About ten years ago, I regularly read poems and short stories at the Caxton Arms in Brighton. Then when I started writing novels, the urge to perform dwindled. Just a few months after moving back to Brighton, I was asked to read at the ABCtales Evening at St Michael And All Angels’ church on July 5th, as part of the Clifton, Montpelier And Powis Festival. Seven Dials has long been my favourite area of Brighton, so I was very glad to return and be recognised on my home turf.
ABCtales was one of the first websites I searched for when, always the late developer, I discovered the internet way back in 2003. Editors Tony Cook and Mark Brown encouraged me from the start, and I regularly posted my draft chapters. ABCtales offers aspiring writers a chance to share and receive feedback on their work, and many of its eclectic membership have gone on to achieve publication and acclaim.
St Michael’s is, from an aesthetic point of view, truly impressive. Boasting stained-glass windows by William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it reminds us of a bygone era of grand architecture. Church doctrine is of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion, and the building has provided an elegant setting for a variety of cultural events.
The ABCtales Evening was hosted by founder Tony Cook. He began by reading two pieces inspired by an exercise ran by the ABCtales forum, challenging each member to write a piece of exactly two hundred words. His own effort, ‘Coming, Ready Or Not’, was followed by an evocative piece by Mark Brown. Something of a short-story enthusiast, Mark dedicated a year to writing two-hundred word pieces. He is now editor of One In Four magazine.
‘Mandylifeboats’, one of the first people to join ABCtales in 2001, was our second performer. She has recently moved to the south coast after living in Amsterdam for the last thirty years. Next up, Louise Thomas read from her much-needed spoof on the current deluge of parenting manuals, Nappygate. Adrian brought the first segment to a close with a new take on, of all subjects, the Black Death. Originally part of a one-man show, it was by turns funny, horrific and sad.
Glasses recharged (yes, this church had a bar), the second instalment was kicked off by ‘iamacuriousyellow’, who read a hard-hitting piece focusing on drug addiction and jail. He was followed by Jennifer, a prodigiously talented young poet and teacher from Bristol. Her work is witty and thoughtful, and she’s a beguiling performer as well – one to watch out for. Then ‘animan‘ read a series of prose-poems which formed a kind of spiritual life-cycle.
Janet Cameron, a widely published local author, opened the final section with a short story on childhood – mingling memories her own with that of today’s children. She followed this with a caustic poem about the writer’s lot which struck a chord for most of us. Alison Dunne, a rising star on the poetry and performance circuit, was just as relaxed, natural and sharp-witted as I expected. Her first collection, April’s Fish, is published by Koo Press.
Finally it was my turn to take the stage. After ten years away, I can’t say I didn’t have insecure moments beforehand. But as well as being very flattering, the privilege of top-billing – a first for me – gave me a chance to reflect on how far I’ve progressed since those early days. Writing is a lonely process, and it comes as a pleasant surprise to realise how much people appreciate it.
I chose two extracts from The Mmm Girl, both focusing on Marilyn Monroe’s work as a model and her most enduring love affair, with the camera. The first piece depicted a chance encounter with an old flame, Andre de Dienes, just as her career was taking off – resulting in a glorious photo-shoot at Tobey Beach, just outside New York. The second scene was set just a month before Marilyn died, back in her hometown of Los Angeles. Another time, another photographer (George Barris), another beach (Santa Monica.) Barris’s images are some of the most haunting of Marilyn, and I strove to recapture some of that poignancy in my writing.
Whatever my own shortcomings may be, I’m driven by a desire to give an imaginary space to those whose voice has been erased, whether by history or just plain misunderstanding. In The Mmm Girl, that voice is none other than Marilyn Monroe’s. So if I felt a little scared and small last night, that evaporated when I remembered that even Marilyn felt that way sometimes. My performance, like my writing, was a reminder of every writer’s responsibility to seek out the truth, even in fiction – and to understand what that duty really entails.