If it hadn’t been for his quiet attention, I would not have judged the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award this year, because I might never have learned to read.
I was ‘slow’ at school, because my eyesight was weakened by measles, but he gently steered me forward by example: reading to me, writing words on scraps of paper that I could secretly pull out of my pocket and copy, at school, to disguise my lack of confidence in writing; taking me to the library, making up thrilling bed-time stories: “The wind is howling and Shep is out on the moors …” Had he not shared stories with me, I would have retreated within myself and been overlooked in the classroom.
It wasn’t usual for working-class families to have many books in the house and we were no different. The family bible and my mum’s missal were hardly evidence of a love of reading, and yet it was there — in library books and the newspapers delivered daily (the Daily Mirror and the Coventry Evening Telegraph), in the language of mass, and, perhaps most forcibly, in my Connemara aunty’s unforgettable mantra: “Get yourself an education and then you can clean toilets.” I think I know what she meant: that knowledge would liberate, allowing my sister and I to choose, rather than be forced along the paths they had taken. Be a cleaner like us, if you must, but make sure your mind has somewhere to go while you are sweeping, she seemed to be urging.
How often a loss provides the strength for us to fight for what we believe in. I was proud of my father, and the men and women like him who made good things in factories: unpretentious machines that worked. The protective, post-war world they witnessed, of a job for life and the security of basic education, healthcare and faith in institutional progress, seems fantastical to us now, but the values of collective support that sustained that fleeting reality were good ones.
Writing my father’s eulogy deepened that sense. I couldn’t make a tractor, as he did, but I believe words are the tools with which we can make something of lasting worth.
And so, a year ago, the Word Factory was born. I wanted to create a simple space where great literature could be enjoyed, free of the reverence that often attaches itself to public readings, the “them and us” barrier that separates the audience from the author; where established and emerging writers could share in a kind of literary speak-easy.
At the time my father was dying, something was also dying at the heart of the newspaper group I had been part of for 17 years. The phone-hacking scandal, and declining circulation and advertising sent News International, where I worked as deputy editor of the Sunday Times Magazine and founded their short-story award, into freefall.
NI might right itself, but I couldn’t. With my father’s rapid decline, I sensed the disappearance of faith in a way of life that secured progress, from poverty to a decent standard of living, and that was more significant than the destruction and reconstruction of newspapers. The language of his life, and what he believed, was simple and true: the language of corporate panic far from that.
Word Factory is in its infancy, but it has touched people and drawn together a new community of writers.
Every month, authors and audience squeeze in to The Society Club, a quirky bookshop in London’s Soho, for an evening of short-story readings, drinking and conversation. Readers include David Constantine, winner of the Frank O’Connor award this year, Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Keith Ridgway, Hanif Kureishi, Lionel Shriver, Alexei Sayle, Owen Sheers, Joe Dunthorne, James Meek, David Vann and newer voices, Iraq’s Hassan Blasim, Adam Marek and Will Cohu.
Our website is growing, offering authors’ reading recommendations, links to their work and videos of the readings. We run master classes, next month with David Vann, Alison Moore and two stars of this year’s Cork International Short Story Festival, Michele Roberts and Deborah Levy.
In the past few weeks, the Word Factory apprentice scheme has been launched, bringing two emerging talents together with acclaimed mentors (in this instance, Faber novelist Alex Preston and the superb Stella Duffy). This month, we are launching in Leicester, with plans for other cities, including Manchester and Belfast, under discussion.
By the end of next year, we will be publishing: initially, short stories and extracts from fiction, adding non-fiction as we strengthen the factory floor. This is a collective effort, with me as gaffer, northern Irish writer and blogger Paul McVeigh as foreman, and other workers: designers Tony and Corinne Oulton; filmmaker Peter Clarke and editors Alexa Radcliffe Hart, Sophie Haydock and literary agent Carrie Kania.
Can such a factory make money? Potentially, yes, but that’s not why we are doing this. The enjoyment and mutual support is as much a part of the ethos as literary excellence. Newspapers and publishing houses are all striving for the alchemy that will provide profits, as book and newspaper sales decline.
Two things are certain: no-one will buy shoddy goods and no-one knows how to create the new business model. At the Cork festival last month, David Constantine talked about the real value of literature. Good, precise writing, he said, was a radical act that creates individual autonomy and places us in opposition to the poor, mendacious, deceptive language of public life, particularly of politics and corporate culture.
He urged us to find the beauty in our public and private lives with clear, truthful language. It may appear romantic to apply that sentiment to the Word Factory, but without it, what’s the point? In the meantime, we can relax, have a drink and tell each other our stories, encourage each other to be the best we can. Please join us. We have nothing to lose but our chains.