Sunday, June 24, 2012

The last weekend of June is Winchester Writers’ Conference, a bitter-sweet event since although there’s the usual camaraderie, fascinating talks and enjoyable meetings & reunions, this is the last year that much-loved founder & organiser Barbara Large will be at the helm. And I use ‘much-loved’ factually: I’ve never heard anyone mention her name without affection & admiration bordering on awe. For 32 years Barbara has been inspirational to her every-extending ‘family of writers’, not just a pioneer in egalitarian provision of routes to success, but also a warm & nurturing presence – tales are legion of her personal involvement in solving delegates’ difficulties way beyond the scope of a director. I’ve been recipient of her kindness too, so I hope this doesn’t sound like an elegy for a this lively lady when I say for me this is the end of an era…
So… back to the highlights: Friday night I joined John Jenkins, Adrienne Dines, Veronica Heley and John Gilbey on the the Writers’ Panel in the Vault, where audience-inspired topics ranged from issues of integrity & the place of reportage in fiction to appropriate use of research: “Don’t do too much,” advised Veronica, “the story is king.” Saturday morning’s plenary session featured Alan Titchmarsh with an excellent talk on How to Grow a Writer – entertaining anecdote and genuine advice in pithy soundbites, like “There’s no one way to write – there’s only your way.” And on the writer’s journey: “You go in all bells & whistles & flourishes, you spend the rest of your life making less and less of it.” He recalled telling Alan Bennett how his characters were deciding what should happen next, and receiving the sage reply: “The mind is a bigger bucket than we know, there’s stuff at the bottom you’d never dream of.”
Sunshine flitted around the proceedings and delegates flitted around the construction works - an intrusive presence here for the last 3 years – as the day continued. I always appreciate opportunities to go into other speakers’ sessions, and enjoyed both Patrick Sandford’s drama workshop & a fascinating talk from Debby Holt on finding inspiration. Debby’s list of ten sources was an inspiration in itself, including such diverse stimuli as following current events ~ we read, she suggests, to make sense of the world, so if as writers we cut ourselves off we’re not doing our job properly ~ and trust of the unconscious, as recommended by Martin Amis.
And when evening falls and the talks are over, and bottles of wine replace the thermoses on the welcome table, there’s the Awards Ceremony, a key aspect for many of the delegates since 18 writing prizes are up for grabs. This inevitably over-runs even the hour-and-a half allotted, so since unlike most of the rest of the audience I wasn't biting my nails with hope & apprehension frantically mingled, I indulged in the alternative self-entertainment of a gender watch. From which I can tell you that prizewinners consisted of 40 women and 9 men (one was the same man 3 times), with 65 women and 21 men making up the list of Commended and Highly Commended. To complete statistics corner, the adjudicating board comprised of 10 men and 4 women...
But Winchester weekend is more than the talks, workshops & speeches: it’s about exciting random interactions over depleted thermoses and those peculiar pastry-obsessed meals, too ~ sometimes useful leads like enterprising Cat Randle's BigUp Words project, or just pleasant chat like John Gilbey explaining Singularity, parallel processing, and neural networks over Sunday breakfast, and Craig Batty ~ my main mate & ally when I was external examiner for Southampton but now living in Melbourne, who silenced the lunch table by remarking “There’s loads of funding for the Arts there!” And many other speakers and delegates, and the delightfully appreciative group who came to my talk... thanks all of you. And thank you again & again to Barbara.

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