Maggie Gee has written 14 books and was the first woman to Chair the RSL’s Council (2004-8); she is a now a Vice-President. She is a Professor at Bath Spa University and a non-executive Board Director of ALCS, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. Her last novel was Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, Telegram (2014), and she is on Twitter as @maggiegeewriter.
Since 2002 Maggie has been published by a small independent, Saqi, winner of many awards over its three decades of international publishing. Her books since The White Family have appeared under their Telegram imprint. She celebrates their unquestioning support that allows her to write the books that she want to write. Her latest work-in-progress, a novel set in Gibraltar, begins with the Neanderthals and ends close to the 22nd century, taking in Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’ on the way.
“I am choosing three books from small or independent publishers, because they are the life-blood of literature. They have kept it alive since well before Virginia and Leonard Woolf proved, with the Hogarth Press, that small presses (and even self-publishing, because the Woolfs began by publishing their own short stories) can be an assertion of the power of writers who want to do things their own way.”
Do not, whatever you do, miss Maureen Duffy’s last two books of poetry. I have always loved poetry but I want it to have truth of the heart as well as head, and I prefer to understand it. Maureen Duffy never lets us down; deeply read in British, European, Old English and Classical literature, she wears her learning lightly, writing intimate, deceptively conversational poetry which weaves together the laments of classical heroines or Anglo-Saxon bards with the voices of her working-class ancestors, elegized before their unique language is forgotten. She writes with tender closeness about animals small and large; some of the best poems are about paintings, others about politics; and in her eighties, she is still writing passionate poems of love and loss. 'Environmental Studies' and 'Pictures from an Exhibition' are both beautifully produced by that shining standard-bearer for quality in independent publishing, Enitharmon Press.
Salena Godden, like Maureen Duffy, writes prose as well as poetry and is particularly well known as an outrageously witty and provocative performance poet on stage and on Radio 4, but her coming-of-age memoir Springfield Road shows the excellence of her work on the page. The moments of lyrical stillness and minute observation of domestic life – a grandmother cleaning a fish, a bullying stepfather smelling of pink antiseptic cream - will be a surprise to readers who only know her as a performer. A boy ‘dared us to kiss in the open air… I was afraid of being seen as we stood on top of the pipes and kissed under the naked sky, in full view of all the birds and trees. We kissed with the teatime sun burning above us…’ Springfield Road’s blend of wit and sorrow as Godden searches for her Irish father and her Jamaican past and fights her way towards being an artist makes it grippingly readable.
Ethel and Ernest
Salena Godden is published by that wonderfully innovative firm Unbound, who help writers crowd- fund their own books on their website but then provide professional editorial services and production quality. Long-time FRSL Fellow Raymond Briggs, the talented writer-illustrator of children’s books but also of the heart-wrenching memoir Ethel and Ernest, gave his last book to Unbound. Visit the website at https://unbound.co.uk to find his and Salena Godden’s books, and also to look at other projects you can actually help to publish through crowd-funding. It’s fascinating interesting to see innovative new models emerging at last where writers can have much more control over their work.
Acts and Omissions
It’s about nine months since I read my last choice, the first 2 volumes of Catherine Fox’s extraordinary trilogy-in-progress of Church of England life, Acts and Omissions and Unseen Things Above. To refresh my memory I searched for some of the emails I sent when I dispatched copies of this wonderful novelist’s work for Christmas presents to friends and family. Most, like me, cannot be called church-goers, so some apology or explanation seemed to be required for sending them the same books with church spires on the cover and published by Marylebone House, an imprint of SPCK, the 300-year-old Christian publisher. To my sister-in-law I wrote ‘I really rate Catherine Fox - beautiful, succinct writing, and humour tempered by a moral vision.’ What should I have said? ‘Once you have assimilated the very large cast, these books are utterly unputdownable, gossipy, subtle and wise. What’s astonishing is that despite Catherine Fox’s sharp awareness of the feet of clay under surplices, she somehow makes you believe several cheering things that most modern fiction doesn’t: that the natural world is endlessly beautiful, that most people aspire to goodness even if they fall flat on their faces, and that the attempt to live a good life is worthwhile.’ Kudos to Scripture Union for being inspired by Fox’s work to set up a brand new fiction imprint.