The closing date for the British Czech & Slovak Association’s 2022 writing competition has been extended. It is now midnight on Sunday July 31. So that gives you and your writerly friends and relatives another month to come up with 2,000 words that will interest, amuse, irritate, educate or otherwise entertain the eminent judges. £400 lies the other side of those eminent judges – plus publication in the British Czech & Slovak Review. The runner-up gets £150 (plus publication).
This year’s suggested (but not compulsory) theme is Freedom – in any aspect. The interpretation is yours. Personal freedom, freedom in relationships, the freedom of nations, democratic freedoms, or just the ending of lockdown? You choose.
The 2021 competition brought in some impressive creative writing, including such gems as:
An entertaining account of a Scot’s postgraduate year in Czechoslovakia in 1972, which included a wedding missed because he was drinking slivovice to celebrate the release from prison of the father of a hitchhiker he had picked up en route.
A topical entry on the Me-Too theme that took us to a trial of a celebrity accused of sexual assault, with the simultaneous thoughts of the judge and the two victims.
A moving account of a young Englishwoman’s visit to Slovakia for her Slovak father’s funeral. (This won a runner-up prize.)
You can feature here! Fiction or fact – either is welcome. What is essential is that all entries must deal with either (1) the links between Britain and the lands now comprising the Slovak and Czech Republics, at any time in history, or (2) describing society in the Republics since 1989. Topics can include, for example, history, politics, sport, the sciences, economics, the arts or literature.
Entry is free. Submissions are invited from individuals of any age, nationality or educational background. Entrants do not need to be members of the BCSA.
Entries should be submitted by post to the BCSA Prize Administrator, 24 Ferndale, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN2 3NS, England, or by e-mail to email@example.com. The closing date is now midnight on July 31 2022.
Here are some competitions for you to enter in June. It is easy to think such things not worth entering, but winning or being shortlisted is always a possibility and often an opportunity as well. And a competition deadline can frequently shift Writer’s Block.
We hope it might encourage you to know about past successes of members of ninevoices. If we can do it, why not you?
·Won the Historical Writers Association Unpublished Novel Award
·Won the Barbara Pym Short Story Award – twice! – together with publication
·Won the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award
·Won the Henshaw Short Story Award, plus publication in their anthology
·Won the Hysteria Writing Competition
·Shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award
·Shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize (twice)
·Shortlisted for the Norwich Writers Olga Sinclair Award
·Shortlisted (1 of 14 out of over 2,000 entries) in a Cornerstones ‘Are You Ready to Submit’ competition
·Shortlisted for Bridport Flash
·Shortlisted for Bedford Short Story Competition
·Shortlisted for Exeter [Short] Story Award
·Shortlisted for RNA Joan Hessayon Award
·Longlisted for Mslexia Novel Competition
·Longlisted for Exeter Novel Prize
·Poem published in The Times; short stories in Writing Magazine, Writers’ Forum, Pony Magazine
Hopefully, those efforts will inspire you to enter one of the following:-
British Czech & Slovak Association Prize for short stories and non-fiction, up to 2,000 words, exploring the links between Britain and the Czech/Slovak Republics or society in those lands since 1989. Optional theme for 2022 is: “Freedom”. Prizes: £400, £150, publication in the British Czech and Slovak Review. Entry is FREE and the deadline is 30 June. This competition might sound daunting, but need not be. The judges would love to receive something impressively erudite – but they also have a well-developed sense of humour and would equally enjoy being entertained by a true or imaginary tale of someone’s stag party on the streets of Prague. The choice is yours. Why not surprise them? Details: https://wwww.bcsa.co.uk/2022-bcsa-writing-competition/
The Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize 2022 is inviting entries of “innovative, imaginative unpublished literary fiction that explores the possibilities of the novel form”. The winner will receive $10,000 and simultaneous publication in the UK and Ireland by Fitzcarraldo Editions, in Australia and New Zealand by Giramondo and in North America by New Directions. All submissions must include a cover letter and a brief outline with the manuscript. Closing date: 1 June. Details: https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com/
The newly launched Seasiders’ Write Debut Novel Award invites entries from writers who have not yet published a full-length novel (at least 25,000 words) and do not have a literary agent. The winner will receive £1,500 and their novel will be published by Seasiders’ Write in print and ebook. The first runner up will receive £500 and ebook publication and the second runner-up will receive £250 and ebook publication. Send the first 5,000 words of the novel plus a one-page synopsis. Shortlisted writers will be asked to send their completed novel manuscript (the maximum length is 65,000 words). Entry fee: £20. Closing date: 1 June. Details: http://www.seasiderswrite.com
Win £1,000 for the best unpublished short story of the year in the VS Pritchett Story Prize 2022, plus publication in Prospect magazine and the RSL Review. Stories should be unpublished and between 2,000–4,000 words. Entry fee:£7.50 per story. Closing date 1 July, but there are 50 free entries for low-income writers, who should apply before 17 June. Details: https://rsliterature.org/award/v-s-pritchett-short-story-prize/
Farnham Flash Fiction Competition for fiction up to 500 words on any subject. Prizes: £75, £25, £25 for the best entry featuring Farnham. Entry fee: £5. Deadline 17 June. Details: http://www.farnhamfringefestival.org
Leicester Writes Short Story Prize for stories up to 3,500 words. Prizes: £175, £75, £50. Entry fee: £5. Deadline 20 June. Details: http://leicesterwrites.co.uk
Wells Festival of Literature is inviting entries for its creative writing competitions: Open Poetry for original unpublished poems up to 35 lines – prizes £1,000, £500 and £250, entry fee £6 per poem; Short Story 1,000-2,000 words – prizes £750, £300, £200, entry fee £6 per story; Book for Children, enter the first two chapters or twenty pages, for a book for children from age nine to YA – prizes £750, £300 and £200, entry fee £6. Closing date 30 June. Details: http://www.wellsfestivalofliterature.org.uk/2022-competitions/
The 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri Writing Prize invites entries in fiction, life-writing and poetry. Three winners will each receive £1,000 and publication in Wasafiri’s print magazine. Shortlisted writers will be published online. Writers entering the competition must not have had a full-length book of fiction, life-writing or poetry published. All shortlisted writers will be offered either the Chapter and Verse or Free Reads mentoring scheme in association with The Literary Consultancy and a ‘conversation’ with Nikesh Shukla of The Good Literary Agency. Send original unpublished work no longer than 3,000 words and must be self-contained, i.e. not an extract from a longer piece. A single poetry entry may consist of up to 3,000 words. Entry is £10 for a single entry and £16 for a double entry. Each writer may enter two manuscripts in a single submission, either in the same or different categories. Closing date: 30 June. Details: http://www.wasafiri.org/new-writing-prize/
The Moth Short Story Prize 2022 for short fiction up to 4,000 words. First prize €3,000, second prize a writing retreat at Circle of Misse and €250, third prize €1,000. The three winning stories will appear in the autumn issue of The Moth, Ireland’s literary magazine. Entry fee: €15 per story. Closing date: 30 June. Details: http://www.themothmagazine.com
Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize for full-length comedy plays. Prizes: £10,000, possible staging at Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool; 2×5£1,500 highly commendeds. Entry fee: £20. Closing date: 30 June. Details: http://www.playwritingprize.com
Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting is looking for full-length new stage plays written in English which have not been published or professionally performed. Prizes: £16,000; 2x£8,000. FREE ENTRY. Closing date: 6 June. Details: http://www.writeaplay.co.uk
James White Award for science fiction (broadly defined) of between 2,000-6,000 words by non-professional writers. Prizes: £200 plus publication in Interzone. Free entry. Deadline: 30 June. Details: http://www.jameswhiteaward.com
British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition for any kind of fantasy story – science fiction, magic realism, horror, etc – up to 5,000 words. Prizes: £100, £50, £20; year’s membership of BFS, publication. Entry fee: £5 (free for BFS members). Closing date: 30 June. Details: http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk
Efforts have been made to check the above details, but do please make sure you have consulted the websites yourselves, in case of errors or last-minute changes. Good luck!
As writers, we need to overcome rejection and it helps to have several irons in the fire at any one time. Competitions are great for this, giving you something else to keep you going or work towards. And the occasional – perhaps surprise – win is a huge encouragement. No excuses, then, for not entering lots of the following:
Colm Toibin International Short Story Award for stories up to 2,000 words. Prizes: 700É, 500É 300É. Entry fee: 10É. Closing date: 1 May. Details: http://www.wexfordliteraryfestival.com (These things can be won – a member of ninevoices – not me – did so a year or two ago and had a wonderful trip to Ireland to accept her award.
Bath Novel Award for the first 5,000 words of a novel, plus a one-page synopsis. Prizes: £3,000; 2nd agent introductions and manuscript feedback; 3rd Cornerstones online course. Entry fee: £29. Closing date: 31 March. Details: http://bathnovelaward.co.uk
Bluepencilagency First Novel Prize for the first chapter of an unpublished novel up to 5,000 words. Prizes: £1,000, manuscript review, introduction to judge/literary agent Nelle Andrew. Entry fee: £20 Deadline: 29 May. Details: http://www.bluepencilagency.com
Bridport Prize for short stories (up to 5,000 words), novels (first 8,000 words), poetry (up to 42 lines) and flash fiction (up to 250 words). Prizes: £5,000, £1,000, £500 and ten £100 highly commended for short stories and poetry; £1,000, £500, £250 and five £100 highly commendeds for flash fiction; £1,500, £750, plus editiorial guidance. Entry fee: £9 per flash fiction; £10 per poem; £12 per short story; £20 novel. Deadline 31 May. Details: http://www.bridportprize.org.uk
The Yeovil Literary Prize 2022 is inviting entries in the following categories: Novel. Enter the opening up to 10,000 words and a synopsis up to 500 words. Prizes are £1,250, £300 and £125. The entry fee is £14.50. Short Story. Enter short stories up to 2,000 words. Prizes are £600, £250 and £125. Entry fee is £8. Poetry. Enter poems up to 40 lines. Prizes are £600, £250 and £125. Entry fee £5 per poem. Children’s/Young Adult Novel. Enter the first 3,000 words and a 500-word synopsis. One illustration may be included. Prizes are £600, £250 and £125. Entry fee £12.50. Writing Without Restrictions. Enter work that doesn’t fit into usual competition categories. Prizes are £250, £125 and £75. Entry fee £6. Entries may have appeared online, but must be commercially unpublished. Closing date: 31 May. Details: http://www.yeovilprize.co.uk
As ever, please check entry details before committing yourself.
Nevil Shute – inspirational reading for Easter 2022?
Nevil Shute (1899-1960) was once a best-selling author, but these days any fans who devoured his novels when young – and who still reach for their favourites in certain moods – are likely to be from the older generation.
Some Nevil Shute novels may feel dated, but there are others which speak as strongly today as they did when first published. Younger readers may only be familiar with A Town Like Alice, an enthralling story combining romance with the horrors of the second world war in the Far East. Nevil Shute’s novels often contain strong female characters, but Jean Paget is his most inspirational for her selfless courage and enterprise. It’s no surprise A Town Like Alice remains Nevil Shute’s best-loved and most popular novel.
Nevil Shute was an aeronautical engineer and pilot, and many of his books have an aviation or engineering backdrop. Not exactly tempting if you aren’t particularly interested in these areas and switch off when it comes to technical talk about flying and aeroplanes. But what’s surprising is that you become so gripped by Nevil Shute’s incredible story-telling and knack of creating instant empathy with his characters that what seems alien and uncongenial territory actually becomes quite interesting!
Devotees will have their own favourites, but there are four Nevil Shute novels I have found especially unforgettable. Pied Piper, published in 1942, is one of them. John Howard, a retired country solicitor, dealing with his own grief, tries to escape from France in 1940 when it’s invaded by the Germans, looking after a collection of children he gathers up along the way.
There’s no overblown heroism. You might think it an almost prosaic account of the journey and the dangers faced, but small details and incidents concerning the children bring Howard’s journey across France vividly to life. He demonstrates those qualities typical of characters in Nevil Shute’s novels – a sense of duty, doing what needs to be done whatever the risks, facing difficulties and discomfort with calm and patience. An unassuming old man doing something remarkable.
The Chequer Board, published in 1947, is also a story of someone outwardly very ordinary – a terminally-ill man with a less than admirable past determined to make something of himself in the time left to him. He sets out to discover what happened to the three men, each of them with messed-up lives, whom he met in a hospital ward back in 1943. It’s a quest set against the racist and prejudiced attitudes about skin colour and nationality of that time – and we see how friendship can overcome the barriers human beings erect against each other.
These are themes further developed in Round the Bend, published in 1951, the novel that Nevil Shute considered to be his best. The narrator Tom Cutter, a pilot and entrepreneur, starts up an air freight business transporting goods across the Middle East and Far East, employing the Eurasian Connie Shak Lin. Connie is not only a first class engineer but a spiritual leader. He transforms the attitudes of the other workers with his teaching that doing good work with honesty and responsibility is the way to serve God.
This novel might be seen as being about a spirituality that underlies and unites different religions. God is there for everyone. Significantly, when Tom and Connie were boys and working together for an air circus that travelled all over the British Isles, Connie ‘just went to any old church there was. He went to the nearest, whether it was Anglican or Methodist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic. He went to a synagogue one time, at Wolverhampton. He collected churches, like another boy might collect cigarette cards or matchbox covers. The gem of his collection was at Woking, where he found a mosque to go to.’ The novel’s ending asks a question that the narrator cannot answer but goes on haunting his mind – and that of the reader.
Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach sears itself into the mind in another way. Radiation is drifting inexorably towards the southern hemisphere, after a nuclear war has destroyed the rest of the world. Soon radiation sickness will kill the earth’s last remaining people still alive in Australia. The novel looks with a matter of fact gaze at the way individuals choose to spend the final months of their lives – and how they will end them. A young couple with a baby make plans to grow trees and vegetables in their garden that they will never see. An American naval officer in Australia with his ship buys presents for his wife and children, as if unable to accept in part of his mind that they are dead.
On the Beach is terrifying and moving all at once. In this and all his novels, Nevil Shute gives us characters who find the courage and integrity to stand up for what matters. They can help and inspire us in our modern world – how to live and do our best wherever we are, in the time that remains to us.
This month we celebrate the birthday of the great William Shakespeare, so what better time to pursue one’s own writing ambitions than through entering one of the following competitions:
Bath Short Story Award for stories up to 2,200 words. Prizes: £1,200, £300, £100, plus The Acorn Award of £100 for an unpublished writer. Entry fee: £9 each. Closing date: April 11. Details: https://bathshortstoryaward.com
RA & Pin Drop Short Story Award – for stories up to 4,000 words. Prizes: a reading by a special guest at an evening at the Royal Academy of Arts. ENTRY IS FREE, so what is stopping you? Closing date: April 15. Details: http://pindropstudio.com/
The international Desperate Literature Prize 2022 will receive 1,500 Euros and a writing residency at Civitella Ranieri Foundation for original unpublished short fiction no longer than 2,000 words. The winner will also get an introduction to literary agent Charlotte Seymour from Johnson & Alcock and a manuscript assessment and follow-up meeting from an editor at The Literary Consultancy. Two runners-up will each get 750 Euros. The winners and runners-up will all be published in an anthology with one of the prize’s partner journals and be invited to participate in Desperate Literature salons in Madrid, London and Edinburgh, with one shortlisted writer offered a spot at the Tbilisi International Festival of Literature and a 400 Euro travel stipend. Closing date April 15. Details: https://desperateliterature.com/
Edge Hill Short Story Prize for published short story collections. Prizes: £10,000, £1,000. FREE ENTRY. Closing date: April 15. Details: http://www.edgehill.ac.uk
Grey Hen Poetry Prize invites submissions of unpublished poems of up to 40 lines by women over the age of 60. Prizes are £100, £50 and £25, with publication online. Entry is £3, or four for £10. Closing date: 30 April. Details: http://www.greyhenpress.com
Finally – why not raise your writing profile by attending Swanwick, the Writers’ Summer School? There are three competitions to win a place: a poem of up to 40 lines, a short story of up to 1,000 words; children’s fiction up to 1,000 words. The theme for all entries is: ‘Community’. Prizes: a fully inclusive week at the 2022 Summer School for the winner; a Writing Magazine manuscript appraisal for the second; and a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2022 for the third. Entry fee: £6 for each piece; multiple entries are allowed. Closing date: April 30. Details: http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/win-a-place
Good luck with those entries – just make sure you double-check the details online first, in case there have been changes since I compiled my information.
‘Bouncebackability’ first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2005, after football manager Iain Dowie coined it to describe Crystal Palace’s ascent from the edge of relegation to promotion through play-offs. What happened to his team in the 2003–4 season is, apparently, not uncommon. In 2018, Richard Foster wrote that, ‘the best preparation a team can have for a play-off final is the experience of losing one the year before’ (The Guardian, 25th May, 2018). He backed this up with an amazing statistic: ‘Of the 10 beaten finalists who have returned to the same fixture the next season, nine have succeeded second time around – and the only exception made amends a year later.’
Surely a near miss for writers could have the same effect? The problem is we never know how close our work gets to being longlisted; if it’s not there, it’s not there. The WriteMentor folk addressed this problem recently (as much as it can be addressed) when they published additional lists of ‘Very Close’ and ‘Readers’ Favourites’, alongside their official competition longlist. Those who found themselves on these lists tweeted how hugely encouraging it was. Inevitably, though, there were more omissions than inclusions and I was one of the omissions.
I haven’t had much success lately – and I’ve ended up in a bit of a slough. I’ve been researching a new novel for a year but can’t quite bring myself to write it.
There’s a ton of advice out there to help writers like me who feel discouraged: you should ringfence a slot every morning to write whatever comes into your head; join a writing group; take a course; go on a retreat/workshop; get a mentor, etc.
But what works for one person might be unhelpful to another (assuming it’s even affordable). Stephen King – whose book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a favourite of mine – says he is ‘doubtful about writing classes’, though ‘not entirely against them’, which I found pretty interesting. In case you’re tempted to stop reading right here, perhaps the following (re his view on workshops/retreats in which would-be writers do daily critiques on each other’s work) will resonate more:
‘The pressure to explain is always on, and a lot of your creative energy … is therefore going in the wrong direction. You find yourself constantly questioning your prose and your purpose when what you should probably be doing is writing as fast as the Ginger-bread Man runs, getting that first draft down on paper while the shape of the fossil is still bright and clear in your mind.’
Getting your first draft down before you lose that vital spark appeals to me. (Elsewhere, he says, ‘If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people.’) He also advocates reading widely. That, of course, has to be right. At the end of last year, I came across an insightful tweet from literary agent Jennifer Laughran (@literaticat):
‘The best advice if you want to write for kids is, GO TO THE LIBRARY AND READ 100 BOOKS PUBLISHED IN YOUR CATEGORY IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS. Put your favourites in a special pile and buy your own copies of those so you can write in them. Tear them apart. Why and HOW do they work? If you do this: CONGRATULATIONS, you just did much of the work for a master’s degree without having to pay for it. While you’re at it – make a spreadsheet of those 100 books, noting WHO PUBLISHED THEM, and agent/editor if they are listed in the acknowledgments. Note patterns! If you do THIS step: CONGRATULATIONS, you just got a crash course in publishing and are armed with the knowledge of “who publishes what” that you will need as you begin your querying/publishing journey.’
I’m thinking this advice is transferable to anyone writing for adults, too, though reading 100 recent books might be a stretch.
I’ve also discovered that outings connected with my subject are really helpful (though this probably isn’t startling news to anyone else!). Towards the end of last year, I had an overnight stay in Dorchester and walked to various places connected with Thomas Hardy. Google Maps took me across fields to the church where Hardy’s father first saw his mother, then to the nearby house (what remains of it) where she was in service, and finally, along the road, to the cottage where Hardy was born. I came back feeling more hopeful and inspired than I had for months!
Ditto after a trip to Charles Dickens’ house in Doughty Street, London, last week.
I’ve also found writers baring their souls about failure and insecurity immensely encouraging. In Cathy Rentzenbrink’s new book Write It All Down, she says:
‘It is pointless to worry whether the work is any good or whether you are any good. It’s all about learning to tolerate the gap between our aspiration for the finished thing and the current dog’s breakfast that we see before us. With each of my five books I wasted aeons of time fretting about whether it was rubbish and I was useless and would everyone laugh at me and had I bitten off more than I could chew …
‘A sea change came when I had a talk about it with my agent, Jo. We were sitting on a wall outside the London Book Fair, and I was crying because I felt so adrift and miserable and unable to finish the next draft of what would become The Last Act of Love. I told her that I just didn’t think I was good enough. “Look,” she said kindly, “self-doubt is intertwined with creativity. I don’t understand why, but all the creative people I know spend a lot of time believing they are useless. You just need to not listen to it.”
‘That was a life-changing moment for me …’
Bouncebackability is about the state of your morale, the ability to shut out negative voices. The reason I remember when the OED first included it is because a boy in my son’s English class decided to celebrate by inserting it into an essay on Romeo & Juliet as often as possible! For example, Romeo, he said, showed bouncebackability when he moved on from his unhappy adoration of Rosaline (‘I have a soul of lead’) to joyous devotion to Juliet (‘Did my heart love till now?’) I don’t know how else he applied it but it must have made his teacher smile (a bit) and I’ll never think about bouncebackability without doing the same. It helps me lighten up.
What is the etiquette about getting back books that you lent someone a long time ago? Asking for a friend.
My friend used to think that he would never forget which book he had lent to whom. But it was the disappearance of a prized hardback copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad that undeceived me him. None of the people to whom he might have lent it remembered (or admitted) that they had it.
So he started to note loans down in a special notebook. But that has created its own problems.
For rereading it recently he saw that one book (signed by the author) had been lent to a friend a full five years ago.
Put yourself in this situation: various embarrassments can arise.
Does asking for it back after so long make you seem nerdish? Untrusting? In some way accusing your friend of carelessness? Best to have some specific reason for needing it, rather than just wanting to reclaim a piece of property for the sake of having it at home and not in their house.
Your friend might deny having got it. If it’s left at that, then the book will never be recovered. If the denial is challenged – well, do you suspect them of lying? Surely not – but that corrosive thought is in your mind now.
Do you ask your friend to check their shelves to make sure? If they do, and it can’t be found, why not? Have they in turn lent it to someone else? Have they lost it – left behind, perhaps, on some Spanish beach? Has a zealous spouse bent on clearing space given it to a charity shop?
If it is found – aha! They may claim (genuinely, let us hope) that it is their own copy. How to resolve this? Writing your name in your books is the obvious answer, but is that also nerdish? Something schoolboys do (or used to, when they still read books rather than looked at screens)? Obviously the worst thing you can do is to write your name in the book in the presence of the person you’re lending it to …
Let’s hope that this ownership problem doesn’t arise. It’s yours, and they’ve got it, and they’re giving it back. Do you make the mistake of asking them whether they liked it? For if they haven’t actually read it, how awkward …. Would you agree to their hanging on to it so they would sometime get round to reading it? Then you might have to go through the whole sorry performance again – but how can you politely say no?
This whole area is fraught with difficulty. And when you look round your house, and see books piled on windowsills and on the floor, because there is no more space on your shelves, then maybe that’s the perfect excuse for letting this particular sleeping dog lie.
“The next day commenced as before, getting up and dressing by rush-light; but this morning we were obliged to dispense with the ceremony of washing: the water in the pitchers was frozen. A change had taken placein the weather the preceding evening, and a keen north-east wind, whistling through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had made us shiver in our beds, and turned the contents of the ewers to ice.”
Chapter VI, Jane Eye
Having been deprived of central heating for nearly five weeks, I have thought often about Jane and the shivering conditions at her charity school. Our bathrooms may currently be icy, but we do have hot water. Perhaps it is timely to follow Jane and count our blessings.
Would Barbara Pym have approved of the local knitted embellishments for our Kentish post boxes? I suspect that she and her characters would have found them ‘not quite the thing’, but in these dark days anything that raises a smile is to be encouraged.
‘I wonder if women brought their knitting when Oscar Wilde talked,’ said Piers.
‘I daresay not,’ said Sybil calmly, ‘but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have liked to.’
(At a dinner party in Barbara Pym’s novel A Glass of Blessings)
Sybil, the tolerant, perceptive mother-in-law of the heroine Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings, can be relied on. Knitting, embroidery, tapestry, sewing: these could come to the rescue of women – and men too – on all sorts of occasions. It’s enough to make you envy those Jane Austen heroines who could bend their faces over their work to hide their emotions of irritation or boredom with whatever is going on around them.
Certainly the Lenten service Wilmet attends with its almost never-ending sermon would have been much more bearable if she’d had something to occupy her hands and despairing mind: We had been subjected – that seemed to be the only way to describe it – to an address of great dullness… Sentence after sentence seemed as if it must be the last but still it went on. I felt as if I had been wrapped round and round in a cocoon of wordiness, like a great suffocating eiderdown.
Being a committed Christian and regular churchgoer, Barbara Pym heard a lot of sermons and you can’t help thinking some of them must have found their way into her novels. Did Archdeacon Hoccleve’s Judgment Day sermon in Some Tame Gazelle with its over-flowing stream of literary quotations beginning at the seventeenth century happen in real life? The congregation shifted awkwardly in their seats. It was uncomfortable to be reminded that the Judgment Day might be tomorrow.’ Another occasion for the soothing effect of needlework.
Embroidery can provide the motif for those preachers of sermons, as in Barbara Pym’s early novel Civil to Strangers: ‘Some people don’t put in enough stitches,’ repeated the rector, in a slow emphatic voice. ‘Isn’t that true of many of us? He leaned forward. ‘Aren’t our lives pieces of embroidery that we have to fill in ourselves? Can we truthfully say that we always put in enough stitches?’ Cassandra, the twenty-eight-year-old heroine, wakes up from daydreaming to realize that she is the ‘old lady’ whose embroidered firescreen has inspired the rector’s sermon; Janie, the rector’s good and dutiful daughter, is whiling away the time eyeing up the curate as a possible husband. Barbara Pym knew that even Excellent Women find it impossible to stop their thoughts wandering, and this must be a comfort to all of us.
It’s more than forty years since I started an embroidered cushion cover in a fit of over-enthusiasm and lack of self-knowledge. Somehow it got put away and forgotten, but it’s come out again now. Just the thing for keeping calm when politicians are fighting: I might even finish it. The wife of the President of the Learned Society in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women knew what she was about, during those endless anthropology lectures, sitting there with her knitting until she nods off to sleep…