All images are courtesy of www.ivereadthat.com. This blog also appears as part of Crime Fiction Week at
One Saturday in the mid-1980s, I was in the Parkview library in Johannesburg, aged probably twelve or thirteen, a precocious bookworm who had exhausted the children’s section. My mother, who was a voracious reader herself, and who was tired of my nagging for something new to read, handed me a book by Ruth Rendell. “You might like this,” she said. It was The Tree of Hands. Memories from when you are young are always so vivid, so my recollection of that day is suffused with the smell of the books, the sunlight through the narrow windows, shining on the parquet floor, and the squeaky, squashy, sweat-inducing blue plastic of the chair I sat in to begin reading.
Ruth Rendell took me by the hand, plucked me out of 1980s Johannesburg, and drew me into London, her London. She did it with her spare, beautiful writing, her ability to create characters who are mentally ill, and wrong-headed, yet whose thought processes we can follow, and with whom we still empathise. Her plotting is impeccable and careful, and she places every clue and hint we need to fully appreciate her brilliant climax and denouement. She opened my eyes to what books could do. “One day,” I remember thinking, “I want to be able to write like that.”
That first encounter with her writing was more than thirty years ago, and I have read her work ever since. I enjoy the Inspector Wexford mysteries, but especially love her more psychological stand-alone books, especially those written as Barbara Vine. Her vivid evocation of the feel and geography of North London played a part in my choosing it as my home in 2000, and even though I have never written crime novels, her skills with plotting and character development have probably influenced my writing more than anyone else I have read.
I give you all this background so you can understand how I felt when I was given the opportunity through the Royal Society of Literature to attend a crime writing masterclass with Ruth Rendell herself. It’s not possible to overestimate her influence on me, and the thought of being in a room with her was overwhelming. When I learned that our assignment for the class was to write a 30-word opening sentence for a crime novel which we would be expected to read aloud, I almost needed resuscitating. Then I went online and read interviews with her. In many of them she sounded a little forbidding and cold, unwilling to discuss her personal life, giving ill-prepared or prying journalists short shrift. Now I was just plain terrified.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we filed into the conference room in Somerset House where the class was to be held, she smiled warmly. She is in her early eighties, slim, beautifully dressed, clearly fit and in good health. She spoke clearly and quietly, reading from typed notes, and pausing to go round the room and ask us all questions. Most of those in the class were comparatively inexperienced, aspirant rather than practiced writers, but she listened to everyone’s thoughts, questions and contributions with equal seriousness and answered them carefully.
She opened by saying that we should always seek to write a good novel, not a good crime novel. Crime may play a part in it, but there is no reason why books in that genre should be considered second-best. She spoke about choosing a geography which we knew well, both to save research and to give our work the ring of truth. With regard to character, she gave one tip so breathtakingly simple, and yet so brilliant, I have yet to stop thinking about it. “Even if you are writing a very bad or evil character,” she said, “Give them something to love. A parent, a child, a pet. It allows us to engage with them and empathise with their inner life.” She also suggested giving a character an interest or passion to make them well-rounded and interesting. “Give them a taste for something,” she said, “And if they’re a very good character, maybe give them a taste for something unsavoury.” It was as close as she could come to explaining her own magical abilities with character, although I fear in less skilful hands, giving your protagonist a taste for booze and a butterfly collection would not make them as curious and fascinating as her finely drawn masterpieces.
She spoke about her process, and how it differs from that of her close friend PD James. She says she does research, preferring books to the Internet, but using all sources. However she is not overly concerned with police procedure, or accurate details about guns, and in all her years of writing has only ever consulted the police once. Rather cheekily, she said, “If you want to know about police procedure, television dramas are excellent. As are the books of PD James.” She begins writing at the beginning, and writes chronologically, going back to change or edit as she goes on, allowing the plot to develop organically.
Ruth Rendell noted that people always ask what she uses to write, and that people often seemed to think writing on computer was somehow to be frowned upon, and that ‘real’ writers work in longhand. She said she felt that was irrelevant. “It is what happens between the brain and the hand that matters.”
In terms of the mechanics, she has indeed moved with the times and has three laptops in different rooms in her house, moving from room to room with her work backed up on a memory stick. She has a table beside her work stations with copies of Roget’s Thesaurus and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, as well as Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
As a contrast, PD James plans her novels to the last detail, then writes them in longhand and has them typed by a secretary. She will frequently work out of sequence, writing a key or climactic scene first.
What to write? Not surprisingly she said that the Agatha Christie-esque notion of a stately home and a “whodunnit” crime solved by a detective is old-hat. She talked about how she grew up reading Christie and Dorothy Sayers, unable to recognise her own family or people she knew in their worlds of aristocrats, bishops and professors. “Every tiny village in every book I read had a professor in it,” she said drily. “A type of person I had never met.” She urged us to write about real, everyday people, about how we live now, and to write about the why, rather than the who or how of crime.
She talked about creating suspense, about beginning from the very first line, with something that makes the reader desperate to read on. You want them to say, “I could not put it down,” she said. This was the point where we all read our first lines. She listened seriously and responded to each one, then read us her favourite opening line from one of her own novels, the now-famous one from A Judgement in Stone.
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
She then answered questions from the floor. The first question, unremarkably, was “How many books have you written?”
“I don’t know,” she said, brushing it aside impatiently. (I know the answer; it’s more than seventy, with the most recent due out in July 2013).
“Which is your favourite of your own books?” she was asked.
She said that she has always loved the books she has written as Barbara Vine (I concur, King Solomon’s Carpet is my personal favourite), and she named A Judgement in Stone and Talking to Strange Men as two particular favourites.
She answered questions about which aspects of writing she found hard. “I find it difficult to write action,” she said, “To move characters quickly from place to place.” One writer spoke about his difficulties with a feature of his work. “If you find something difficult, like me with my action,” she said kindly, “I would say just avoid it.” That got a big laugh.
And finally she urged us all to walk. To enjoy the exercise and to take the time to think and, “listen to the rhythm and the resonance of the words in your head.”
“The world is not very friendly to aspiring writers,” she said sympathetically. However she does scorn anyone who suggests that she has ‘made it’ and should stop writing and retire. She has no intention of doing so while she still enjoys it. And she spoke of the joyous discovery of being a writer.
“There you are, alone with your novel, longing to know something you do not know.”
I have wandered in the imagination of this wonderful writer for decades. In three hours, I could not hope to learn a fraction of what she knows, nor approach her skill. But when I hesitatingly read my written and rewritten first line, and she nodded kindly and said, “Hmm, yes, that makes you want to read on,” she closed a circle, and made the dreams of a thirteen-year-old South African girl come true.
I am glad to hear you are in hospital. I hope you suffer torture until you die. You idiot. I consider you are a person unworthy of existence in this world, and should like the opportunity of starving and beating you to a pulp. Why don’t your people find an asylum for you?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Except for the good grammar and spelling, this might well be the sort of message that feminist activists receive on a regular basis in 2013. It seems there will always be people who believe women should be silenced and who are happy to threaten violence and rape to achieve that aim. The letter above, however, is 100 years old, and was sent to the Cottage Hospital in Epsom, when suffragette Emily Wilding Davison lay dying after she had been knocked down by the King’s horse at the Derby.
This month sees the 100th anniversary of her death, and newspapers, magazines and blogs have paid tribute to this most famous of the suffragettes, and a martyr to her cause. Clare Balding’s excellent programme Secrets of a Suffragette on Channel 4 (available on 4OD) will give you as much information as you could wish for about the woman, her cause and her death.
On Wednesday evening, I was delighted to attend a memorial for her at the House of Commons, organised by Emily Thornberry MP. I’d never been inside the Mother of all Parliaments before and the line-up of speakers was impressive.
When Jane Garvey, Radio 4 presenter of Woman’s Hour took the podium, she looked around the room and said ruefully, “When Emily invited me to speak at this event; she said there would probably be about 40 people in a conference room.” Instead, she found herself standing in Westminster Hall, addressing an audience of around 900 people. Every seat was filled and more people were standing at the back. It was enough to lift my heart.
The thing about feminism is, at least for me, you get tired. You get tired of the endless anti-female crap in the media. You get tired of the crap in the comments section of every article about feminism in the media. You get tired of abuse, sexism, inequality, infighting, women who wouldn't know the sisterhood if it bit them on the arse, and smug twenty-somethings who can’t be bothered to vote and won’t call themselves feminists because they don’t see why they have to be one. They have earned the privileges they have, obviously. No one else had to fight and die for them. Excuse the rant. But my point remains. The fight never seems to get easier, and on Monday, when Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism appeared on breakfast television, she instantly got a stream of tweets, emails and comments telling her to “get a grip, bitch.” So yes, you get tired, and it often feels like a very lonely fight. I imagine that is a feeling with which Emily Wilding Davison might have empathised.
But then, you get to attend an event like this one, and the stage is packed with some of the most powerful and influential women in the country – Harriet Harman, Theresa May, Diane Abbott, Salma Yaqoob, Sandi Toksvig, Jane Garvey, and Helen Pankhurst. The audience is full of women (and men), who exude positive energy, and you feel a little, just a little, like maybe you are not so alone. And very sadly, I think this is not something Emily Wilding Davison would have experienced, outside of her own militant group.
Before the event began, one of the Doorkeepers took the microphone and said drily, “This event is due to begin at 6pm, and due to finish at 7.45 pm. I have no doubt we won’t start at six and we definitely won’t be finished by 7.45.” He was wrong. The speakers took the stage a few minutes after six, and finished promptly at a quarter to eight. One can forgive him for his pessimism. It probably doesn't often happen that an event in that building has an almost all-female line-up, and including ‘honorary sister’, John Bercow (Harriet Harman’s description), every single one of them spoke concisely and wittily.
Harriet Harman gave her seven principles of feminism (number two was: “If you’re being awkward and difficult, you’re making a difference”). Theresa May pointed out that while there have been 369 women MPs since 1918, there are currently 503 men in the House of Commons. Jane Garvey quoted figures which showed that in the 2010 election, 97 years after Emily Wilding Davison’s sacrifice, 36% of women didn't bother to vote. Diane Abbott talked about the changes she had seen, recalling that in her lifetime she had known a time when women couldn't get a mortgage and were forced to give up public sector jobs if they got married. Sandi Toksvig quoted legendary economist Beatrice Webb, who, when someone said to her, “Feminism is nonsense, any woman would rather be beautiful than clever,” replied, “That is true, but that is because so many men are stupid and so few blind.” Salma Yaqoob was impassioned and uncompromising, and urged us to see the links between race, class and gender discrimination. “Don’t divide people according to East and West,” she said, “Or into believers and non-believers, women and men. The only division is between the oppressed and the oppressor.” And even as my heart lifted with the speeches these women gave, there remained a niggling thought, which was articulated by Helen Pankhurst, the final speaker.
“This event and its speakers are anomalies,” she said. “We have not arrived at our destination.”
Every single one of the women who spoke echoed one consistent theme. “Are we opening doors for other women?” More than one mentioned the fact that when Margaret Thatcher left office, she left behind an all-male cabinet. I was struck at that moment how very lonely the journey must have been for every one of the very successful women on that stage. Diane Abbott spoke touchingly about how, even if we didn't want to go into politics and leadership, we might support the women we know who have.
“Ring them up,” she urged. “Ask how their day was. Take round a bottle of wine.”
And Sandi Toksvig made the poignant and powerful point that the world does itself a huge disservice in restricting education to so many girls and women. “If the solution to climate change, or a cure for cancer lies inside the head of a girl who hasn't been allowed to leave the house, let alone go to school, then that is a great tragedy,” she said.
When the speeches finished, the speakers all stayed to chat to members of the audience, and around me, I saw women begin to mobilise. Many were handing out leaflets for causes, events, theatrical performances and more. I met Sophie Partridge, an actor and writer, and activist for disability rights, who was there urging people to sign a petition to save the Independent Living Fund. She saw the event as a chance to get into the Houses of Parliament and put her case to some powerful people, much as Emily Wilding Davison took the opportunity some 100 years ago to hide in a broom cupboard on the night of the Census so she could claim the Houses of Parliament as her address. Support Sophie by signing this petition if you can. Let it be your first step in empowering another woman.
One of Emily Thornberry’s aims with the event was to propose the erection of a statue of Emily Wilding Davison in Parliament. “Of the 100 statues in these buildings who are not kings and queens,” she said, “94 are of men. There are even two of John Major.” If you’d like to support this, you can write to your MP to support Emily Thornberry’s Early Day Motion. There will also be an e-Petition on the HM Government website soon.
It was an inspiring event, and I feel like I gained heart and hope from being there. I can believe in a better future for women now, although sadly not the Utopia we glimpsed during the event itself. As Diane Abbot was concluding her speech, a bell began to ring incessantly, and all the MPs in the meeting, including Harriet Harman, Theresa May, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and John Bercow were called away to vote. “We won’t be long,” said Emily Thornberry, “But while we’re away, Sandi Toksvig is in charge.”
Now there’s a leadership I could support…
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.