Report by Peter Hitchen
The Society’s February gathering proved to be an occasion of great contrast, hosting Marian Forkin of The Book Bus charity and Simon Brett OBE, multi-award winning author of serialised crime fiction novels, radio and television producer and script-writer.
Special Guest: Marian Forkin.
Marian explained that the fundamental aim of The Book Bus organisation was to enhance the life chances of children in Third World countries through the provision of books and libraries. These are children who would otherwise be unable to develop their potential. That simple truth was the catalyst for the formation of The Book Bus project in 2006 by founder, Tom Maschler, remembered as the publisher of Penguin, when he saw first-hand the sheer scarcity of books in the remote areas of Zambia that he was visiting.
The charity is now centred in Malawi, a country where only 5% of children receive a secondary education. Marian shared a stark and inspirational example of how books can change lives by explaining how African boy, Kelvin Doe, invented a wind-powered electricity generator so that he would be able to read at home in the evenings. It was Kelvin’s access to a book, helping him realise that simple but life-changing aim, that eventually led him to present at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a 15-year-old and finally to embark on a PhD in the United States of America.
Marian was keen to show how the ethos of The Book Bus organisation was based on a desire to promote enablement through access to books and thereby foster independence and self-determination. The children accessing the programme have their reading levels monitored and are assessed and measured against standardised attainment targets so that individual progress is a tangible, organisational outcome. The annual cost of running the Malawian programme is a modest £15k and similar projects seek to achieve equally beneficial outcomes across Africa, Asia and South America.
To round off an inspirational and very affecting presentation, Marian shared a video of the wonderful work that The Book Bus organisation is currently undertaking. For more information on this important and far-reaching initiative, please visit: www.thebookbus.org
Keynote Speaker: Simon Brett, OBE
After graduating from university, Simon started a long career in both radio and television, but it is as a prolific writer of crime fiction that he is perhaps most well known. To date he is credited with over 80 crime fiction novels, his work comprising favourite collections including the Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter, Fethering, and Blotto & Twinks series. Further to these much loved and intricately plotted books, Simon has also written successful non-series novels with his Shock to the System (1984) being produced as a film starring Michael Caine.
In 2014, in recognition of his lifetime achievement, Simon was awarded the Diamond Dagger for Crime Fiction and in 2016 he was invested with an Order of the British Empire. Not bad for someone who started his working life as a Father Christmas in a London Department store!
The longevity and breadth of Simon’s success offers a wealth of practical experience from which he can draw and from this he was able to relate valuable and grounded advice to new and seasoned scribblers alike. Simon alluded to the idea that to choose to be a writer was by definition to choose a life, if not of loneliness, then solitariness. For a large part writers have to be content in their own company while they create the worlds of fiction that their characters inhabit.
From Simon’s work in broadcasting – particularly his work in radio (a medium, he said, that lends itself particularly well to the writer) – he found great inspiration for many of his story ideas and his future writing career. His early adaptation of a Dorothy L Sayers ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ adventure was the catalyst that launched him into full-time writing. Perhaps it was the levity to be found in Sayers’ prose style that was to become part of the wonderful signature humour that underpins much of Simon’s work. And to this end Simon was keen to explain that writers should not be bound or stifled by the accepted norms of a chosen genre and that taking narrative risk was key to writing with originality while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of producing derivative material. He was at pains to highlight the importance of giving characters dramatic moments and that these moments reward the reader as they progress through the story.
As a testament to Simon’s creative intellect, he told the audience that involvement in the process of producing a first draft is where he finds the greatest artistic satisfaction; that while many writers toil over numerous re-drafts that approach wasn’t for him.
Simon’s presentation was packed with humour and anecdotes from his long and illustrious career. The audience was treated to wonderfully informative practitioner’s advice communicated in a riveting and very entertaining raconteur’s after-dinner style.