Val Warner
C.A.R. Hills, Ian Rankin,
Wendy Brandmark, Carol Barker

In a letter to Charles, I tell him about my positive response to Peter Parker’s new book. He replies:

‘I absolutely love A.E. Housman and I know large amounts of his poetry by heart. So did the author, Francis King, who used to be an éminence grise at PEN, and he and I used often to amuse ourselves on the bus on PEN outings by capping Housman quotations or testing each other on which of us knew a certain poem better. I remember once quoting to him:

The sorrows of our proud and angry dust,
Are from eternity, and shall not fail,
Bear them we can and, if we can, we must...

And quick as a flash Francis returned with the very unsatisfactory last line of the quatrain, which I could never learn properly:

Something something, my lad, and drink your ale!’

That is from Last Poems rather than A Shropshire Land, so I can’t turn to the back of Peter’s book to look up the line that escapes Charles’s memory. But Googling the poem soon gives me:


Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.

Which seems like good advice, a century on from when it was written.

In my last letter to Charles, I also tell him:

Here are the names of the contributors I may not contact purely for ‘enough’s enough’ reasons: Jonathan Steffen, Penelope Shuttle, Peter Whitebrook, Val Warner and Deborah Singmaster. Their names mean anything to you? I’ve just noticed that this list includes the last three contributors on the contents page on PEN New Fiction 2. So the running order did matter!

The reply from Brixton’s finest scholar contains an opinion about this:

‘I feel strongly that you should make a reference to, and attempt to contact, every writer in the anthology for whom you can find an address, telephone number or email. Now we are back to the “class”. A class means every member of it. Say you left out some very obscure person and suddenly (stranger things have been known to happen) they had a late and startling success? Sod’s law would have it that the very one you omitted would be the one selected by posterity. Obviously you cannot have 27, or whatever number in single chapters. Some will have to go in groups or, as you mention with Suzi Robinson, brief, sweet vignettes. I remember that only one review appeared of PEN New Fiction 2, many months after publication, and it refused to comment on any individual story, on the grounds that these writers were already all too well exposed to need further comment. How bitter that felt at the time! Don’t expose any writer to a similar bitterness. You never know, you might regret it.’

Before getting to the end of that paragraph I know Charles is right. I have to try to reach as many of the writers as possible. For their sakes and for mine. The outlandishly erudite Beast of Brixton goes on to say:


As it happens there is one of the remaining writers whom you say that you may not contact whom I once knew quite well and who I think would make an interesting study. This is Val Warner who used to be very active in PEN (perhaps still is – you could try contacting her through them) and whom I knew for many years when I myself used to attend, half-insider, half outsider, as she was. If she is still alive (I have had no contact with her since about 2005, when I resigned from PEN), she, like many of us, has devoted her life to being a writer. She published quite a number of poems and short stories and aspired to write a novel. She also published a well-regarded literary study of the obscure writer Charlotte Mew and for this, on the suggestion of Francis King, who was a friend of hers as well as mine, she was later appointed FRSC. When I became editor of PEN News, which was in 1996, it coincided with her last two book publications, a volume of poetry called Tooting Idyll and something else, I’ve forgotten what. By that time she had moved from her parents’ house in north-west London near Preston Road, which she had inherited, to a house in Hackney, East London. Die Jahre wie die Wolken gehn…

Ah, yes, that German sentence again: The years go by like the clouds. Let me have a go at coming up with an equivalent phrase: The years as the ships go, passing in the night. Sounds like I’ve translated that from another language. Housman would not have been impressed.

Of course, I have to approach Val Warner. I hope to get my email to her through an editor at Carcanet, the house that published
Tooting Idyll in 1998. A week after doing so I have Val Warner’s reply.

Warner tells me that she never saw the PEN anthology and had no idea her story was included. And she didn’t hear about the launch either. She intends to look at her old submissions notebook for that period, but agrees that it’s likely that she would have submitted a story. She remembers very clearly a few years earlier submitting something to Allan Massie who was literary editor of Edinburgh Review at the time. He returned it with a kind note saying he was resigning from that job and didn’t want to leave his successor with a big pile of acceptances. Warner took that as a hint that if he’d been staying on he would have accepted the piece. In fact, one of Massie’s successors did later print a story of Warner’s in Edinburgh Review.


She goes on to say that she remembers almost nothing of the story I mention. The title sounds as if it could have been hers and she thinks she used a character called May more than once in stories, though she recalls little about her and nothing about the other character I mention, Trevor.

Val Warner lived in Scotland from 1979 to 1988. Two years in Dundee, then Fife. Whenever she moved, she arranged for mail to be forwarded officially by the Post Office. She never had full confidence in this service. Though what seems to have happened re
PEN New Fiction exceeds her worst fears.

I don’t let the day pass before sending off a reply.

Dear Val,

Thanks for getting back to me.

There is a biographical note in the anthology which I guess they would have got from you, but who knows!

I can send scans of the pages that make up your story if that would help. It's not that easy to pick up copies of the book any more. Perhaps the following summary of 'His Shining Knight' will jog your memory...
Trevor is outside the locked door of May's flat wondering if she was in need of saving. Earlier in the afternoon, Trevor had been giving tea to Tim, who he found attractive. On telling Tim the tale of May, Trevor was urged to cross London (from Battersea to Victoria) to see if she was OK. ('Her Shining Knight' would have been a more obvious title for the story. Your choice of 'His Shining Knight' is more subtle.)

While pondering whether he should break the door down, Trevor goes over in his mind the cause of May's possibly suicidal depression. A publisher had done her a great disservice by interfering with her biographical notes on a hitherto obscure poet who had published between the wars. The publisher, a woman, had imposed 'a ridiculous feminist straitjacket' on to the subject. Key facts had been suppressed to present a more sensational writer. And this had been done anonymously, leaving May as the person ostensibly responsible. 


After going over all this, Trevor - who was the first to get May work as a free-lance proofreader and who shared with her a love of literature - breaks down the door. May has indeed taken a great many pills and is unconscious, but she is still alive and he manages to call the emergency services in time to save her life.

Now I suspect this to be alluding to your own experience of publishing a work on Charlotte Mew. Thirty years after the event would you like to say anything more about this? Oh, and did you also have a real person in mind when you came up with Trevor? Or was the character simply an astute device to deflect the reader from what I am assuming to be the deeply felt autobiographical experience at the core of the story?

I said in my first email that one of our fellow contributors to
PEN2 was 'languishing' in prison. That's not the right word. Charles Hills (he published under the name C.A.R. Hills) continues to have a very active mind. He remembers the launch night, has been able to tell me about several of the contributors and their stories (even though he does not have access to the anthology) and he advised me to get in touch with you as he recalled you from the time he was editor of PEN News and you both knew the helpful, mischievous and kind Francis King.

Putting it that way, Charles is a sort of Tim, I am the equivalent of Trevor, and you, of course, represent May. I do hope you don't mind my having rudely crashed in on you with the blunt weapon of an email when you are no doubt, sitting happily at your computer, if mildly put out by my impudence.  

Ah, literature. What is it but a game? Not.

With best wishes, Duncan

PS I have ordered a copy of
Tooting Idyll.

A couple of days later, I get a second email from Val Warner. She tells me that most of what she wrote in her first email was wrong. At the weekend she managed to dig out her notebook of submissions in the 80s and found to her surprise that the story she’d submitted to the PEN anthology was ticked – meaning it had been accepted. This means that the publishers must have notified her and presumably asked for a biographical note. She has also managed to find her copy of the anthology and she sees from notes on a bookmark that she read at least some of the other contributors’ stories. She can’t understand why she forgot about the book and why she never included it in her cv.


However, she can confirm she didn’t go to the launch. Living where she did on the outskirts of a village and depending on buses, it wasn’t even possible to get into Dundee for the evening.

She hasn’t had time to read her story yet, but she will do and then consider the comments I’ve made about it in my email. Otherwise, she would be reading it through the lens of my own response. In a similar way she never reads an editor’s introduction to a Penguin, say, until she’s read the main text. She tells me she’ll email me again by the end of the week and answer the points I raise.

So it looks as if I’ll be hearing again from Val Warner. However, I want to think this through myself. I am pretty sure of my ground here, as I have just ordered a copy of her 1981 book Charlotte Mew: Collected Poems and Prose.

It’s the copy she presented to Francis King, friend of both Val Warner and C.A.R. Hills. And the bookseller states that there is an inscription, written by the author, saying that the introduction was to be ignored as it was co-written – though unsigned - by Carmen Callil.

So the situation seems to be that one woman (Charlotte Mew) is rescued from literary oblivion by another woman (Val Warner). Only that second woman is upset by the contribution of a third woman (Carmen Callil), who founded Virago and is rightly famous for rescuing women writers from neglect or worse.

There is a fourth woman involved. Penelope Fitzgerald reviewed Val Warner’s book, praising the work in these terms: ‘Val Warner, who has worked for so long and against so many difficulties to produce this edition, is to be congratulated.’

The review goes on to say: ‘Val Warner, herself a poet, is not primarily interested in biography: I am therefore hoping to expand and correct one or two points.’


She meant in her review. But, in fact, Fitzgerald went on to write a full-length biography of Charlotte Mew. About this project she received an enthusiastic letter from Carmen Callil. But to another correspondent Fitzgerald wrote ‘DON’T tell me to go to Virago, they are so closed about the £££.’ Perhaps another reason that she didn’t want to deal with Virago was that she’d been warned by Val Warner what she might expect. Anyway, in 1984 the book was published by Harper Collins as Charlotte Mew and Her Friends

A fear expressed by May in ‘His Shining Knight’ is as follows: ‘Sooner or later, a corrective book on Vyvian would be published to set the record straight, and May could expect only to be pilloried for her publisher’s anonymous lies.’

Hopefully, such a scenario did not come to pass as a result of the good relationship and lines of communication between Val Warner and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Now have I got that right? Let’s see what Val has to say in the email that has just pinged in….

She tells me that she wrote a novel about the efforts of various people to research an imaginary inter-war poet
, “Vyvian”. The novel dealt with half a dozen or so characters that were publishers, writers and academics. According to Val, this novel was subtler than the short story.

Fine, but it’s the short story as published I’m asking about.

Val tells me that the key passage in the short story is May’s remarks to Trevor at the top of page 314. These are reported to be sarcastic and as follows: “But don’t you see? If the book sells better because the biographical part is a lie, it means more people will read Vyvian’s poems, which are the important part of the book, so it’s all to the good.”


Val suggest that this quote shows that May was seeing clearly enough, which means her suicide attempt was irrational.

Well, either that or it was May trying to put a brave, cynical face on something that had hurt her to the core.

Val then writes me a supplementary argument. She’s ‘guessing wildly’ but there could have been other reasons for May’s suicide attempt in the novel, and she points out there is a one-sentence hint of this at the bottom of the first page of the short story.

The sentence in question concerns Trevor wondering about the possibility of May simply not being at home: ‘And there was the shadowy figure of a man in the background, though recently he’d had the impression that the shadows had finally got him.’

So Val is suggesting that May’s suicide attempt is the result of something that happened in the novel as a whole rather than in the short story. That would make it one badly crafted story, I have to say, and presumably not one that Allan Massie would have selected.

Val’s email goes on. She tells me that one of the publishers to whom she sent the novel (from which the short story was subsequently plucked) was one of the two firms involved in the Mew book and the only reason she didn’t offer it to the other publisher involved in the Mew was that they didn’t do much fiction.
‘Had it been intended as a thinly veiled attack on the Mew publishers, obviously I wouldn’t have submitted the novel to them.’

Carcanet did little fiction at the time, mostly poetry. So Val is saying she sent the manuscript of the novel to Virago, the firm headed up by Carmen Callil. Fair enough, but I have to say that is a very indirect response to the question I have put to her about the short story.

So what can I do? Well, I can write to Val Warner again, explicitly mentioning the evidence I now have of the May/Mew overlap:

Hi Val,
About a fortnight ago I chanced upon a copy of your Charlotte Mew book that was in the library of Francis King. You wrote in it:


'The introduction to be
ignored as co-written (unsigned)
by Carmen Callil.'

That would seem to account for the deeply felt professional hurt that's outlined on pages 312 and 313 of your short story in the PEN anthology. So thanks for giving me the background to your novel in those first two paras of your email, but they don’t provide the character’s motive. I believe Penelope Fitzgerald, who reviewed your Mew book respectfully, went on to write a full biography of Charlotte Mew. I do hope you were able to communicate to her your true research and conclusions on the poet, so that you didn't suffer the fate hinted at for May at the top of page 313.

Thanks for your ‘very quirky’ comment about my PEN story. What did you make of Charles's?

Best wishes, Duncan

Sadly, Val doesn’t reply to this. Which leaves me feeling a little frustrated. The book on Charlotte Mew was published by Carcanet (in association with Virago) in 1981. I believe it inspired the short story published in 1987. And by 1998 the issue seems to still have been alive enough in Val’s mind for her to mention the disservice she felt that Carmen Callil had done her at the front of the copy that Val inscribed to Francis King.

And it leaves me in a difficult position. I want to be positive about all my fellow PEN contributors. It’s quite possible that Val is as frail a person as her character, May. Could reading in print what I’ve written about the situation upset Val to anything like the same extent as the incident with Carmen Callil seems to have done? It all happened a long time ago but Val Warner and Carmen Callil are both currently Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature and what I have to say might mildly embarrass them both. What is at stake here, personal humiliation or social unease? I will have to take advice on that.

Of course, it’s that robust individual C.A.R. Hills I blame for the present situation. Sitting there alone and naked in his cell in Brixton, sipping a Spanish apple liqueur, with nothing better to do than goad me into stirring up a hornets’ nest.

“Thank-you, prisoner A1284DJ,” I say. And I seriously consider throwing away the key to his drinks cabinet.



Well, I have to push on with this.

In 1928, aged 59, Charlotte Mew drank half a bottle of lysol which killed her. At the inquest her doctor said that after her sister’s death from cancer she’d become obsessed with the idea that her room was infected with the germ that she thought had caused Ann’s death.

In 1941, aged 59, Virginia Woolf, who Val Warner tells us had been an admirer of Charlotte Mew’s poetry, drowned herself in the local river. Her suicide note suggested she feared a return of the madness that she’d experienced earlier in life, and that she felt she wouldn’t recover from it this time.

In 1981, a fictional character called May, her love of life snuffed out by an interfering publisher with a ‘correct feminist formula’ in mind, took an overdose of pills with the intention of killing herself.

Are these events connected? Well, in a way they are. A few chapters back the issue of the self-confidence of women writers came up. The statistic a male editor quoted in 2015 whereby if he rejected an author’s work and asked them to submit something else, a man was four times as likely to do so as a woman.

And if a man a was four times as likely to do the sensible, confident, business-like thing, and keep plugging away at his chosen profession, then it may be that a woman was four times as likely to do a very unreasonable thing. That is, to get suicidally depressed about the situation.

Of course, it’s all very well for the man to float along in what has always been a man’s world. Much more difficult for the woman.

It comes to mind that Edith Cope, Kara Lind, Mary Hadingham and Margaret Browne are all PEN2 authors who have disappeared without trace. How many of them ended up giving up on life and doing away with themselves? No, that’s over dramatic. Rather, how many of them gave up on their writing - their aspirations towards creativity?


Thinking back through this PEN project, three more examples come to mind. First, Alex McAdam Clark is planning a writing comeback after what she suggests is a long time away from it. Second, Suzi Robinson is hoping to properly launch her
The Best Ever Cat Food Formula, perhaps when she has fully recovered from her recent illness and gained the necessary self-confidence. Third, ‘Anonymous’ gave up writing fiction long ago after being heavily criticized in public by a male professor.

So Val Warner, choosing not to answer my emails, shouldn’t feel too alone. I mean I hope she doesn’t feel alone at all.

Where did Charles say Val lived again.? In Hackney. She inherited her parents’ house but moved from North to East London. Good. So I reckon she has a room of her own and money to live on, the other VW’s prerequisites for the writing life.


At last I have another email communication about ‘His Shining Knight’. Not from Val Warner, but from our fellow PEN2 contributor Wendy Brandmark, who I sent the relevant chapter to some time ago in the hope she might comment.

Perhaps it’s what I would hope, that when one PEN pal is no longer disposed to communicate with me, that another steps into the breach. In any case, I’m grateful to her.

While going through the chapter page by page, Wendy comments: ‘Can you really be sure that the short story was inspired by the book on Charlotte Mew?’


I don’t think I was suggesting that this was certainly the case. Rather I was bringing up striking parallels between Val Warner’s experience as the writer of a book on Charlotte Mew, and the character May’s experience in Val’s short story, and asking Val to comment. And having received her response I was motivated to further outline my curiosity regarding the striking parallels. At which point Val chose to break off communications.

Of the chapter as a whole, Wendy says: ‘I just think there are too many assumptions here about the autobiographical nature of Val Warner’s work. Most writers I know find the question 'Is it autobiographical?' disheartening because it suggests the writer just published sections from her life instead of using her creative abilities to shape a story.’

That’s interesting, and of course Wendy Brandmark has a lot of experience to draw on as a writer of fiction and as a creative writing tutor. However, in my own experience as a writer and a biographer, a large proportion of what an author writes turns out to be autobiographical once one has found the key or code that links real life to fiction. But that doesn’t mean to say that a great deal of creativity isn’t used to present the material.

PEN New Fiction 2, Elsa Corbluth, whose teenage daughter died in a fire, writes about such a death, but she does so from the point of view, not of the mother, but of a religious cleric who is told about the tragedy by the grieving mother.

Similarly, in the Val Warner story, we don’t learn of May’s crisis from herself but from a male colleague. A lot of creativity has gone into the creation of tension - as Trevor stands outside May’s door - and the measured unfolding of a drama.

Was Trevor right to break down the door? Well, with May having taken an overdose, yes he was. How about me? Was I right in breaking in on Val Warner in the way I did?


Well, let’s consider that again. The door gives way to my shoulder readily enough. Inside the room a woman sits composedly at her desk. However, it’s not Val Warner but Wendy Brandmark. And what is it that Wendy’s got in her hand? She raises the bright plastic object and points it at my face. Uh-oh, here we go again…

But instead of firing her water pistol, Wendy fires this at me: “I think you overemphasise suicide in women writers. In fact
, I think statistics show far more men than women commit suicide. Virginia Woolf did suffer from the limitations and discrimination women faced in her time, but she did have serious mental health problems as did Sylvia Plath. And to suggest as you do that the missing PEN writers may have done away with themselves is just not credible.”

“Give me the gun, Wendy.”

“I can’t give you the gun. You’re far too likely to turn it on yourself.”

“What would you have me do then?”

“Think harder.”

“What do you mean, exactly?”



I’m lying in bed in the middle of the night when I recall something that Carol Barker said to me in an email. It was something she’d considered in her PhD thesis, the idea that any act of female writing was inherently feminist. She found that to be the case in the eighteenth century. And having read my chapter eleven, Carol was thinking it may have been so in the 1980s.


In which case ‘His Shining Knight’ by Val Warner is an act of feminist writing. It just has to be seen in the right way to be understood as such.

So with that in mind, the root of May’s distress may not have been that a female editor had let her and the woman she was writing about down. But that she herself had let her gender down by talking about a female editor to a man or men in a negative way.

So let’s revisit the last scene in the story. Trevor has got inside the door to May’s flat and sees her lying on the floor. She is unconscious but still breathing. Her coat is wrapped around the phone to muffle the sound of any incoming call. He uses the phone to dial 999 and is told that an ambulance is on its way.

Then what?

Then he kneels down and lifts her head off the floor with one hand and slaps her cheek with the other in an attempt to rouse her.

“May! May! I’ve been thinking.”

No response.

“Your story about the woman editor. You don’t need to feel ashamed. It was an authentic story wasn’t it? And a true story by a woman about her experience is an act of feminist writing. I know that if you had made the editor in question male then the feminist message would have been more easily understood. But it would also have been a lie. You should be proud that you resisted that lie. Women of today don’t need to follow a feminist agenda at all costs. Not at the cost of truth. Indeed, truth - like kindness towards all, and equal power-sharing with men – is central to a true feminist agenda.”

No response.


“The editor in question has been engaged on a radical crusade on behalf of women. That has achieved a great deal for the female gender, but it is not the only way forward.”

Suddenly it’s the middle of the day and I am sitting at my computer, typing an email to Val Warner.

‘A man slowly works out that a woman writer feels deeply torn between loyalty to her sense of truth and loyalty to a ground-breaking female editor. What a great post-second wave of feminism story! Which is another way of saying, what a great feminist story.


I’m going to slip in a perspective on Ian Rankin here. As we’ll see, the supremely successful author in his study in May 2005 makes for a telling contrast to suicidal May in her room in Val Warner’s story of 1987.

In the middle of my chapter on Gary Armitage, I call attention to Ian Rankin’s breakout year of 1998. That was when
Black and Blue won an important award and his publisher, Orion, brought out about half a dozen of his previous books in a new design.

In 2005 Orion did the same thing. That is, on the back of a major prize (
The Resurrection Men won Best Novel Award in the annual Edgar awards in New York) it published no less than 21 Ian Rankin paperbacks in a newly designed edition. There was nothing wrong with the design of the 1998 edition, which had been used for a hardback and a paperback each year since, but marketing requires regular makeovers in order to maximise audience impact and sales.

To help this 2005 reprint edition sell, Rankin provided short introductions to each book. So for
Let It Bleed (1995) he tells us that, thanks to his sister’s boyfriend, he’d been familiar with the Rolling Stones album since he’d been ten years old, and had come to love it for himself a few years later. Though the title also alludes to a cold winter in Edinburgh and Rebus’s hopes for the radiator in his flat. This was the seventh Rebus novel and Rankin wrote it towards the end of the six-year period he lived in France, the time when he’d been struggling to support his wife and two sons through his writing.


The introduction is chatty and has an upbeat mood to it, as well as giving insight into the writing of the book. The Hanging Garden benefitted from a similar new introduction in 2005. Rankin describes how he was in the middle of writing the novel when he moved back from France to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1996. The theme of the book is how does society treat someone who has been guilty of war crimes in the past. A visit to Oradour, the site of a Nazi mass murder in north France, where the main perpetrator was allowed to enjoy a quiet life in post-war Germany, inspired the novel. Also important had been learning from the National Library in Edinburgh of an alleged war criminal that was still at large in the city. As for the title, that is a line from a song by The Cure. Rankin tells the reader about nervously writing to Robert Smith, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, and his relief on getting permission to use the title in return for a few signed copies of the book when it came out.

All the introductions end with Ian Rankin’s printed signature and the date, April or May 2005. Like so:

rankin signature_0001

There was no new novel published in 2005. Instead Orion published Rebus’s Scotland in hardback. I should say in passing that the dedication says: ‘To Giles Gordon to whom all things seemed possible’.


The autobiography is about 130 pages long. I strongly suspect that it too was written in May 2005. The book begins with Rankin cutting a ribbon to open Ian Rankin Court in his home town of Cardenden, Fife, in August 2004. It ends with him revisiting the estate ‘recently’, once families had moved into the houses, giving the street life. Elsewhere the text mentions events of March, 2005, and April, 2005. It also states that Rebus was using the writing of the book as a reason to re-read his Rebus oeuvre, something that enabled him to write the new introductions to the novels as well.

Orion also republished Ian Rankin’s very first book,
The Flood, in hardback in 2005. Few of Rankin’s readers would have had a chance to read the novel when it first appeared in 1985 (pre-PEN New Fiction 2), so this was another marketing initiative that made sense. Again it came with a new introduction, written in 2005.

Yesterday, I came across a signed copy of
The Flood in a charity shop in the Perthshire town where I was born and now live. (As yet there is no Duncan McLaren Court in Blairgowrie.) The 2005 copy of the book, without dust-jacket, only cost £3, no doubt because it looks as if water has been introduced into the middle of the book at some stage.

rankin signature


Curious about my new purchase, I looked up signed copies of The Flood on Abebooks. There were 40 of them worldwide, at prices ranging from £10 to £50. A handful of the entries included a picture of the author’s relevant signature. And they all look pretty much like the two signatures reproduced above.

So there we have it. Ian Rankin in his study in 2005; surely a study in self-satisfaction, if not triumph The 45-year-old author surrounded by a new printing in hardcovers of his first novel, enticing new paperback editions of 21 subsequent books, and a lavishly illustrated autobiography which starts and ends with himself at Ian Rankin Court. Very few authors get that kind of affirmation in their lifetime. No-one else from
PEN NEW Fiction 2 will ever get it. Not a chance.

In contrast, poor May, lying on the floor of her room, surrounded by empty pill bottles and with her coat wrapped around the phone so that even if an agent or publisher did call to say that she’d cracked it - her literary career was finally taking off - the message wouldn’t have got through.

Wait a minute though, it’s not May lying there. It’s Val. It’s Charles. It’s Jeff, it’s Ralph, it’s Bob, it’s me, it’s Wendy, it’s Mansel, it’s… well, you get the idea.


Eventually, I write again to Val:

‘My book is close to completion. I suspect you were a bit uncomfortable with our communication a few months ago. I hope that by reading the draft chapter it will reassure you somewhat. If not, please let me know, the editing process is ongoing.’

To my surprise, this gets a response. Val tells me that in the next year or two she hopes to complete the first part of a work in progress, a large project in which she’s invested a lot of work. She has been resigned to self-publishing via the internet, but had hoped to try a few literary agents first. She suspects that the appearance of PEN Pals will put paid to these hopes. Her plan now would be to submit her work under a pseudonym with a note saying that if the agent had any interest in this work she’d give her real name under which she’d been previously published.


I hope Val is exaggerating the impact that PEN Pals will have on the literary world. Could she be displaying a tiny bit of the same paranoia that her character May displays in ‘His Shining Knight’?

Val then turns to the substance of my chapter. She can’t understand why I am attaching so much importance to the inscription to Francis King in the Charlotte Mew edition.
‘That belongs to the world of fact. But we are dealing with my anthology short story which belongs to the world of fiction.’ Val then repeats that unlike some fiction writers she does not use real people as characters.

She takes the opportunity of telling me what she recalls of the introduction in the Charlotte Mew volume. It was felt she’d painted too dark a picture of Charlotte Mew and also been too dismissive of her prose as opposed to her poetry. Two strong sentences on these points were added to the introduction, which Val felt contradicted the rest of it. But if that was the case, why not simply delete the two sentences in inscribed copies then, rather then wash her hands of the entire introduction?

Obviously Val Warner and I disagree about the link between Val’s reality and her fiction, and there is no point in us going there again. However, I feel I should send this off:

Dear Val,

When did you start writing fiction/poetry? Was it at a certain age or in response to a certain experience?

What kind of schooling did you get and did it have an impact on your development as a writer?

What's your new project about? Good luck with it. I don't see why the appearance of PEN Pals should have a negative impact on your currency as a writer. I think you come across as principled, serious-minded and very much your own woman!

All best, Duncan


Val’s reply comes the following day. She tells me that she wrote her first novel when she was 14. At university she wrote some experimental fiction, and after graduating settled down to write seriously. Her main interest was prose but she also wrote poetry as there were more publishing outlets for it.

Val went to grammar school and from there to Oxford where she read Modern History. She thinks that her passion for fiction derives from her psychology. Over the years she’s begun a number of novels, which weren’t so much abandoned as not worked through properly because she had to work for a living. These have ranged from maybe 40 pages of notes, to almost completed first drafts. It’s one of these, from about seven years ago, that she’s near to finishing off. She doesn’t like mentioning work-in-progress as it may never see the light of day, especially at her age ‘when life has become a race against death’.

Which has me writing back as follows:

‘The fact that you went from grammar school to Oxford is interesting. Something I've written about in PEN PALS is that three of the male contributors to PEN New Fiction 2 went from state school to Oxbridge. Despite their lively contributions to the anthology, none of them really got very far in the literary world. So I've been speculating about a class ceiling. I'm careful not to push it too far as I'm one of those three (some people would say I've done all right, but there is a heap of rejected works and a miserable financial return from thirty years full-time effort) and it could so easily come across as SOUR GRAPES. So I try and make sure that the analysis is put across with a sense of perspective. Have you any thoughts on social class, networking and literary success?

A lot of the contributors to
PEN New Fiction 2 have gone on to write a great deal of stories, poems and books even though they have not had much public acknowledgement of their efforts. I take it you too take a lot of personal satisfaction from your writing, though the way you express it in your email puts the emphasis on unfinished manuscripts and frustrated ambitions. So maybe you could clarify that? My own writing gives me joy on a day-to-day basis, thanks to my websites in particular. I will be glad to get back to them after the very intense process of writing and rewriting PEN PALS has come to an end, as it shortly will. On the whole it's been fun, but it's been what seems like months and months of trying to keep 32 plates in the air and I need a break!


Again Val replies. Again I’d better paraphrase, as I’ve done throughout this chapter.

Val doesn’t think going to state school or being female adversely affected her writing career. She doesn’t think other people are affected either, though she accepts many women would disagree. She feels that it’s a matter of choices, and if a woman chooses to get pregnant, for example, then that will impact on the amount of time she can spend researching or writing or even reading.

Strangely, no-one else has brought that up. Or have they? Well, let’s see. Elaine Feinstein wrote on regardless of family obligations. Connie Bensley put off her writing career until her children were leaving home. Wendy Brandmark is very private about her family. Suzi Robinson, Carol Barker and Alex McAdam Clark put their paid employment first, but haven’t said how their personal or family lives impacted on that decision. Frances Fyfield began to write after she discovered that she couldn’t have children…

Nothing to be concluded from all that disparate experience. Except maybe this. Val would seem to have been one of a minority of women who have managed to prioritise their writing at least some of the time.

However, writing for Val seems mainly a source of worry, as opposed to joy. Worry arising from technical questions to do with producing it. That is, ‘deciding out of a mass of possible material’ what to include. This involves ‘dithering endlessly’ over which is the better sentence or phrase. Plus worry re ‘getting it out into the world’. But she thinks that worries re producing the work are much bigger, since the production of work is entirely within her hands


So let’s try and round off this chapter. I took Charles’s advice and called round on Val Warner. The door was closed to me but I kept knocking on it until it opened. Val was not lying on the floor in a state of crisis, but sitting at her desk, just a little concerned about her work. Mostly concerned about the actual writing of it. But also concerned about how it could be taken seriously in the light of the sometime publication of PEN PALS: What happens to Writers.

The door closes. I tiptoe away. Though I accept that it will be seen as clodhopping to some.

PEN - Version 14

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