Sunday, 14 August 2011

Creative writing courses - is there any point in doing one?

Creative writing courses have sprung up all over the place over the last 20 years. I still can’t quite believe this but apparently there are a mind-boggling 10,000 short creative writing courses and classes currently on offer in the UK.

Lots of people sneer at the notion that creative writing can be taught but I totally disagree. I was one of the first batch of students to do Manchester University’s MA in novel writing 18 years ago and it inspired me from start to finish. Launched by novelist and academic Richard Francis and Michael Schmidt, the founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press, it gave me the time, space and confidence to write Hard Copy, my first novel. It also encouraged me to study writers I would never have read in a million years otherwise - Ismail Kadare and José Saramago for starters.

Richard, who's had ten novels published, has always been a firm advocate of creative writing courses and was professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University till 2009. “You may not be able to teach people to write,” he once said, “but you can take people who are capable of writing and provide them with the space and structure within which they have to write.”

It was certainly true of my intake. We were a very eclectic lot, some producing literary fiction, a couple dreaming up hard-bitten thrillers, one working on a comic novel about a game-show hostess and one (me!) writing about a Fleet Street hack whose career was on the slide. Each week we read and commented on each other’s work, making suggestions and encouraging our fellow writers along the way.

The upshot was that out of the 12-strong group, at least five became published writers. The most successful is the highly acclaimed Sophie Hannah, who’s not only a brilliant poet but has also written a string of bestselling psychological thrillers. Meanwhile TV scriptwriter Sam Bain has a list of credits as long as his arm (including Channel 4’s Peep Show) and Anna Davis, the author of five novels, is now director and tutor of Curtis Brown Creative, the first literary agency to run its own creative writing courses.

So if you’re an aspiring author who’s thinking of doing a creative writing course my advice is: ignore the cynics and get that application form off in double-quick time.

PS: I've decided that the washing line at the House With No Name (above) is the most scenic in the world. Hanging washing out is the dreariest chore but over the last two weeks I've done it with a spring in my step. As I pegged basket-loads of laundry on the line I stood in the sun and gazed across at this amazing view. Blissful.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Lunch under the plane tree in France

French shops pride themselves on their service. Shop assistants always greet customers when they arrive, check whether your purchase is a cadeau and wish you a cheery au revoir, bonne journée when you leave.

My favourites are the amazing patisseries, where the displays look like a work of art. At Anne’s, in Dieulefit, the lovely proprietor is so charming that her customers don’t mind how long they wait to be served. Her pizzas and tartes aux framboises are so renowned that the queue often snakes out of the shop and down the pavement.

When we get to the front she always greets us personally, compliments my teenagers on their French and waits patiently while we fumble to find the right number of euros. She packs everything up into exquisite paper parcels, tells us a bit about her time working in a London hotel and says she looks forward to seeing us soon.

My latest discovery is the amazing D.Cochet (above) in the town of Crest. Yesterday we bought a tarte aux poires there. The smiley assistant wrapped it in a dashing purple box and we hurried home. An hour later we sat with friends under the plane tree at the House With No Name, the terrace where generations of local farmers have sat and put the world to rights over a glass of Pastis. My teenage daughter brought out a home-cooked red pepper and courgette flan, rosemary potatoes (a la Jamie Oliver) and salad, then cheese (always served before the dessert in France) and finally the tarte aux poires. And yes, it was every bit as delicious as it looked.

PS: On the down side, the rodent problem at the House With No Name continues. My daughter rushed downstairs two days ago to report that she had actually spotted the noisy loir (a dormouse). Most nights we’ve heard it scratching and scurrying about busily in the roof but this time it had been brave enough to sneak through the roof insulation and into her room. She’d woken up in the middle of the night to see its bushy tail disappearing back into the tiles. Eeek. Monsieur Noel, the amiable pest man from Montelimar, arrived promptly that afternoon in his immaculate white van, and got cracking on the problem. Whether the loir dares to show his face (or tail) again remains to be seen…

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London reflects - the view from France on the riots

When I wrote in my last blog how our pretty sunlit café in the south of France seemed “the best place in the world” I had no idea how prescient those words would turn out to be.

While we were happily sipping coffee, worrying whether the mysterious scratching sounds in the roof were coming from a loir or a fouine (both rodents and both equally alarming) and planning a housewarming party, London had turned into a war zone overnight.

The French rarely take much notice of UK news but even here, in the middle of nowhere, everyone’s talking about the riots. The story features on page four of today’s Le Figaro under the headline Londres s’interroge après une nouvelle nuit de violences (London reflects after another night of violence) and the man in the local boulangerie asked my husband for an update when he popped in to buy croissants this morning. 

The best piece I’ve read so far is by Mary Riddell in today’s Daily Telegraph. “London’s riots are not the Tupperware troubles of Greece or Spain, where the middle classes lash against their day of reckoning,” she says. “They are the proof that a selection of young Britain – the stabbers, shooters, looters, chancers and their frightened acolytes – has fallen off the cliff-edge of a crumbling nation.”

She’s so right. I can’t remember a time when the divide between haves and the have-nots has been so terrifyingly wide.  A whole generation of teenagers in our most disadvantaged areas have next to no hope in their lives.  They may possess the latest smart phones and coolest trainers on the block but a large proportion of them don’t have caring families, skills, qualifications or any passions in life.

PS: On a lighter note, the first party at the House with No Name went with a swing. As the sun went down over the Roche Colombe we drank Clairette de Die, the local sparkling white wine, and toasted everyone who has helped bring the house back to life. When one of my dearest friends first spotted the tumbledown house six years ago she emailed me to say it was “a very old farm, with heaps of charm.” And do you know what? It is.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Breakfast at a sunlit café in France

My lovely teenage daughter has arrived from London, laden with treats. From the depths of her suitcase she produces a mauve box of M&S Empress Grey tea bags (they’re simply the best), three mosquito nets, some Rococo fudge for her brother and a copy of last night’s Evening Standard. Even though I left my reporting job on the paper years ago, I’m an Evening Standard addict and the thought of reading it in deepest rural France is one of life’s little luxuries.

I take the paper to the Café de Globe to read in the sun over a coffee. After years of getting the etiquette of French coffee completely wrong I now know it’s essential to order a café crème. If you ask for a café au lait the waiter (with a very withering look) will present you with a bowl of coffee topped with an alarming mass of whipped cream. On the same note, never ask for a café crème after midday in France. It must be a petit café or an espresso. Nothing else will do.

My teenage son dashes across the street to buy croissants from the boulangerie and we sit and eat them with our coffee. I can’t imagine Starbucks being impressed by customers arriving with breakfast from another shop but it seems utterly normal in France.

The pavement outside the Café de Globe is so hot that the waiter hurries out to extend the awning and give us a little more shade. The café is packed with old men drinking Pastis and poring over Le Figaro and workers from the Crest Jazz Festival (see above) chatting about last night's storming performance by pianist Chucho Valdes. When I open my Evening Standard. I’m stunned by the terrible news from home. While we have been merrily painting, decorating and rearranging furniture at the House with No Name, stock markets across the world have plunged into turmoil, an Eton schoolboy has been killed by a polar bear in Norway and there's been a riot in Tottenham.

Suddenly our pretty sunlit café in the south of France seems the most peaceful place in the world to be.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The alarming rise of SMOGs and why boys are brilliant too

I know it’s the silly season but this week’s newspaper stories about mothers who only want daughters really take the biscuit.

The papers are reporting a rise in the number of mums who are horrified by the thought of raising boys and reckon girls rule. First spotted by Mumsnet last year, they’ve been dubbed the Smug Mothers of Girls (or SMOGs for short).

One mother (presumably of boys) was so horrified by the SMOG phenomenon that she wrote: “I find that some mums who only have girls find boys annoying and are alarmed and judgmental about their behaviour. They tut when boys chase pigeons in the park or shout nearby.”

My lovely son (and no, I’m really not biased) celebrated his 17th birthday yesterday so for what it’s worth, I thought I’d throw in my opinion. He’d be the first to agree that he’s slightly chaotic but he’s also incredibly kind, funny, independent-minded and a mine of quirky information. Yesterday, thanks to him, I learned about the intricate detail that goes into constructing a BMX ramp, discovered a website called Cracked (he calls it “an exciting menagerie of factual articles”) and debated the pros and cons of Aerogel, a new insulating material.

Over the years he’s terrified the living daylights out of me with his scary biking exploits (one of which resulted in a collar bone broken in three places and several stints in hospital) but I couldn’t be prouder of him. Hmmm. Reading back over this, I’m definitely in danger of turning into a DMOB (Defensive Mother of a Boy).

PS: We’d planned to celebrate my son’s big day with a special breakfast on the half-built terrace at the House with No Name. My husband rushed off at dawn to buy croissants and pains au chocolat but when he got back the removal man had arrived from Oxford. He was supposed to be joined by a local monsieur called Remy – but Remy never showed up. So we all pitched in to help, my son marking the first few hours of his anniversaire by lugging sofas, tables and beds in the scorching sun. Did he utter a word of complaint? He's a boy. Of course he didn’t.

PPS: He’s given me his permission to write this!  

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

How to dress in summer

Looking summery and stylish when the temperature soars is a tricky feat to pull off.

Suddenly exposed to a few sunrays after months of drizzle and cold, most of us look as though we’ve never encountered summer before. Apart from a handful of style icons like Alexa Chung and Natalie Portman, we haven’t got a clue what to wear during the summer months. I certainly haven’t. I’ve worn black tights till the end of July, horrified at the thought of exposing my pale legs.

When I headed into London recently I looked around at my fellow commuters and realised I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue. Some were in skimpy frocks more suited to Ibiza nightclubs, some had opted for those horrible flouncy skirts that don’t look good on anyone and a few were still buttoned up to the neck in winter outfits.

Judging by this week’s pictures of David Cameron and George Osborne, it’s doubly hard for holidaying politicians. Forced to cast aside their slick city suits and polished brogues, their attempts to go into relaxed mode go horribly wrong. First the PM was snapped sipping cappuccino in a Tuscan café wearing wintery black loafers and no socks. Then the Chancellor was seen in LA sporting loose-fitting jeans, grey jacket and a very unchic red and black mini-rucksack.

But the worst offenders in hot weather are the men who emerge in too-short shorts, open-toed sandals and beige socks (a combination that should have been thrown in the bin years ago) and pudding-basin sunhats that even David Beckham would be hard-pressed to look good in. The British as a nation, I reckon, are in need of an urgent summer makeover.

PS: If, like me, you dream of escaping to a new life in France, do read Karen Wheeler’s accounts of her decision to hang up her high heels and move to rural Poitou-Charentes in western France. Or as she calls it, “the land of the long lunch." When I reviewed her first book, Tout Sweet, a couple of years ago, I wrote: “I’m loving former fashion editor Karen Wheeler's new book... If she can do it, I keep thinking, then so can I.” I still stand by every word. And today it’s being published in the US (the American cover is shown above), so I hope it sells stack-loads of copies.

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