What Next? Poland On My Mind.

Juliusz Kossak
By Juliusz Kossak, Karol's grandfather.

I've spent a large part of lockdown prevaricating. Mind you, I've been doing a lot of writing, struggling with an ongoing short project that I must - and will - finish, editing a ridiculously long novel into something more manageable, killing a few darlings along the way. 

But I realised the other day that I've been indulging in all kinds of distractions to avoid the thing that life, the universe and everything is telling me that I really have to write - the story of my grandfather, my great uncle, and my dad's Polish family. A hundred little nudges and reminders seem to have come my way. 

This, they whisper. This is what you need to do.

No photo description available.The other day, I posted this little sketch on Facebook, and lots of people responded. That's me, very young, in a droshky. My famous great uncle, Polish artist Karol Kossak, sketched it when  I was visiting him and my great aunt, back in the early 70s. And come to think of it, that's a story all by itself, of a time when I went travelling across Europe by train, through the GDR with its terrifying borders, its guards with their big guns and bigger dogs. Karol was in his eighties by that time and his sight was failing, but you can still see the artist he once was - a fine watercolourist, specialising in equine studies, the last of a line of distinguished painters who worked on a grand scale, like his grandfather Juliusz, above.

Some time last year, I wrote myself a note. It said, when you are looking for the box with all the Polish historical paperwork in it, it's under the bed, you fool. Now, I've lost the note, but because I wrote it, I remembered where the box was. I got it out the other day. Two boxes to be precise. One contains an old green folder with a sheaf of Kossak sketches, many of them dedicated to me, some of them funny little caricatures of wealthy 'party members' who were visiting the spa town where he and Aunt Wanda lived. He would draw them for me on paper napkins, in the cafes where we went for coffee and cognac in the afternoons.

The other is a box full of words. At least some of them were written down for me by my dad, before he died, descriptions of his childhood in a place called Dziedzilow, now Didyliv in the Ukraine. There are maps and a few photographs as well, although now - incredibly to me - I can put Didyliv into Google maps, look at street view, and take myself along the road through the village, passing the service bus that has stopped to pick up a few people, passing the tantalisingly impassable side roads that I may not go down. I always find myself wondering if dad would have been able to bring himself to do it. Maybe, maybe not. 

I dragged them out the other day, both boxes. I dusted them. And there they sit, accusingly, enticingly. Go on, they say. You know you want to do it. 

I do. 

Almost four months of lockdown and I might finally be sure of what I'm going to write next. 

Great Uncle Karol 

Monologues and Stuff

Ken O'Hara WAS Rab in The Price of a Fish Supper

I've been thinking about The Archers on Radio 4 recently, because after a small hiatus when they repeated some of the older episodes - but not, alas, the divine Nelson Gabriel - they have resumed in monologue form, taking account of the need for social distancing. Challenging for all concerned. Except that it's not really monologue form at all. And therein, I think, lies the problem.

I know a lot about radio writing. It's where I started out, and I have more than 100 hours of produced radio drama to my name, both adaptations, original plays and series. You can read a bit about all that here.

 I've written a couple of stage plays that are monologues. But it's not a format for beginners - even though beginners tend to think that it'll be easy.  The most successful was probably the Price of a Fish Supper which started out as a play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, was produced on BBC R4, and then  directed very successfully by Isi Nimmo, with Ken O'Hara in the role of Rab - a production that toured to full houses throughout Ayrshire. It's a 50 minute monologue and what's known as a 'big learn' and a demanding one, for any actor. Ken was outstanding.

I've refrained from commenting on the long threads of discussions about the Archers on Facebook for a couple of reasons. One is that the community is fairly evenly divided between those who dislike the new format intensely, and those who love it and I'm not about to wade in. I've given it a good go, and I have to say that, personally, I'm not a fan. But at the same time, I know that those people who are asking 'how hard can it be to record some kind of dialogue online' are blissfully unaware of all the technical difficulties and complexities. So my sympathies tend to be with the makers: the writers, actors and producers who are struggling to please everyone in uniquely difficult circumstances.

All the same, I think I know why these episodes aren't working as well as they might for many people.

Monologues only really work properly when the audience becomes so involved that they forget they are listening to one person. They are there, within the drama, the other side of a conversation if you like. It's a hugely demanding form for writer and actor alike.  But the new format Archers, in an effort to satisfy everyone, intercuts one very short monologue with another. And sometimes - disastrously, I think - they even have terrible one sided conversations online or on the phone, with people the audience doesn't hear. 

Given the demands of the time and the relatively short length of each slot - why not be brave? Why not give each main actor a shot at a genuine monologue - something for actor, writer and audience to get our collective 'teeth' into?

The monologue form par excellence was, of course, Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. Everything else seems like a pale imitation. But the Archers' writers are by no means beginners. So it might have been good to seize the day and give them free rein to have a go.

Mightn't it?

What Your Bookshelves Say About You

I don't even know what my bookshelves say about me, but it seemed like a good title, especially in the light of those lockdown interviews, in which the celebrity or politician is carefully positioned in front of a shelf full of significant books.

Here are some of mine, even though I haven't done any interviews. The room where I'm lucky enough to work is full of books, and there is very little rhyme or reason to their arrangement - but I more or less know where everything is.

There's a loose subject matter theme to it all, and for a particular project, I'll gather lots of books together. So for a while, researching A Proper Person to be Detained, I was sitting among heaps of books and maps about nineteenth century Leeds, while the picture below shows the shelves that held - and still do hold - all the books about Robert Burns that I gradually amassed while I was researching The Jewel.
Burns among others.

On the rare occasions when I've been persuaded to sort everything out, I've needed a particular book almost immediately, gone looking for it in the old place and realised that I didn't have a scoobie where it was. So now, I weed out books I don't mind recycling, but I try to leave the rest more or less as they are.

All the same, the books don't stay in one place. They migrate. In fact I'm pretty sure they breed. So there are art and craft and antique books in my husband's office/studio, where I also keep most of my antique textiles (well out of the way of the paint), there's a shelf of novels in the living room, cookery books in the kitchen and heaps of our son's books in his room that has gradually become a comfortable spare room, although visitors are still treated to large tomes on Game Design and Discrete Mathematics.

Two things surprised me a bit about the celebrity books on display. One involved shelves full of 'colour coded' books that I'm told is an interior design thing. But no reader, surely, would do this? How on earth could you colour code a thousand books. Oh wait - most people don't have a thousand books.

I mostly read fiction on my Kindle now. I read in bed, in the dark, and I'm there, in the world of the book. But if I really love a book, or if it's written by a friend, I will often buy a paper copy as well.

The other thing that surprised me was people scoffing at writers actually having their own books on their shelves. Here are some of mine. Generally, nobody sees them but me. This is, after all, my workspace and few people are ever invited into it.

But why should people be surprised at writers having copies of their own books? Would you be surprised at Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh having a garden? The fact is that on publication, we are given a handful of author copies. We give some away to close family or to people who have been helpful, but we generally have a few copies left. Then we often buy our own books to sell at various events because that's one of the ways in which we make our income. We may even sell signed copies online.

Also, on those days when we wonder why the hell we are doing this, we can at least look at them and figure that it might not have been a terrible waste of time. Most books are the product of many months of hard work and sleepless nights. We like to think that it hasn't all been in vain. Having something tangible is a good way of countering imposter syndrome.