Mitchell​ Symons at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests on what was a suitably dark and chilly evening the mood of which wasn’t lightened when he read a letter from society chairman, Barbara Large.

Barbara shared the upsetting news that following a consultation with her physician and subsequent hospital examinations she has been placed under long-term medical care and is being treated for a serious condition. However, she and her medical team are optimistic and everyone anticipates that Barbara will be back ‘shiny and new’ in time for March’s meeting and the onset of lighter evenings. Typical of her selfless attitude, Barbara apologised for her absence and I’m sure that when Dr Farnell asked that everyone join him in wishing Barbara a speedy recovery there was unanimous agreement.  Everyone is channelling best wishes Barbara’s way!

Special Guest: Steve Marper

The Hyde900 Project was established in 2010 to mark the 900th anniversary of the founding of Hyde Abbey, the burial place of King Alfred the Great.  The initial aim was to provide a platform to celebrate Hyde’s history and environment and to promote the wealth of talent to be found amongst its local people.  The project proved so popular it was decided to continue it beyond its initial planned period and it has gone on to become a vehicle to support other events in Hyde and the wider Hampshire area.

More recently it has broadened into a serendipitous approach to community-based initiatives with such things as public health and fitness, music, visual arts and written and spoken word being included.

Cycling, with the annual Wantage to Winchester cycle ride and numerous guided history-based walks, have proved to be enormously popular activities.  The Hyde900 archaeology programme, via the Community Dig, continues to investigate the early history of Hyde Abbey and choral music development is promoted through the Hyde900 Choir.  Written and spoken word, also an important aspect of the programme, is promoted through the Hyde Poetry initiative which is now well established and the Hyde900 Writers strand was recently revived.

Following a successful bid for Heritage Lottery funding an extended programme of lectures, guided walks, information pamphlets, music concerts and the provision of space for the visual arts alongside some bursary availability have all been made possible.  For further information visit Hyde99

Main Speaker: Mitchell Symons

Mitchell Symons was born in London and educated at Mill Hill School from where he went on to study jurisprudence at the LSE.  However, this chosen degree pathway did not enthuse him in the way that he might have hoped and he started to work for the BBC as a researcher and subsequently a director.  He also worked as a broadcaster and journalist and currently writes an award-winning column for the Sunday Express.  He was the principal writer for early editions of the once iconic board game, Trivial Pursuits.  Following his involvement in concept development, Mitchell went on to devise many television game show formats based on general knowledge.

Mitchell’s presentation was preceded by the cautionary note that his talk might become a little ‘potty-mouthed’ and that ‘Chatham House rules apply’ – which this report must ignore! Mitchell Symons proved to be a fast-paced, eclectic and tangential speaker who shared a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes without pause.  The warning of ripe language was issued with good reason but Mitchell explained that writers are notorious for their invective and over his years of moving in publishing circles he has become somewhat inured to imprecation.  By his own volition, he has been ‘helping the nation to poo since 1974’ and this, not for the last time, drew laughter from listeners.

Mitchell Symons is a prolific writer of primarily non-fiction material that includes quiz-question setting, oddly interesting facts and ‘how-to’ rules.  For example, he wrote the trivia for the pilot series of the TV programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but turned down an invitation to become involved with the televised show.  He has also published a book of pithy poems, a couple of which he recited to draw his talk to a close.

Mitchell was intrigued by his audience, claiming he did ‘not understand the purpose of writing societies’ and explained that the idea of writing for no monetary gain appalled him.  After a long and financially prosperous career providing his reading public with titles such as Why Eating Bogeys Is Good For You and Why Do Farts Smell Like Rotten Eggs? Mitchell’s nemesis came in the form of free-to-view internet sites like Wikipedia where content that would have been grist to his creative mill became readily available and free of charge.

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Mick Jackson at Hampshire Writers’ Society, Tuesday 10th October

 

With Barbara Long temporarily indisposed, Adrienne Dines kindly welcomed members and guests alike before hosting The Society’s Annual General Meeting. Adrienne presented for consideration the General and Financial Reports for the period 2016/17. A brief synopsis of the proceedings can be found at the end of this article.

 

Special Guest: Jon Walcott

Established in 2008, Little Toller Press is a small, independent publisher based in Dorset whose industry footprint has steadily grown despite its non-London centric ethos. Perceiving a market gap is often the catalyst for fledgling business ventures and it was the dearth of a specialist Nature Writing publisher that formed the germ of Little Toller’s creative profile, a profile that has become to be admired both within and beyond the publishing industry.

The success of any business start-up is rarely a foregone conclusion and this is even less so for those embarking on enterprises reliant on creative industry. This last, allied to the fact that the publishing world in 2008 faced what amounted to ‘the perfect storm’, should have ensured that Little Toller’s existence was short lived. Happily, this was not to be the case. A carefully constructed and meticulously produced early list, that saw lost nature classics re-born, safeguarded the company’s early life. ‘Classic texts of rural writing and illustration brought back into beautiful existence’ (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian) is but one example of the early impression the press created. This, coupled with a resurgent interest in nature writing and a reading publics’ appetite ever more whetted for well-written words on the culture of ecology, began to establish Little Toller as a niche but significant player.

The next major step for the house came with a decision to look beyond established classics and divine new writing talent but again, the aim was to stay few in number and high in quality. Excellence, in terms of content and product, remains Little Toller’s prerequisite. Following on from John Burnside’s Havergey, Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow and Fiona Sampson’s Limestone Country comes the soon-to-be-released and much anticipated Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton. The growth of the new writers list has seen the house liaise with trusted literary agents cognisant of Little Toller’s culture with the aim to further augment a nascent stable of contemporary writing talent.

Jon’s commitment to providing readers with exquisite volumes that are a delight to own still underpins the aim of the press. Little Toller is one of the few publishing houses offering discerning readers the chance to acquire books to be treasured and passed on. If second-hand bookshops still exist in 100 years time, a browser finding a Little Toller First Edition, will no doubt consider themselves very lucky indeed.

 

Main Speaker: Mick Jackson

The theme of Mick Jackson’s key-note talk was ‘Finding Inspiration’. Members were treated to a thorough and detailed insight into how Mick finds inspiration for his writing from what, on first appearances, might be considered obscure and unpromising items. One of Mick’s slides showed the interior of his office, a space crammed with stacks of books, magazines, posters and personally precious things of curious interest. By his own admission, Mick is a hoarder, collecting the ephemera of his daily life in the hope that one day some of these things might provide the inspiration for his next piece of work.

Mick, working in light of Adrian Mitchell’s declaration, ‘I like stuff’ takes this modus a long way and we were treated to a glimpse of Mick’s scrapbook, a leather-bound ledger of Dickensian proportion, crammed full of things that have appealed to his sense of humour and curiosity. Working on Tom Waites’ premise of ‘putting interesting things in the same room and waiting until they have children’ is a writing philosophy that has worked well for Mick who believes that ideas beget ideas. Having a sense of physical place to establish a story’s concept goes hand in hand with a love of physical objects and this was perhaps best highlighted while Mick was a member of the UEA’s creative writing graduate programme. He accepted an invitation to explore the grounds of the English aristocrat, the Duke of Portland’s country house. It was a fascination with the labyrinth of tunnels that the eccentric Duke had excavated and how this endeavour connected to the Duke’s need to withdraw from sight, that inspired Mick’s triumphant debut novel The Underground Man, Faber and Faber, 2007.

An example of Mick’s prescience for the direction that some aspects of contemporary writing were to take was his recognition that ‘everything already exists’; that it is the writers who have the ability to find the interesting angle or the new approach who will produce new and original content. It’s all about ‘finding what’s already there and showing it to people anew’. Mick drew on the Michelangelo analogy that suggests the Boy David already resided in the block of marble.

Mick seeks to ask ‘what if?’ as a way of subverting preconceptions.  In doing so he hopes to find a way to show the world differently, in much the same way as the great American post-Beat Generation writer, Richard Brautigan sought to make the ordinary extraordinary.

This was perhaps one of those keynotes that might have been best enjoyed first-hand, packed as it was with pithy advice and practical suggestions for writers seeking to find their next idea.   If you weren’t there, Mick concluded his talk with the caution that inspiration won’t come to find the writer, it has to happen the other way round.

 

The Annual General Meeting

Adrienne Dines conducted the AGM’s (20016-17) proceedings, with written reports being made available for scrutiny. Presenting a thorough resume of The Society’s position, the report showed progress to be developing in accordance with the committee’s expectations. Membership numbers continue to increase year on year which in turn promotes The Society’s positive financial position. Whilst the need to recruit more members was acknowledged, the current status ensured that all financial commitments for the period of the report had been met with no existing debt burden cited. Appropriate steerage is being informed by the analysis of the results of the recent survey which also evidenced members’ satisfaction that the society has hosted a pleasantly wide variety of events and guest speakers. The proportionate distribution between expertise from both the creative and the business sides of the publishing industry was shown as being appropriate.

The Annual Report, proposed as an accurate reflection of The Society’s position by Sally Russell and seconded by Joan McGavin was accepted. The Annual Financial Report, proposed as an accurate reflection of the Society’s position by Peter Hitchen and seconded by Damon Wakes was accepted.

Tracy Baines at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Wholly unforeseen events indisposed scheduled guest, Margaret Graham which forced a last minute alteration to the evening’s programme. Stepping in to save the day, The Society welcomed short story writer extraordinaire, Tracy Baines to share her wisdom on how to write short stories and how to get them published.

Sitting alongside Tracy was Ian Thornton of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, whose story of bravery and fortitude, allied to an unswerving desire to promote the charitable legacy of his late brother, was a privilege to listen to.

Special Guest: Ian Thornton

Captain Ian Thornton, a commissioned infantry officer with the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and patron of the charity Words for Wounded is passionately committed to helping his fellow servicemen wounded in the line of duty to live as full and active lives as possible.

Captain Thornton understands all too well the personal cost of military service, having tragically lost his younger brother, John on active service with the Royal Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. After this terrible event, it fell to Ian to organise some of John’s repatriated belongings. Amongst those precious personal items was John’s diary and Ian quickly realised what an important and unique record it comprised. Ian explained that John had already shared some of the diary’s contents and so knew John would not feel that he was being intruded upon. What Ian read seemed at once funny, poignant and superbly well-written. Indeed, it is a testimony to the quality of the writing that John’s diary now resides in the Imperial War Museum but crucially, before it found its way into public display, it provided an inspirational template for the publication of Helmand: Diaries of a Frontline Soldier. Endorsed by ex-Royal Marine and politician, Lord Paddy Ashdown and with a foreword from Simon Weston, the book comprises the diary entries of Ian and John Thornton alongside those of other serving and ex-military personnel. It provides a glimpse into the frontline experiences of those serving in Afghanistan.

The proceeds from the book support both the John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation and the Royal Marines Foundation and to date have enabled youngsters to become involved in a wide variety of activities that they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to experience.

Main Speaker: Tracy Baines

Growing up in North East Lincolnshire, in the estuarine town of Cleethorpes and with the river Humber an ever-present backdrop, a young Tracy Baines sat fascinated at her grandmother’s side listening to recollections of her family’s history. Not least amongst these were the tales of hardship, bravery and adventure of her grandfather’s time serving as a member of the now legendary wartime Baltic Fleet. Tracy promised that her grandmother’s wistful desire that ‘somebody should write these stories down’ held true.

It was this seed, dormant for years, that eventually began to germinate when Tracy visited her public library and found information on a local writers’ group and decided to become a member. Here she was finally able to find the courage to write of her great uncle’s maritime death. Tracy’s mother word processed the handwritten manuscript and duly sent it off to the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. To Tracy’s astonishment and delight, the story was accepted. Tracy wasn’t to know it but this was to be the first of very many publications.

Buoyed by her initial success Tracy wrote a second story and pitched it to Woman’s Weekly but as is often the case, writing success doesn’t follow a linear pattern. Tracy’s new story was rejected but the letter included an invitation to submit further work. Being inexperienced she didn’t interpret this to be the very near miss that it was and fell into the common but mistaken assumption that her story was without merit.

Tracy talked a little about what it means to be successful. For her, that means defeating personal demons in the shape of self-doubt and freeing herself to be the best writer she can possibly become. Here, Tracy was keen to point out that we all must learn as she did – that a story’s rejection is not proof that it is no good – but rather it is probably just not a good fit for its chosen recipient. Tracy stressed the importance of judging the market and submitting work accordingly.

Tracy uses realistic goal-setting as a method for maintaining her writing focus. So take down that scrawled note from behind your fridge magnet that reads ‘To Do: Write a 100k word novel. Win the Man Booker Prize’ and swap it for one that is in Tracy’s words ‘an attainable stretch’. For example, her goals might be that she writes a story every week and pitches to 10 magazines; implicit in this is the need to be realistically ambitious. Only after Tracy, with her husband acting as benign task-master, decided that she would cast aside self-limiting doubts was she artistically free to forge her career as a serious short story writer. From then on she finally understood that life as a writer was not just the preserve of a higher species of human but one that was possible for her, too.

Tracy’s inspirational message was that a writer’s life could be had by those prepared to work at their craft, banish self-doubt and persevere when others might give up.