An old school friend of mine who dabbles with book reviewing married, second time round, a banker from JP Morgan. Over dinner a few months ago I brought up one of my hobby horses – the distance from the written literary written word in the world of texting and tweeting. My argument is that the abbreviation of words alienate the person from proper literary expression and understanding.
I was surprised a few weeks later, when the banker invited me to Canary Wharf to meet the head of human resources. Their idea was to sponsor a creative writing course to improve literacy and would I head this up? I accepted. I thought we would have a handful of interested people but twenty showed up for the first meeting.
I decided that, above all, I must engage the participants. So I hit upon the idea of starting a story which the participates could add to. My story was Sir Walter Scott meets Downton Abbey, set in a highland castle and called The Laird of Malochtae. I thought, correctly, that the one subject that would engage the group was sex. I explained to them how difficult it is to write about sex. I mentioned that one of the best exponents, John Updike, went to Episcopalian church every week and was a quite ordinary family man. I tried to explain the difference between the pornographic and the erotic.
The story was a simple one. The laird of the castle falls for a below the stairs scullery maid. The maid uses her sexual power over the laird to rise to being the lady of the house, his wife and mother of his son.
One girl, Kirsty, sat more attentively at the front of the group. Unlike the others, she did not surreptitiously look at her mobile, but followed conscientiously. Her written contributions to the story were much the best. Last week, after the session ended, I complimented her on the imagination of her work. I asked if she had an English educational background. To my surprise, she said she did not even have an O level in English, as apparenlty the examination board messed up her papers. So she switched to science and ended up with a first Class degree. Surely, I said, a scientist is deductive, logical and rational – so from where did her imagination spring? She said she did not read fiction or particularly enjoy films or plays. She felt she could understand the character even though her background was middle class. She would think about the story a good deal and would work out various plot lines in her head. Once satisfied she had a good one, she would write it down in her notebook and then type it up. Whilst the other would-be writers thought of themselves as Shades of Grey aspirants and their written work was poor, Kirsty produced a careful measured prose highlighting the sexual power transcending the class divide of upstairs and downstairs, that was very much my thinking. The odd thing about Kirsty’s writing was she could not sit down and write anything, she had to have it in her mind first.
I asked her if she fancied a drink so we went to bar by the water. I asked her about future chapters. She felt the novel needed more characters and she was working on a visit from the laird’s snobbish English aristocratic cousins. She then recited how the visit would go. She emphasised the tension between the daughter of the cousin, haughty but sexually inexperienced, and the worldly scullery maid. The cousin was initially dismissive to a lower order but they became friends and then lovers. I had to explain that although her work was much the best, this was a group initiative, but nevertheless we would now produce an edited version of the story. I would make out that everyone had contributed to some extent. I do believe I have discovered a writing talent.