system in Galway or Limerick, is the one that gets the hugest reaction, because people sense you've made it up that day and that gives it an enormous advantage over stuff you've been working on for months and repeating for months. They sort of sniff it out and feel it's personally just for them. And it is.”

A third novel is brewing: about age and youth. “As I'm speaking, I'm on page two . . . which beats the hell out of page one!”

Meanwhile, in north Essex, a creative writing group that rose from the ashes - more or less - has published an anthology of short stories and poetry.

The group, Write Now, began in about 2004 when it looked as if a creative writing class at Soken House community centre in Frinton-on-Sea would go to the wall. The tutor had a lot on his plate and needed to prune the adult education class, and the county council chose not to provide a replacement.

Members had enjoyed themselves and didn't want to see it come to an end, so they now hire the same room at £18 a week and go it alone.

Recently, about 10 of them decided to self-publish their writing in an anthology, May We Have A Word? The outlay was about £600, but they got a discount from the printer and then further welcome help with a grant from Tendring council.

One of the members, Bill Davies, says the group has a wealth of colourful life experiences on which to draw.

He joined after retiring in 2000 after a career in local government that began with Harlow Development Corporation and was spent mainly in the London area. As a housing officer, “you can imagine the characters you come across; the use of rhyming slang, and everything, still rife. I used to work in Bethnal Green and everyone was in thrall to the Kray twins.

“Having worked in the East End, and places like Islington, I met so many characters and there were so many humorous stories to be had from that. I belonged to an amateur operative company and started writing for their newsletter and included some of these anecdotes. It just sort of escalated from there.”

What's the thrill of writing?

“It's really the response of individual people when they read it - if somebody says 'I liked your story,' or 'It rang a bell with us.' Or you might have someone stop you in the street and say 'I had similar experiences to you.'”

And does anyone ever get narked if their work is criticised - albeit constructively?

“You do get people who say 'How dare you?' Or 'Who do you think you are?' But mostly it's taken very well. In one of those profiles” - details of the writers, at the back of the book - “one of our ladies says 'So far, no blows have been struck' and I think that sums it up. Any criticism is meant genuinely.”

When Pam Harris joined the group it was something of a leap into the unknown, but she enjoys writing and has found a niche in satire.

“I hadn't done any before” - writing, that is - “always wanted to, though, and had always thought 'words'. Because we do a lot of poetry-writing - not couplets but serious writing like sonnets and villanelles and pantoums; the difficult stuff - you have to write tight. So, in your stories, every word has to count. It's a good discipline.”

May We Have A Word? is on sale at Caxton Books in Frinton and Pen to Paper at the Triangle Shopping Centre; and at The Art Café in West Mersea. It can also be ordered from www.authorhouse.co.uk for £6.80

The anthology is dedicated to the memory of Chris Lammas, a much-loved member of Write Now, who died just over a year ago from cancer. This is one of her stories: Dragonfly

SUSAN, I knew that at some point you would see this envelope leaning against the kettle. You won't hear from me again, but my solicitor will be writing to you. I have enclosed a list of contact numbers you may need. None of these people know where I am, or anything else about me. I'm not even sure that it will really matter to you, except that you will miss not having a housekeeper, cook and chauffeur. You may not know this, but I was recently referred to the local hospital for tests. You may remember I was meeting some old work colleagues for a few days of golf; it was a lie.

The staff were so welcoming and helpful; it made me realise how cold and sterile our relationship has become. I had quite a few tests and had to wait a couple of days for the results. I had found a seat in a small garden with a pond adjoining the ward. It was good weather, and very relaxing. I thought I was alone, but from behind me I heard a sudden intake of breath.

“A dragonfly! Isn't it beautiful?”

I looked round and discovered it was a nurse from the ward. We watched as the sun lit the creature's flight over the roof.

“I'm sorry, but I have always loved dragonflies,” she blushed.

“Have you? How much do you know about them?” I asked.

“Not much, but the English dragonfly doesn't live very long, about ten weeks in all. Six of which is as a larva, under water. They live as developed creatures for only a month; that is if birds or spiders don't catch them. They are a powerful symbol to me. Their vibrancy is almost spiritual.” She blushed again, which I found very endearing. By the time I talked to her again I had been diagnosed and discharged from the hospital.

I walked towards the main entrance not knowing what to expect. In the department that deals with cancer patients, June, (that's her name) walked towards me, accompanied by her daughter.

“Hello John, how nice to see you. How are you doing?” she smiled.

“I'm not too bad, but this is my first visit since I left and I'm slightly apprehensive,” I said.

“The staff in the Chemo department are great, and very helpful; they will explain everything very clearly. Can I introduce my daughter Kate to you? Kate, this is the chap I told you about, the one who had to listen to my ramblings about dragonflies!”

Kate was as friendly as her mother. As we parted, June said she hoped we would meet again. She looked like she meant it.

June and I did meet again of course; I think we were meant to. I've not only found June, but now enjoy the company of her grandchildren, a delight I thought I would never have. We were meant to be together, some quirk of fate caused the delay. It still feels strange when I realise that June loves me. I know my life won't last as long as I would wish, but we are very determined to enjoy every day we have together. I feel so alive now, and have even forgiven myself for living too long as if under water, and allowing you to hold me there. Today, two fifty-year-olds had dragonflies tattooed on their shoulders as a constant reminder of how really to live.

(Lolita Dicks Syndication)

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