Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Mavis Cheek

MY daughter has come to stay and was telling me about her plan for a new cultural revolution, a way to kick start a renaissance in the arts. It's a beautifully simple idea. For the next ten years no men will be allowed to produce any cultural artefacts at all. No books, plays, films, TV, or recorded music. All men everywhere will have to JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP. For a decade.

And I think I sort of agree with this. Certainly I think all the other male writers should sit down and think very hard about what they're doing... There is a lot of noise around in the arts now isn't there? A lot of gimmicks. Quite a lot of shouting. Not all of it from men of course. There are quite a lot of women just banging on the table too. Though they often have more excuse.

And - whether men or women - writers who get attention seem to come from the same old places. Even when you meet a young  writer in tramps clothes, speaking about crystal meth in a cockney accent, chances are they come from a big house in the suburbs and went from A Good School to Oxbridge just like the ruling class have always done.

And it's a shame because listening too long to these guys can means the quiet and the thoughtful and the genuinely unusual can get lost.

MAVIS CHEEK, for example. If you like great stories about ordinary people showing grace under pressure (which are the only kind of stories that matter in the end) then you like the books of Mavis Cheek. If you like generous, warm-hearted, sharply observed and FUNNY books, then you like those of Mavis Cheek. And there are a lot of them. Many people have one book in them. But that's not the real test. The real test is whether you can you stay interesting for five, for ten, or, like Mavis Cheek, for FIFTEEN books.

And she's not just a warm and generous and funny writer, she's a warm, generous teacher of writing. She's worth shutting out the noise to go and discover. But then you, you're smart, you know this anyway.

Give me your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words. Not 49, not 51...

Born Wimbledon:  Failed 11-plus:  Secondary-Modern, B stream.  At 16 took job in contemporary London art world.  After 12 years took degree at Hillcroft College.  Daughter born.  First novel published 1988, won She/John Menzies prize.  15 published in all.  Now live in rural Wiltshire, write, teach, give talks, run Marlborough LitFest.

Why should we read your books?

They hold a beady-eyed mirror to the way we are now and most of them will make you laugh.

What is your most pressing concern right now?

It's waiting for a publisher to offer on my new book which is currently with my agent.  These are hard times.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I’m sure we see the world differently and our concerns are not identical (though many are).  When a woman writes me a fan letter, it’s a fan letter.  When a man writes me a fan letter, it’s a fan letter with a PS about where I got a fact wrong.  This, I think, may be at the heart of gender difference in writing.

Who - in life or writing do you admire?

In life - Helen Bamber and her Foundation that works to hold, contain and sustain people who have suffered immense atrocity and loss – she began with Holocaust survivors and she is, 65 years on, a signatory for Jews for Justice in Palestine.

In writing – the character of Jane Eyre who had wit, humour and intelligence in a time when women were required to be demure – she’s a survivor who stuck to her principals and found happiness in the end.

Why do we need a Women's Prize for Literature?

Because men have had the sole ascendancy in all things worldwide for thousands of years so let’s redress the balance whenever we can and give a share of the goodies solely to women.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

I’ll say – it was one of the treats of my childhood – either beef dripping (which had dark bits that tasted salty and sweet) or more delicately flavoured pork dripping – spread thickly on white bread.

What's the next book about?

About 300 pages – Oh OK – it’s about a woman who decides to go to bed for the rest of her life – and its subtext is the untrustworthiness innate in interpreting history – and Becket’s eternal
‘I can’t go on like this,’
‘That’s what you think.’

If you could be anywhere right now where would it be?

In Corfu, in hot sun, lying by the pool at Kontakali, with an audio book plugged in.   (Here it’s minus one outside currently).

Tell me something I don't know?

Michael Morpurgo failed his 11+, too.

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