Ten years ago I attended an Arvon course at Lumb Bank – Writing for Young Adults, led by Celia Rees and Jan Mark. I had been writing for some time, and took along my first draft of a novel called Walking Backwards, hoping for useful editorial comments. But both Celia and Jan insisted on us all starting a new work, and sharing it in the readings at the end of the week. It was the kind of encouragement I needed, daunting though it was.
I walked, and pondered. I thought of my days as a dance student in London and Amsterdam, and an extraordinary ballet I once saw called The Green Table – created by German choreographer, Kurt Joos, just before Hitler came to power. Twelve sinister Gentlemen in Black sit around a conference table. They are diplomats, or bureaucrats, and they are discussing, arguing, raging. Pistols are raised, a shot sounds, and the figure of Death appears. I remembered days walking the streets of Amsterdam, absorbing an atmosphere that still resonated the dark shadow of German occupation, and later, back in England, a Viennese Jewish dancer called Hilde Holger I trained with briefly in a basement in Camden Town, who had survived, and danced, despite the daily threat of being discovered by the Nazis. I reflected on all these memories, but no words came.
One night there was a thunder storm, and lightening forked over the valley as the rain clattered down on the terrace. The next day I sat in a writing hut in the garden, overlooking the steep wooded valley. I heard Hilde Holger’s voice shouting at us to dance better as she banged her drum, and I began to write.
One of the other students on the course was Jan Fortune, who went on to create Cinnamon Press. Jan has since told me that when she heard first scene of The Green Table, in our readings on the last evening, she thought – one day I will publish that.
After a long period of redrafting, and rejections, I almost gave up, and went off to do an MA at Sheffield Hallam University. Jan and I had lost touch for many years, and reconnected when I won a Cinnamon Press short story award. She agreed to mentor me as I reworked The Green Table as a novel for adults. It was an immensely difficult task, but finally it came together in one quiet week in Wales. It has now just been launched, published by Cinnamon Press in its tenth year anniversary.
I’ve attended three Arvon courses over very many years, and each time, it’s not only the tutors, but the meeting with other students, that make it special. There’s something incredible about being with other people who care as much about writing. I’m immensely grateful to Arvon foundation and to Celia Rees, Jan Mark, and Jan Fortune, for the spark that fired my imagination, and above all for the encouragement I’ve received along the way.