Last weekend, 25-27 April, I spent my third year volunteering at Chipping Norton. I say “volunteering” but this year I helped out at one event, the Saturday night quiz. Below are my notes from that and the events I attended.
After some difficulty in finding my hotel – thank you Mrs Sat Nav – I met up with Jane Wenham-Jones at her hotel, the lovely Crown & Cushion in the centre of Chipping Norton, before we headed off to the first event (for us) of the weekend, The Liff of QI with John Lloyd.
After an introduction by Claire Macintosh, the Festival’s Director, John came on and launched into a brilliant one-man session. He mentioned Douglas Adams’ alternative dictionary (full of town names) Meaning of Liff and said that Kettering (a town not too far from where I live) is the pattern you get on your bottom when you’ve been sitting for too long. I’m at my computer too much during my day so I clearly have plenty of Ketterings. He then talked about other towns and other explanations.
John said we don’t really know why things are funny and moved on to talking about religion and the definition of the Greek word is ‘logos’ meaning ‘joke’ and also the beginning of creation. He then talked about how he got into broadcasting and one event of getting a Bechstein concert grand piano through a narrow BBC doorway. The carpenters created a replica to test that the original would get through but then couldn’t get it out of the carpentry shop!
One of John’s early programmes was ‘Just a Minute’ and he quoted a hilarious (but too blue for this family-friendly blog) excerpt. Another story was about a cleaner who was fired for cleaning a lift 25 times in one day because he thought it was a different lift on each floor. Another show that John was involved in was ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’. He read out a complaint from a viewer – a letter full of swearing – complaining about the language used in the show. Apparently the BBC switchboard was “jammed” with 30(!) complaints after the episodes aired. John then talked about science and said there are more atoms in a golf ball than golf balls could fill the universe. Wow. A+He added that there is no difference biologically between broccoli and cauliflower.
John then recalled an incident he’d been told about where The Mousetrap play (which has been running since 1952) had a famous graveyard slot (Wednesday afternoons) where they have few audience members. The actors play pass the Brussels sprout. One conceals it and passes it to another actor without the audience seeing it, then it goes onwards to another actor and so on, and whoever has it at the end of the play buys the drinks. The British comedy actor Mel Smith went one week, sitting amongst a sea of Koreans, and John thinks the actors had been warned that Mel was going because one of the actors came out with a cauliflower and passed it around in full view, just for Mel!
John said that the world isn’t made of things but of information, lots of 0s and 1s and they often cancel each out. There are 100 billion cells in a human brain, more complex than the American economy. Images hit the brain upside down and the brain converts it. That makes mirrors even more interesting. As is real life: a blind person’s concession TV licence £75 for colour and £25 for black and white TVs. It reminded me of a snooker commentator’s error some years ago who said that the player was aiming for the pink which “for those with black & white televisions is next to the green”.
He then talked about the TV programme Blackadder which had come under fire by the Government’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, for being a bad influence on schools and John said that it would appear that Michael thinks it’s a documentary.
John was also involved in the satire programme Spitting Image and had wanted to call it ‘Rubber News’ which clashed with a certain magazine of dubious content. Spitting Image had more viewers at its peak than people had re-elected Margaret Thatcher. Apparently Mrs Tebbit complained that Norman didn’t like his puppet because Norman had always wanted a leather jacket but couldn’t buy one now because his puppet wore one.
John then talked about a follow-up to the book The Meaning of Liff (After Liff, dedicated to Douglas Adams) and mentioned Dover = ex diver, Letchworth = door charge at a lap-dancing club, Eworthy (Devon) = someone worth emailing but not phoning or meeting, Balerno (suburb of Edinburgh) = spooky sensation that someone is going to explain de ja va. Fackham = deciding against helping someone.
John then opened the session up to audience questions. A lady asked if there was a definition of Chipping Norton and he said he’d have to think of it. A man then asked how he became involved in the BBC. John explained that he was supposed to be a writer and was in the Writers’ Room when he was asked out of the blue if he’d be interested in being a producer. He was good at school but found it boring, left at 15 then worked from 22 and hasn’t stopped. He said within two weeks of being a producer, he knew he’d found his vocation. An Irish friend of his had asked how to get into the BBC and he suggested starting at the bottom. She got a job as an accounts assistant but then met the manager of the group U2, married him and John said that was her sorted.
The next question about particles, physics and science had John baffling us (me) talking about Higgs Boson etc.
A question about Lord Tony Hall lead to John talking about the structure of the BBC and how little paid the staff are (c. half when compared with ITV staff) but they’re there because they believe in what they’re doing.
John concluded by how much fun it is working on QI and all the interesting information he’s been finding as research.
Saturday 26th April: Crime Writing – Fact or Fiction – panel with Dave Barclay, Tania Carver, Chief Constable Office Nick Gangan. Hosted by Jane Wenham-Jones.
I met up with my friend, fellow writer, Tony Tibbenham (who I have to thank for clarifying a couple of inaccuracies and filling in some gaps in this session’s report) at the door of Chipping Norton theatre. The almost-sold-out audience piled in and sat anticipating the arrival of Martyn Waites aka Tania Carver, Chief Constable Nick Gargen, and Professor Dave Barclay. It was hosted by Jane Wenham-Jones. Jane asked the panel if the cringed when books or films got things wrong. Nick started by saying no and explained that the most important thing is the story. Dave said no one he knows watches CSI because it’s so wrong. He praised Waking the Dead then added that he was one of the consultants. Martin / Tania said he’s been left off the hook by the other two answers. He said writers use max six staff to solve a novel where normally there would be twenty-five. Nick said some books or programmes have too many issues. Nick said it would be nice to have normal characters but Martin said it would likely be boring. Jane then invited Martin to read an extract of his latest novel, The Doll’s House, so that Nick and Dave could say how accurate it was. Martin added that they were to pull it apart.
Dave said that he was intrigued as to whether two of the characters would get together but Martin said they don’t as one unhappily married. Nick picked out an incident he’d been involved in at Hinkley with a murder and suicide. Apparently the murdered woman had eaten chicken in green curry sauce and the smell of it at the autopsy put Nick off that for three years. Dave said about a redressed body that showed a staged scene. He said there’s no real way of planting evidence these days because everything’s logged, a bag of heroin could have been planted but it could have been in a catalogue that had no match in the house.
Jane then asked how Martin researches and he said he writes the first draft and then asks police colleagues to give him the right jargon later. Nick had a Channel 4 crew at hand who’d asked to follow a murder investigation. His force is very open to writers, film makers etc. Dave is a member of the International Homicide Investigators Association, based in the US.
Dave then showed a series of slides and talked alongside them. One of the photos showed a woman who had been redressed. Another slide was by Laurence Sterne 1768 it is in the nature of the hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it that…
Jane then asked Martin whether the murder mentioned in the slides would make a good novel and he said most plots have been written. Nick agreed that there are only so many ways of killing people and at anyone time there might only be two serial killers active in Britain and that they can go years between offences. He mentioned Joanna Yates murder and how the murderer was caught. Nick works in Bristol and has had ten murders in the past year. Jane thought that was high but he said there were 1.6 million people. Jane said if she pushed her husband down the stairs and stuck that it wasn’t her and stuck to it. Nick said that they would look into their finances, relationship etc. Dave added that only one in twenty people would die if falling down the stairs. You’d have to hit them
Dave said to keep it simple, push your wife off the cliff.
Questions went out to the audience and a lady asked the panel what they thought of the Oscar Protorius. Martin doesn’t think there’s any doubt as to his guilt because he’s changed his story so many times. Nick said he shouldn’t comment because
The next question was whether crime writers do the police a favour by never letting the criminals getting away. Nick said yes that it does help but most murders are solved.
Why do so many crime books concentrate on murder and not on finance. Dave asked the audience how many would want to read about finance crime and no one, that I could see, put their hands up.
The final question was how hard is it to leave their work behind. Dave talked about a few cases which stick n his mind but that most cases don’t cause him to lose sleep. Nick gets frustrated by the press. There are four or five events, one of which was a four week old baby who’d died by slipping down the back of the bed, and presumably suffocating. Nick stayed with a 70-something man who’d been the victim of a hit and run until the man died. Martin used to be a writer in a young offenders institution and was influenced by their life stories.
Saturday evening literary quiz
My only event volunteering this year was really fun. Not many notes because I was ‘working’ but this is the general gist… It was great to meet up with crime writer Mark Billingham again (we originally met at Oundle Literature Festival in 2010 then again at Chipping Norton in 2012). He was quizmaster with a mixture of questions, a picture round (usually my favourite) and music round, the two top teams got the same scores so had a tiebreaker with Daisy Goodwin’s team winning (and picking a hamper of books), with the second and third teams getting hampers of booze and food. Free beer was supplied by one of the sponsors, Hook Norton Brewery, and at a cost of just £10 for teams of six, was great value for money.
Sunday 27th April: Crime session 2 – Nicci French ‘One Writer, Two Minds’.
I arrived, rather soggy, at the lovely old theatre (same venue as the previous day’s crime session) half an hour before the event and was one of the first attendees, other than the theatre black cat that, despite being shooed away several times, took no notice and kept returning. A perseverance I like.
A couple of minutes before ten a.m., we were ushered into the theatre and I took my seat, four rows from the front (four seats in, for those who are fans of specific description), a great central location straight in front of the table. After a short introduction about the sponsor, a writer’s retreat organisation called Writers for You. Writer / editor of Woman & Home, Fanny Blake introduced husband and wife writing duo Nicci Gerard and Sean French who talked about their latest book, Thursday’s Children. Fanny then asked how they came to writing together. Sean said they read an article about writing partnerships. They were already writing separately and had wanted to try writing together “when the time was right”, to which Nicci said to Fanny that she would know that there’s no good time as a writer, so when they read an article and then a suitable plot (about psychotherapists) they wrote a thriller and are now on their sixteenth book.
Nicci said thrillers / crimes are the perfect genre for them. They don’t write together but spend months planning until they’re sure they have the same book in mind. Sean writes in the garden shed while Nicci is “the mad woman” in the attic. They email each other sections which they’re free to continue, edit, delete etc. It works because they know each other so well (they’ve been married for years). Sean said it’s hard work and if your marriage is in trouble, don’t write a book together. There’s no struggle for power. Nicci said they have very different voices but they try to write into the same voices. They have to trust each other and have the best interest at heart. They squabble over petty things but not major issues such as killing off a character. Nicci said there was a time when they were working in the same office but it didn’t last long. Nicci explained that she’s quite tyrannical with herself, she doesn’t like being interrupted but Sean loves interrupting her about whether she wants more coffee, what the type of bird was he’d just spotted, what was planned for lunch etc.
Fanny asked if they have any rules. If Nicci’s removed something of Sean’s, he’s not allowed to put it back. There was no mention of the other way round. Another rule is that they never disclosed who wrote which parts to anyone.
When asked how long it’s taken them to write a book, Sean said usually a year (Nicci added that’s from the beginning of the planning stage to the finished draft) but there was one that took only two months. One of their books was written to be read in real time, which Sean said was complicated.
Fanny asked whether either of them has been shocked by the other’s writing. Nicci said it’s fascinating to see the working of Sean’s mind, most people are odder than you think. She said their structure is open and sometimes she’ll received a chapter that’s gone off piste, not enough to change the plot, but enough to (usually pleasantly) surprise her.
Fanny asked Nicci how she would define the voice of Nicci French. She said she doesn’t write techno thrillers but more about real fear or dread, extraordinary things happening to ordinary lives. They’re interested in the things underneath a controlled surface of humans. And Nicci said they love knowing what’s in people’s fridges.
What made them write a series after a dozen standalones? Sean said they’d not planned to write about the death of a child but that started the germ of the idea and the next book was just that. A review of one of their books praised the fact that they’d never written a series which again sparked the idea to write a series although Sean said they’d been considering it but it pushed that idea forward.
The series is eight books, not planned in advance, the first seven named after a day of the week. Each book is a standalone. In the first one there’s a story that starts and arcs through all eight books. They didn’t say what the eighth would be called, given that there are only seven days of the week. Nicci said that the characters change, and they insist on different directions going outside the plan, which she said was freer.
Fanny said that she’d always scoffed at characters taking over but then when she started writing herself, she realised it was true. She then asked how hard it was writing series versus standalones. Sean said that readers are used to having repetition in Miss Marple books and Kojak on TV. Although Miss Marple had solved so many murders, she was still treated as a joke. He said he hopes that they explain enough. Nicci said it was frustrating at not being able to change something in parts of the series. I’ve been writing a series and know that well, although I’m not submitting mine until I’ve completed the series for that reason, unless it goes past the four.
Fanny said she learned a lot about London from reading the books. Freda (the series character – a psychoanalyst) is a nightwalker and there are mentions of secret rivers that have been built upon. Fanny asked if they explore London together. They go off to cycle rides and Sean said London is so vast that they’re always finding new parts of the city. They now live in Suffolk and that’s featured in Thursday’s Child. Nicci said it’s the only novel that will feature the county rather than London. Freda (the character) was born there and went back to Suffolk for the book, to a fictional village but based on an area in the county. Nicci said she loves Suffolk but it doesn’t fair very well in the novel. Sean talked about the claustrophobia of living in a village compared with feeling lonely in London but having people around you all the time.
A school reunion is featured in the book and Sean said that getting ideas is easy because just look at any family and their problems, and turn it up three notches. Questions were then invited from the audience.
1: Does writing together cause problems with your editor?
Sean said they don’t submit their manuscript until they’re happy with it. Nicci said that although there are two of them there will be things they don’t spot but their editor will. (Too true)
2. Why do you always write about female protagonists?
They wanted to publish as a female author and felt the kind of books they write lend themselves better to female narrators. That didn’t surprise me because Nicci was quite assertive in the discussion, and I had a feel that she would have the ultimate say. Nicci told about an incident that happened to their daughter and they wanted to write about strange and threatening things happening to women.
3. I then asked whether there was a novel or series that they wished they’d written?
They mentioned a few but Sean saw a film called Read My Lips (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Read_My_Lips_(film)) about a lip reader who solves a mystery.
4. Will Sean Goddard ever write a book (being Sean’s first name and Nicci’s surname) with male protagonists? Sean said he thought it would be an entirely different book. Sean told about a review they’d had with the first line saying “Why does Nicci French hate men so much?”
5. Would they ever consider writing in another format, e.g. playwriting? Sean said they’ve considered it and Nicci said she’d love to do a play because of the collaborative “jolly” aspects, rather than the solitude of being a novelist. Nicci said something interesting (to me, anyway) about their characters not wanting to be involved in their plots, e.g. Freda not wanting to solve crimes but she ‘has’ to.
6. Do your children read their books?
All of them have read some of them, some have read all of them. Nicci said some of the books are embarrassing to them (sexual content) and she would have hated to read her parents’ writing. Nicci talked about one of their books, Losing You, about letting children go and at the time their children were teenagers and it was a hard write. Their books are full of “little clues” about family life.
Does Opinion Matter?
I was a few minutes late for this event as it started as the Nicci French event finished. I found a space next to my friend, Tony, and was pleased that I’d not missed much. Jane (Wenham-Jones) asked the panel (Tim Dowling, India Knight and Lucy Mangan) how they construct their weekly (Saturday) articles. Jane said she pictured Tim wandering around his house prepping his family to say something funny. He said he goes to sleep on a Sunday night worried that he’ll have nothing to submit but by Monday morning he has enough material. Jane mentioned a wing mirror incident he’d written about. Tim explained that his wife had told him that one of their wing mirrors had changed colour. He still doesn’t know what happened but whoever had changed the mirror would have had to have access to the inside of the car, to have rewired it, so it remains a mystery.
Jane prompted India to talk about her writing of her family. She wrote about her daughter’s illness when she was few weeks old but now she’s ten, India respects her privacy.
Lucy said that her husband had said, “What would I care what Guardian readers think about me?” which raised a laugh from the audience.
Jane asked whether the panel had any regrets about any of their writing. Tim answered first saying he doesn’t mind. He said that most people don’t go past page one of the Google results so as long as his website and Wikipedia page had the good stuff come up on the front page with everything else appearing later, he’d be happy.
India mentioned about a time when she was working for the Daily Mail and had tried to access Michael Jackson at the Dorchester, and she went in dressed as a pineapple as a stunt. She didn’t say whether it worked but is glad no photographs of her like that exist.
Tim said he can’t recycle jokes because they’re always going to be googleable and he wouldn’t want them to come up in results side-by-side.
Jane asked why the public is so interested in the minutia of everyday life. Tim said he didn’t have a clue but enjoyed writing what he does. Jane said her mother enjoys Lucy’s articles but asked how Lucy’s parents feel about her writing about them. Lucy said that they say, “Anyone who knows us knows the truth, everyone else doesn’t matter.” Jane asked India whether she gets any reader abuse. India says she gets lots of nice feedback, the occasional rant on Twitter but she said life’s too short to be bothered by it. Lucy received an appalling letter from a woman in Cambridge who called her fat and ugly (and worse). Tim said that he does read feedback (or his wife does on her iPad) but he said most people don’t ‘get’ his writing and that some people think his marriage is in trouble and that his writing is a cry for help. One person suggested he get a divorce.
Jane then asked the panel how they became journalists. India was a graduate trainee at the Times, trained as a reporter and moved around the organisation, in bigger and bigger roles, until she had children when she had a column reviewing food.
Jane asked Lucy if she was trained to do something. She said she’s a “trained nothing”. She’d sent off letters for work experience at various newspapers. The Observer gave her a week then sent her to the Guardian for a week but she was then given a small column for six months, which she said no one read so she could put whatever she liked. She was then told the day before it was due to go out, to write a regular page eight column, the first one of which was on battleaxes (inspired by the TV cleaners Kim and Aggie).
Tim met his wife in America and she brought him back to the UK where he “did nothing” for two years before they married and he was given a work visa. He was offered a family-based article for one newspaper under a pen name then was gradually asked to do other pieces for other newspapers. He then talked about various (weird) projects he’d been asked to do, including digging a trench in his back garden to live in for two days. Lucy talked about some of the strange tasks she’d been given, including buying 1,000 hamsters on a ruse for making a coat out of them but said most people refused.
Jane said with so many people blogging, tweeting etc. she asked if it was a good thing. India said “yes” but that it was about quality over quantity and that newspapers won’t be extinct just yet because of the editing process. Lucy agreed and said that the cream will rise to the top. Bloggers will get noticed for their writing but the trick is getting noticed. Too many people think that because they can write that they think they can write well. Tim said that there’s no shortage of space on the internet so people will post 20,000 words on their trip to the market or give comments about an article longer than the article itself.
Questions were then requested from the audience:
1. If you hadn’t become a journalist, what would you have done?
India wanted to be a spy and even put it on her careers page at school. Lucy would have been a teacher. Tim wanted to be a cartoonist but said they’re too time-consuming. He did it for a year and enjoyed it but found it hard and prefers writing articles. He also plays in a band.
2. How many hours do you actually work?
India said when she writes a book, which she is doing at the moment, it’s like a full-time job but she starts later and finishes later than 9-5. An article varies: sometimes it’s very fast (and they’re usually the better ones) and others can come to her mind. Lucy says on a good day, an article can take an hour, other times it can take three hours. Tim said it takes max. three hours. He should submit it on Friday but writes / submits it on a Monday morning (the deadline to send it to the illustrator).
3. Question for Lucy: how small are your feet?
A child’s size 13, sometimes adult size 1. The lady who asked the question said that Lucy had written two pieces about how small her feet were.
4. Do you ever get articles refused by your editor?
India has had early pieces rejected but not now. She offers a choice of topics to her editor and says which she’d prefer, and he usually says yes. Tim had one item rejected because it was “aggressively untopical”. A last-minute addition article was about having a beard (which Tim was sporting on the day).
5. A lady asked India whether she writes for a specific reader. She replied that has two types of readers: someone like her and someone older who lives in the countryside. Lucy aims for someone who likes to be entertained but has a busy life. Tim writes for his wife because she’s the only person who reads in front of him what he writes. He strips some words if they come across that he’s too middle class or less universal (e.g. brand names, specific places etc).
6. Another lady said that there was a Guardian open weekend where members of the public could go to the offices and would it happen again? India and Lucy said it should have done but they weren’t sure why it hasn’t.
7. Have you ever written columns because readers have asked for the content?
India said not specifically but if it’s a topic’s being talked about on the social networks then it’s likely to be a good topic to cover. Lucy’s been asked at dinner parties but said it never works. Jane asked if Tim’s friends ask whether they will be in their column. He said that friends don’t usually want to be written about but when they are, he disguises them enough so they know who they are but “the man on the bus doesn’t”.
Wannabe a Writer – Pitch to an Agent
I was involved in this event from the off so I went over to the venue early to help set up. Jane (Wenham-Jones) hosted the event with Carole Blake (agent with Blake Friedmann) where Jane read out the extracts of five pieces submitted (out of many more – see http://wannabeawritertvshow.com/chipping-norton-literary-festival-novel-critique-event for details) with Carole giving her feedback. I admired all the authors who had submitted their pieces and had been willing enough to sit while their pieces were pulled apart. I’ve since been told that the organisers of the festival would like to make it a yearly event so do keep an eye on Jane’s blog for the next submission callout.
Very Short Introduction to Comedy
My final event of the weekend was hosted by the author of this book (published by the sponsors, Oxford University Press), Matthew Bevis who talked about what is comedy, and explained what is covered in his book (which I’d bought just before the event started). He said a danger to writing comedy is taking it too serious as well as not taking it seriously enough. It shouldn’t just be full of jokes, it could be philosophical too.
He asked when do we laugh and why do we laugh? We laugh, he said, when we feel superior to someone e.g. when someone walks into a lamppost, falls over etc. He then told us a joke involving a rabbit and a butcher’s shop which you can read on http://topjokes.blogspot.co.uk/2007/04/rabbit-and-butcher.html.
After the event, I headed home to record the latest podcast, catch up on emails and keep a (hyperactive when I arrived) dog company.
So, another enjoyable year. Chipping Norton is still relatively in its infancy (year three) but the organisation is seamless (99% of the time). It would be nice to be a host (in some capacity) at forthcoming events but even if I just continue as a volunteer (and be involved in Jane’s Wannabe event), I’d be happy… but then that’s not difficult. It’s writing. I live and breathe writing.
- and from this blog, my guests who have written on events are… Alice Shapiro, Carol Wyer, Feather Schwarz Foster, Jane Wenham-Jones, Judith Marshall, Lev Raphael, Terri Morgan.
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