Words change and customs move on. Any generation can say that and, almost inevitably, one that is no longer at the forefront gives air to regrets that their contribution is being undone. Up goes the cry that standards are slipping.
An assumed casualness bordering on intimacy could be construed as the norm when I receive emails in my official duties a priest starting ‘Hi Kev’ from people I have never met. I have recently introduced myself to, been taken on and represented by, an agent with whom I have had no conversation other than on screen and by keyboard. This arguably remote exchange was all that it should be even if, sadly for me, it meant that a novel was knocked back more efficiently and quickly than would have been the case without her work. It was a pleasure.
It is temptingly easy to be a grumpy old man so it was something of a surprise I found myself genuinely moved by what would have been a routine expression of courtesy from only a few years ago. I have recently, perhaps foolishly, started a campaign to get some new material before producers and publishers.
Each has its own story but one surprised me with an email which simply thanked me for my submission and gave an indication of the length of time before a decision would be made on it. It came from a named person, who provided her position in the publishing house and the postal address.
Strange, as I said, that something so simple could be unsettling. It is no doubt no more than a standard email generated by a machine, the equivalent of the postcard once returned to you because you had included a stamp or the ubiquitous stamped addressed envelope. For all that, it was a memory of times past.
When my wife and I bought our first house the garden wall was missing a gate. We decided to do a quirky thing in getting a gate that highlighted the difference in height between our fence and our neighbours’. One important feature was a large post box, with a wide and high slit to accommodate various scripts that would be making their way back to me from agents, publishers, theatres and friends.
I don’t need that facility nowadays. The inbox of the email programme serves just as well. But even new technology, so it seems, can be enhanced by light touches.
Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. Eleven is not, to my knowledge, a magical number, but as I see Ken’s name in the memorial book of the dead in the church I serve, recollections of him pile up. Eleven years ago in a room to one side of a house in Bensville, surrounded by his family, Dad’s body oozed from mouth and nose as his spirit made the journey his Catholic faith had prepared him for.
As Dad died it was my privilege as a priest, (albeit one, as my brother Paul has written, ‘of the wrong stripe’) to commend him to the loving judge and father Ken and I believe will receive us with open arms.
The elements of faith, which are not universally believed in or tolerated by his offspring, added to the inevitable confusion of emotions that attends any death. The calming, faithful presence of our mother Norma ensured that the rites of passage followed the rites of Mother Church.
My father, whose life had been one of an almost constant outpouring of words by mouth or pen – his work also appeared under the pseudonym John Dawes – had once written of himself that, having been informed he had no priestly vocation, life took a new path:
‘But given me a pen
And words to spin therefrom
To keep the truth for men –
He willed it thus!’
(from Fiat Voluntas Tua)
The cascade of literature has continued: within hours of his last breath my sister Vicki was addressing her grief through verse; my nephew Daniel has paid tribute in a narrative piece. Some years later my brother Paul, in his first published collection of poetry, An Existential Grammar, muses on Ken’s final days in the evocative Lost and Found.
I had joined the familial resort to verbiage in advance in a privately compiled pamphlet with the unimaginative title, Dad Poems. I even had the temerity to send it to Ken, whose loving, indulgent and critical response is either found or lost in the collection of the Kenrick Scully papers in the archives of the Australian Catholic University in Sydney.
It was at the Strathfield campus of ACU that I spent my sabbatical in 2013, the spark which led to the production of Three Angry Men, my teasing out of my relationship with God, my father and my inner self.
For the faithful death is not a full stop. It is a book over which we no longer have control. To continue the clumsy metaphor, we have to give the writing of our life over to the Great Editor to assess it for publication. No more can this hope and expectation be seen in a poem Ken himself wrote:
At Morning Mass
(on his 81st birthday)
When morning comes
I shall wake
and go to some Camelot.
There I shall whisper
to the breeze and tell
of times gone by;
of when I was young
and saw a world
so sparkling and fresh
that in that morning
standing by the shore
I saw Him rise and say:
My beloved come to me,
give me your heart,
for I will keep you
through all the day
till night comes down
and troubles fade away.
Readers of this blog may recall my memories of lunches with agents. Or more particularly with one agent, Tony Williams. In my very first blog I remembered with some fondness the meals we embarked upon when I would visit Sydney.
Literary agents, like actors, suffer from a stereotypical caricature: particularly those with a penchant for long, boozy lunches with old friends to whom they sell – or try to sell – their clients’ work. Or authors they should ditch but have not found the vocabulary to urge them to do what drivers routinely do in a road rage altercation. A languid or livid liquid literary exchange.
The curmudgeonly Ed Reardon would attempt, usually without success, to get to sit at table with his dis/un-interested old style representative, Felix. This was before the business fell into the management to his assistant Ping, whom Reardon calls his ‘twelve-year-old agent’.
My experiences with literary agents have, by and large, been courteous and professional. But the fact is that I have had to do many of my dealings without one. Either the sort of work I write is not in their field of operation or, sadly, not likely to generate enough in fees to justify the work it takes to put the material about.
A recent tangential follow-up on my book Three Angry Men led me to make an overture to an agent. I find that as a result, after many years, I have representation. Sally Bird runs Calidris Literary Agency in Australia.
I must say I am delighted to have someone taking this role for me after many years. Our contact has been mostly by email and follows the pattern of courtesy and professionalism, something that I have found truly heartening. But, distance being what it is – Sally is in Australia and I am in London - there is no lunch in sight at the moment.
Something sinister is happening at Nonnatus House. No, it is not the progression from heart-warming stories based on Jennifer Worth’s original book to a series charting the changes in women’s lives in the 1950s and 1960s which risks turning it into a televised series of uniformed Woman’s Hour.
Here are some of the contributions to puzzlement: Trixie and the great Leotard Controversy; Patsy and the love that dare not speak its name; the vanishing characters of Nurse Lee, Chummy and Sister Evangelina (no doubt to cater for the changing career paths of the actors playing them); or the unfathomable (to me anyway) poser of why the curate has no training incumbent, colleagues, and seems to dress as a country parson rather than wear a cassock, which would have been expected in an Anglo-Catholic parish at the time. And why does no-one call him Father?
All of which may lead to the attendant worry that Call the Midwife is moving in a similar drift to The Bill from a focussed, original series of hand held cinema verité by Geoff McQueen to the predictable PC Plod Eastenders it became. Don’t fear CTM fans – no signs of that just yet.
None of that may worry devoted viewers, the majority of whom, we are told, are women. I have a friend who takes his son out of the sitting room to do ‘men’s things’ elsewhere in the house while his wife and daughters follow the family fortunes which culminate in that last big push each episode on television.
My concern is strictly humanitarian. In many episodes viewers will have seen the nuns go to the house chapel for their devotions, which one assumes is usually Compline as they sing the hymn Before the Ending of the Day. Which is at it should be. As Sister Julienne was heard to say in episode one of series five, prayer is their real labour and in Holy Week it takes up a lot of their working day.
When the admittedly beautiful voices of the professed hard-pressed midwives are raised in praise of the Lord, their numbers mysteriously swell. And yet, in all other parts of the show, signs of the existence of these gilded corded women are none. They appear to have no bedrooms and no duties outside the chapel in Nonnatus House. They are seen neither on foot nor bicycle on the streets of Poplar. More worryingly, they never eat with their sisters in habit or uniform. All that cake and none for the singers.
What is going on? Is there some kind of secret life within the hallowed halls? Should Sergeant Noakes be called in to investigate? Or should we call on Doctor Turner, whose tweedy exterior seems to hide a Superman suit, not to mention his almost rivalling powers of the bilocating Saint Anthony of Padua, to use his inexhaustible bedside manner and encyclopaedic knowledge?
Whoever gets the job, they will have to put on the whole armour of their trade. Who they gonna call?
Three Angry Men is now published.
Some of you will know about my struggle to get it into print. What followed was more pathetic - a battle between technology and my small mind. A truce has been declared and I am now pleased to say that the book is available free from this website. Just follow the link on the Books page.
If I can ask readers to look at the final thank yous. Without the people and institutions mentioned, the book would never have been written.
As I say in the book, this is one view down the telescope. I expect others will have their own angles on John Dawes - my father Ken - his life, his faith and his writings.
I look forward to hearing them.
Getting a play on is hard work. If you do not have, or have lost, the connections among the latest movers and shakers in theatreworld, you have little chance.
In a world that speaks of diverse freedom through social media, never has the establishment in all its manifestations been so controlling. And, as I have reflected elsewhere, there has been a closing down of common courtesy concomitant with reduced opportunities for those outside the loop.
It was understandable that I might walk down the long worn path of getting a few mates together to read through my latest, and probably last, play, The Long Hello. A bit of culture, hearing what works and what doesn’t, followed by some food and drink is always alluring.
What I was not ready for was the response from those who wanted to be there. I am not talking industry types, though there are quite of few of them. I have had to move the venue a couple of times to accommodate the expected audience. I say expected because the reading is not until next week.
Some call this crowdfunding. Some call it luck. I have in the past held off requests for a series of the Rector’s Readings. I had wanted to see it in the broader context. Maybe I need to lower my sights as, somehow, it all seems to be coming together. I doubt The Long Hello has any future. But just to be part of the fun is worth it.
John Osborne’s enfant terrible, Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger – my last professional acting role and, ironically, my first lead - exclaims that he longs for, ‘Just enthusiasm – that’s all’.
The e-word is an evocative one in the publishing world – at least in my experience. One of my first literary efforts was met by an agent’s saying he could not summon up any enthusiasm for the piece. It was both damning and discouraging – the right of an assessor and the plight of an aspirant.
The general advice to writers is to keep at it. If you don’t have that in you, it’s over.
Hunter Davies, in a Sunday Times Magazine article on July 19, lovingly and entertainingly traces the literary aspirations of Denis Pethebridge, who meticulously catalogued 338 rejections slips over 30 years. A second scrapbook was started in 1967, Davies writes, ‘but these precious later records appear to have been lost’. Pethebridge did eventually see his name on a novel, George – A 20th Century Miniature. Davies writes, ‘It is clearly a vanity publishing, cheaply done, with lots of blank pages’.
In the article Davies notes that the eulogy at Pethebridge’s funeral ‘suggests he enjoyed a happy, fulfilled life. It obviously became a hobby, a pastime, an amusement for him, which doesn’t appear to have left him bitter’.
The past two years have seen me on a trail seeking a publisher for my latest book, Three Angry Men. I knew it would be a hard road: neither my father Ken Scully (who also wrote under the name of John Dawes) nor I are sufficiently famous or successful for celebrity status. The latest knock-back came from a publisher who had elicited a series of long and complicated submissions from me. Having eventually discussed the project with her colleagues four months after our first contact, she admitted that in the end ‘there was no enthusiasm for it.’ There followed the traditional hope that it would find a home elsewhere.
As I have said before, it’s a buyer’s market and publishers need to shift their product, so you can only take such blows on the chin.
I suppose I have lost the enthusiasm for putting it out there. I am exploring the process of publishing Three Angry Men on this website. This, I hope, is more than vanity. It is a book that is dear to me, one that a number of people, including a few editors who have knocked it back, have conceded is well written.
If no money is to be made from it, I see no need to charge for it. There are, of course, a series of enquiries and permissions to follow. I hope I can retain the enthusiasm for that.
Bringing together faith and writing is part of my life. All my published books have come from that.
One great blessing I have is being a member of the pastoral team at St Paul’s Cathedral. I am one of a team of priests who make themselves available to talk to people, lead prayers publicly and, where necessary, offer sacramental ministry there.
Last year the cathedral installed a wonderful new video work by Bill Viola, Martyrs. I spend time in front of this piece on every shift I do at St Paul’s. It has moved me greatly. So much so that I would love to write a book in response to it.
No publisher has yet bitten the bait. The general feeling seems to be that the market would be too small and specific, restricted to those who have seen the work or have visited the cathedral.
Recently there was an event, a kind of private view, to look at Martyrs and I was asked to present a meditation in response to the work. I had a diary clash – I had already booked to go for a week in Venice – but was asked to write something to be read out.
The Diocese of London, which organised the event as part of Capital Vision 2020, has put up a report on the event and my talk on its website.
Writers are often asked what inspires them. In a world away from words, we may not give appropriate thought to a similar question. Twice in recent visits to schools, children have asked me about what inspires me as a priest. And, more difficult to answer, how I inspire others.
The Diocese of London has sought to address this on a personal level in its Lent Appeal, asking ‘Who inspired you when you were younger to become the person you are today?’ To support this the diocese produced a brochure and a card on which people could write their answers. Some weeks back I distributed the cards in the church I serve, asking people to fill them out and return them to me by the end of Lent.
Only one person, it seemed, had been inspired and returned the completed card. So after the service on Palm Sunday I stood over people and got them to answer the question. I am planning some kind of event – details have yet to be worked out – to highlight and discuss their answers.
On a sneak preview of the cards, I was struck by how many people looked to their families, often one parent or both, as the one(s) who led them to be who they are. I heard myself musing that perhaps St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green was a shrine to ancestor worship. That would belittle the respect that members of the church feel is due to those who brought them to today.
Of course, having asked others to undertake the task, I have had to do similarly. I find I came up with two English teachers at my school. They both led me, perhaps indirectly, and no fault of theirs, to writing.
The first was Stan Sinclair, a somewhat chaotic and maverick teacher who filled me with love of words, and especially Shakespeare. One drunken evening at his home – this was long after I had left school; I was working as a journalist at a regional television station as a reporter – he attacked me for having sold my soul. He said he had seen creative talent in me. Earning a living as a hack diminished my gift. Stan died before my first play was performed or book published, so I have no idea if he would have changed his assessment of my worth.
The other teacher was Julian McDonald, a Christian Brother who went on to be the Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, and someone I would dare to call a friend. He brought an arguably more grounded approach to life: one of commitment, discipline and service. All that channelled into a love of God and a respect for study and literature.
It is now over forty years since I left school but I still get a weekly email from Julian which takes the form a meditation or commentary on the Sunday readings for mass. He often throws an arresting light on the texts.
In paying homage to both these men I realise how hard the question posed by the Diocese is. Singling out one – or doubling it in my case – inevitably leaves someone out. It is the challenge of lists. Yet it is one worth responding to. It tells us something not just about ourselves, but the very things from which we draw value. And that is inspiring.
Thoughts from the mind and keyboard of Kevin Scully, writer and priest.
All content © Kevin Scully
Header image courtesy of Adey Grummet