Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Of spiders big as saucers in the shower,
And woozy wasps bombarding barbecues.
Skipper, our beta-reader, says that since summer is over it is TIME to send in your entry to our short story competition.
There are only TWO DAYS left in which to sink your teeth into our £250 first prize. Think how many yummy dog biscuits that would buy!
He’s relying on you.
One of our beta-readers, Skipper, thinks that sometimes you can over-edit. He suggests you give that entry a final polish and send it in today, before the deadline on the 28th…!
A rainy day is the perfect time for us to get on with reading the entries already received, but we’re greedy for even more. It’s in a good cause. And most of us could find something useful to do with that £250 first prize.
One summer, long ago, while I was devouring a sandwich at my desk, a colleague brandished the local paper at me.
‘Something for you?’ she said.
Write us a short story, the paper challenged. There will be prizes.
At the time I composed occasional pieces for our staff magazine, but was procrastinating about getting down to serious writing. My friend was calling my bluff.
There is nothing like a deadline for concentrating the mind, but there were just a couple of weeks in which to produce an entry that wouldn’t embarrass me if it was ever published.
I scratched a head of hair, the colour of which, in those days, needed no help from Garnier Nutrisse. What the hell to write? Short of inspiration, I resorted to gathering random thoughts in the way one rustles-up a scratch supper from leftovers in the fridge.
The story had to be set in East Sussex or Kent. Should I write something about the famous Pantiles? About our regency past, with Beau Nash and goings-on at the Assembly Rooms? But wouldn’t lots of people do that?
Local but different was surely the answer.
My default position was to use what I knew. My husband rides and at that time often cantered across the glorious commons with which Tunbridge Wells and neighbouring Southborough are blessed. He owned a spirited grey mare, so I decided to put the two of them at the centre of my story. Calypso had a a mind of her own, so she became Madam. She also had an alarming tendency to spook. That morning I’d driven to work through the woods myself, car windows open, shivering in one of those eerie mists you can get at the end of summer.
So it had to be a ghost story, didn’t it? Everyone loves them.
And didn’t people say that a mere arrow’s flight from Southborough Common is the patch of land where Harold’s army camped the night before the battle of Hastings? Isn’t it still called Camp Field, in honour of the tradition?
I decided that mixing past and present was my answer, using that invaluable resource of the writer: What if…?? All I needed was a way to link 1066 with the end of the twentieth century (Yes, it was that long ago). It was then that I noticed a small ad in the paper for a metal detector. If an army in a hurry really did pass that way, wouldn’t they have dropped things? Might something unearthed from long ago conjure up a fleeting glimpse of a ghostly army?
Reader, to my surprise I won the competition. The prize was books from Waterstones, and a calligraphy set, but better than that was the acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, I could one day become a proper writer.
I dragged up this recollection to encourage those thinking of entering our own current short story competition. Short of inspiration, I used things my husband had said about riding on the Common, the feistiness of his mare – who saw monstrous apparitions behind every bank of fern – and myths I’d heard about Harold’s having passed this way. Then I noticed that advertisement for a metal detector. Threw in my impressions of driving under the trees through wisps of fog. And wrote, and rewrote, until it was done.
So how is your story getting on? We are loving reading those already received, but hungry for more. No ghost stories yet – but we’d love to get some… Or a summer crime or murder, perhaps? Whatever your fertile writers’ minds can come up with, BUT YOU’VE ONLY GOT UNTIL SEPTEMBER 28th.
What’s the connection between Jilly Cooper and Barbara Pym apart from them being quintessentially English and writing splendidly funny novels?
Jilly Cooper’s introduction to the 2007 Virago edition of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, first published in 1953, tells the story of how she borrowed the novel quite by chance from a library and fell in love with it. ‘I shamefully lied to the librarians that I had lost it, paying a 3s 6d fine … over the years, as Barbara Pym replaced Nancy Mitford, Georgette Heyer, even Jane Austen, as my most loved author, I devoured all her books, but Jane and Prudence remains my favourite.’
Jilly Cooper was therefore the perfect and altogether delightful guest at a magnificent tea in Oxford, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Barbara Pym Society, as part of the Society’s weekend conference featuring Jane and Prudence. Some of those attending might never have read a Jilly Cooper novel; others like myself have delicious youthful memories of revelling in her stories serialised in magazines like 19 and Petticoat, some of which were subsequently expanded into short romantic novels named after their heroines.
It’s in Harriet, partly set in Oxford and published in 1976, that we get a rather endearing echo of a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence; in both novels young girls remark to each other that thirty sounds so old but forty must be worse… whereupon they brood silently upon this horror!
Jilly Cooper might be more famous now for her ‘bonkbuster’ novels, starting with Riders in 1985, but perhaps the older among us will always have an affectionate soft spot for the irresistible heroes and scatty/naughty/dreamy/kind-hearted/unselfconfident/innocent heroines of the early romantic novels Bella, Emily, Octavia, Prudence, Harriet, Imogen and her collection of short stories Lisa & Co, first published as Love and Other Heartaches. They offered the escapist, romantic, comfort-with-comedy reading we sometimes needed when growing up.
As Jilly Cooper wrote of her short stories in 1981 ‘I cannot pretend that these stories are literature. They are written purely to entertain… Their mood is rooted firmly in the sixties, where we all lived it up… when the young were still optimistic about marriage, and believed that God was in his Heaven if all was Mr Right with the world.’
Jilly Cooper met Barbara Pym met just once – at the Hatchards Authors of the Year Party in 1979 – a wonderful memory she will always treasure. I know I will do the same after meeting Jilly Cooper.