Monthly Archives: October 2015


I’m always reticent about blathering on about my day job in this space. There are better places to do so, after all. Victorian pubs. Urban coffee bars. Into a glass, darkly. But for this I am prepared to make an exception, because, to my mind, it matters to you too.

I refer to the culling of the Creative Writing A Level, after what appeared to be a reprieve last spring. Of course, if you already know this, I’m preaching to the converted. If you teach it, or study it, you understand. As for the rest of us (and I’m very much one of the rest of us) I suspect there is a great deal less passion. Given the news from Mars last week, you might not care a jot, seeing the loss of a single A Level (given that there are already two other English A levels) as just the way things progress in education.

And my knee-jerk reaction would be to agree with you. And then, last week, I read something in the Society of Author’s journal which caused me, unexpectedly, to think again. And it’s this. That the total global book market is worth 151 billion dollars – three times the size of the global music industry. Publishing, as an industry, is HUGE.

Moreover, fiction matters to almost all of us. You might not read books for pleasure (some four million Brits don’t) but it’s almost a no-brainer that you will encounter fiction regularly, because stories are the raw material of films, plays, television dramas and computer games too.

And here’s this, by the ever-wise Mariella Frostrup, counselling a troubled girl seeking solace in psychology text books, and exhorting her to instead find truth in fiction. ‘The best fiction strikes at our heart,’ she points out, ‘reminding us that we are flawed and fabulous, unique and much the same as everyone else.’ Which I reckon pretty much nails it.

I’d also venture that fiction is a safe space for the marginalized, to explore and share political and polarizing opinions in such a way that they wield real moral power. To live in a society where freedom of expression is a legal right is a freedom in itself.

So, to my mind, creative writing is of interest to almost all of us, including the teaching of it, or otherwise, in schools.

So where do I stand on the validity of this threatened A Level? Well, in truth, if you’d asked me before they opted to axe it, I’d have said ‘on the fence, gazing elsewhere’. It’s no secret that I feel a degree of caution should be exercised before embarking on an expensive MA in Creative Writing, simply because I once heard of a very experienced editor saying they could always spot submissions from MACW students because they read as if ‘written by committee.’ From personal experience, I believe she had a point.

I also wonder if something as subjective as a piece of fiction’s success or otherwise can be objectively assessed out in the real world – not in a world of literature that is able to confer success on everyone from Tolstoy to E.L. James.

And I’m really not sure the A Level will be able to prove its worth, where worth is measured in ticks on charts in career surveys, as it could, say, with Chemistry or Maths.


I couldn’t even say, had it existed in my day, that if I’d taken it alongside or instead of English Lit (which, boy, I would), it would have changed my career path a jot.

But do I agree that we should dump it? No, I don’t.

We educate our youth to the age of eighteen now, so we must provide courses that inspire and enrich them.

We need to stop trying to fit arts into a science-applicable framework. A Physics A Level will never test the same things as one in Art or Drama and we should stop trying to ‘academic-ise’ the course content of arts A Levels in a vain attempt to pretend that they can.

We should allow young people to enjoy study and self-improvement for its own sake. It might not lead directly to a ‘job’ as a ‘creative writer’ (oxymoron?) but it will be an education in truth and beauty, and what the hell is wrong with that?

And, no, I don’t know how to make all this happen.

But that’s surely the job of the bodies charged with doing it. It’s NOT rocket science. They just need to get more creative.

First published in the Western Mail Saturday Magazine 3/10/15




We’re doing an awful lot of gadding about lately. I only realised how much when prompted by my mum’s chippy comment  recently that she’d not ‘seen us properly’ for weeks.  I huffed a bit, obviously, because that’s what daughters do, citing trips to Sainsbury’s various, plus a day trip to Oxford, but the damning evidence of our neglect was laid there before me –  in the four copies of the Mail On Sunday’s Event magazine, which she always saves to give to Pete on Sundays.

Most, but not all Sundays. Because we’re so often away now. C’est la 21st century vie.

And so it goes. This is modern life for the modern ageing parent. (Me, in this case. Not my disgruntled mother.)  Gadding about. Hither and thither.  Seeing our own kids.

I know some would say (and you know who you are, so I won’t name you) that we’ve been gadding about for most of our lives. And, to an extent, they would be right.  We have indeed, because we’ve always lived by a simple philosophy – one rooted in Pete’s toiling at the sobering coal-face of serious illness, and which can loosely be described as the instinctive prioritizing of ‘doing’ rather than ‘owning’. Of making memories rather than improvements to the house.

Yes, we have a house, but, as had been said here more than once, if it’s a straight choice between a mini break and a new appliance, the mini-break wins. And that’s not just because a childhood is gone in an instant. On a more serious note, so is a life.

But life has stages and this is definitely one such.  A stepping back from the pit marked ‘job done, slide to sloth now’ and a stepping up of miles on the vehicular clock, as our kids spread their wings ever further. And, more broadly, for society, this is something quite new.  Something attributable to greater wealth and mobility, yes, but much more, to my mind, to the very modern phenomenon of one in two kids (give or take) now finishing their education with a stint away from home, in university.

Time was (1960) when it was a miniscule 4% of people, rising to a still modest 14% in the seventies.  Since then, for all sorts of complex anthropological reasons, higher education has gone through the, ahem, roof.

These days, almost half our children attend university, which has meant parents, en masse, being released into the wild. But while you might imagine ‘gadding about’ as a vaguely dissolute middle-years activity, involving cruise wear, escorted tours, and spending the kids’ inheritance, it’s actually (if you enjoy your kids’ company, which we do) more of a post-modern necessity.

And I’m not complaining. If I had the means, I’d have a PA dedicated to the logistics. As it is, I spend much time on apps. Easyjet. Trainline and Tubemap. Tripadvisor. Travel news. BBC weather. (I keep track of all sorts of locations for weather. Cardiff, the Gower, plus Birmingham, plus Oxford, plus ‘wherever in the world Georgie currently happens to be working’, which has been half a dozen places just since finishing her degree.)

My diary might be light on orthodontist appointments and PTA meetings these days, but it fairly bristles with pencilled-in potential family gatherings, plus alerts, pre-alerts and pre-alert alerts, to arrange kitty-care and/or restaurants and/or bike hire and or tickets. Or to find time to buy ingredients for some celebratory cake or other, offering cake being the one madly maternal act I have left to me, now no-one wants me to do their washing any more.

And we’re not alone in our newly peripatetic lifestyles. Far from it.  Almost all our friends, give or take, have offspring far-flung now, which means a get together among mates has a markedly new tone, as, instead of comparing notes re our last communal family beach trip we now exchange run-downs of absentee weekends. We’re not so much ‘like’ ships that pass in the night, as actual ships that literally DO pass in the night. Or in trains, planes and automobiles, whizzing past one another on the M4, en route to or returning from bonding with our children – and with just a sliver of late-weekend time still available to pop on a wash and eat sardines on toast, because our cupboards, bar cake mix, are bare.

Just as they were when we were our own children’s age.

We are Jack Kerouac’s generation. On the road.


First published in the Western Mail Saturday Magazine 29/9/15

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