Peter Whitebrook,
Deborah Singmaster, Penelope Shuttle,
Ralph Goldswain


Nearly there. Nearly where? Nearly finished this chapter, which has taken months to write. It covers the last three contributors: Peter Whitebrook, Penelope Shuttle and Deborah Singmaster. Worth persisting with? You decide.

At the time of the anthology’s publication, Peter Whitebrook was a journalist living in Edinburgh. His main interest was the stage and he contributed reviews to
The Scotsman and Radio Scotland.

PEN2 story ‘Gauguin’s Leg’ is set in Edinburgh. A middle class woman, Jane Honeyman, rents a flat to Rosalind McEwan who is an overweight cataloguing assistant in an auction house. Attractive, property-owning Jane goes on holiday to Concarneau where she has an affair with David, an art historian who is researching a book on Paul Gauguin. David tells Jane the story of how Gauguin, before he left Concarneau, had his leg broken by local men whose wives he had slept with. Jane has a holiday romance with David, but, after they return to their respective homes, he doesn’t return any of her letters. In her disappointment, she takes to eating indulgently and puts on weight. The story ends with Jane noticing that Rosalind, her initially looked down-upon tenant, has a boyfriend, has lost weight and is looking fabulous.


Moral of the tale? Just as Gauguin got his comeuppance from locals upset by his arrogance and his sleeping around, so there is retribution for the initially superior Jane Honeyman.

Peter Whitebrook now lives and works in Stockholm, but I should be able to get in touch with him via Oberon Books, publishers of Whitebrook’s John Osbourne: Anger is not about.

I ask Whitebrook if he went to the launch; I tell him I enjoyed his story and why; I ask him whether there were autobiographical elements to ‘Gauguin’s Leg; I ask him how his literary aspirations then compare with those he has now; and I tell him that I too have written a couple of biographies.

A week later a reply comes. In haste he tells me that he can’t remember very much about PEN New Fiction 2 at all. He asks to know a little more about my project and promises to have a think in the meantime.

So I tell Whitebrook a bit more about the project, forwarding him the introduction that I intend to place at the beginning of the published work. But I don’t hear any more from him. Week after week I wait to hear from him, but there is no reply to my enquiry. Can he still thinking about it?

One grey Saturday in February, as a malign treat, I buy a frozen cream sponge, let it thaw in the kitchen and eat it while watching television.

Waking on bleak Sunday mornings I move slowly from bed to bathroom where the scales are. As I step onto them, the calibrated dial at my toes whizzes round and shakes to a standstill. Each week I see, without feeling, that there is more weight. Fat. Podge. Blubber.

Someone else may have got shot of the excess weight, perhaps Ian Rankin. I call up a recent photo of him and confirm my worst fears. The only edge I had on Rankin (apart from my Bowie coup) was that he was sporting a beer belly and I wasn’t. Now the belly is all mine. Sponge, sponge, sponge.


Eventually I pull myself together sufficiently to follow up my original message:

Hi Peter,

I wonder if you ever did get a chance to think about my previous email.

I'm now putting more emphasis on the writing life in general. In particular - why do people keep at it when, if Dr Johnson’s dictum is accepted as true, they should really give up? I want to explain, through examples, why the writing life is important, regardless of success.

Ian Rankin is the contributor to the original anthology who has been spectacularly successful and I've been in communication with him. Four other writers that I'm aware of have had their work continuously published since 1987 to the present day. Most of us have had some of our writing published, mixed with a good deal of formal frustration yet personal consolation. Where do you place yourself in the public/private success stakes?

I would really appreciate a reply, however brief, but won't bother you again if you're not in a position to help in this way.

Best wishes, Duncan

It’s a relief to get that off. And a pleasure when it gets an immediate response. Peter Whitebrook apologizes for not having replied earlier. He’s been proofing book and promoting it. He goes on:

As to what Pinero called this rotten profession....  Why do people go on with it?  I suppose--in my case anyway-- the conviction that they're good at it, that there's something to say and they're the one to say it.  In that case, there's no question of giving up although, except in cases like Ian R, who I think is astoundingly good,  there's every rational economic reason why they should. 

Peter believes that he’s good at writing biography. It’s where his talent lies and he enjoys it immensely. It doesn’t pay well but he can put up with that. He wrote his biographies of William Archer and John Osborne because he thought them challenging and interesting, there was a publisher for them, and because together they represent from different standpoints a cultural history of the theatre in Britain from roughly the 1880s onwards. 


He goes on to say that his background as an arts journalist on the Scotsman and BBC Radio helped enormously in the early stages. It gave him some credentials as far as a publisher was concerned. Also, he was fortunate to obtain the services of an agent who could think ahead

‘None of which guarantees success, economic, critical or in terms of legions of readers and a fan website, but it does give a lot of personal reward.

He finishes by urging me to contact him again if I need to. He confirms his initial response that he has forgotten about the original anthology. Though it was Allan Massie, then editing the New Edinburgh Review, who gave him that break.  ‘The same probably goes for Ian. It was a personal contact as much as anything else.

Politics rears its controversial head just at the end there. Peter Whitebrook is very obviously middle class. Nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s what I am. But a little prodding is appropriate, I think, though I’ll need to be careful.

HI Peter,

Good to hear from you again. And thanks so much for going to the trouble of writing to me.

Is it the Osborne book you're promoting just now? It's tough generating much publicity when you're with a small publisher, I've found. My recent Evelyn Waugh book got excellent national press coverage but still no invites to lit festivals except one I really set my stall out for since the place had Waugh connections I wanted to follow up. Shame: I like speaking to an audience these days! I hope you get excellent opportunities to put across your message.

I too believe I'm good at writing biographies, but it has to be biographies of writers and artists, my passions. To supplement the books and to help maintain interest in them (in some cases in lieu of getting a book deal) I maintain websites on the individuals. Several of our fellow male contributors to PEN2 keep a website or a blog. Do you do anything in this direction? (Not one of the 16 female contributors to PEN2 has a blog, instead several of them have published collections of poetry which only one of the 16 male contributors have!)


Allan Massie did well in managing to get an even gender balance amongst the contributors to the anthology. Different classes (within a broad middle class!) are represented as well. DJ Taylor and Peter Parker, with public school and top university backgrounds, have gone on to write biographies of individual writers and publish their own overviews of Twentieth Century writing and writers. They clearly feel part of a tradition. While there are three of your fellow contributors who went from state schools to Oxbridge colleges and have ended up exhibiting much more of an outsider mentality. One of the three is now in prison, another has written an unpublishable tome called 'Satires' (parts of it read by exactly one person: me). While my own writing from PEN New Fiction 2 onwards, via the contemporary art world, Enid Blyton and Evelyn Waugh, has often been described as idiosyncratic. So I'm still thinking about this side of things. Where would you place yourself in terms of education and belonging? Osborne is thought of as a working class phenomenon. Yet most of the successful arts journalists in Edinburgh are public school educated. I'd love to know what you think about this, though I appreciate it's a delicate area.

Though all the contributors I've approached have responded to my enquires, Allan Massie hasn't yet. Ian Rankin did tell me that Allan had alerted him to the short story opportunity, as he seems to have done you. And Allan included a story by his agent, Giles Gordon, at the top of the running order. These days that could be thought of as a bit naughty, but in the context of the time it may have seemed quite normal, especially as GG was a first class writer. It's still so difficult to make progress in the art world that personal contacts have to be carefully nurtured at all times.  

All best, Duncan

What’s wrong with that? Nothing as far as I can see. But no reply to it even weeks later. So let’s go back a month or so.



Deborah Singmaster’s story is narrated by a woman. She tells us what happened to the couple, Gillian and Andrew Bradshaw, who lived in the house opposite.

They’d lived there for years, and then one day Gillian died in a car accident. The mystery is why she was in Brighton when the accident happened.

The narrator fancies widowed Andrew, and is quite prepared to see him through his grief in any way she can, for instance by sorting out his wife’s clothes and taking some to charity shops. However, at a bonfire night party held in a back garden further along the street, the Guy is dressed in one of Gillian’s dresses. When Andrew sees what he clearly thinks of as his wife in flames, he lets out a roar and lunges towards the bonfire howling her name incoherently.

The last sentence in the story is narrated the next day: ‘I looked out from Jane’s kitchen window and stared at the spot in front of the apple tree where I had stood the night before flattering myself that I was working my way towards filling a gap in Andrew’s life as Gillian could never have done – until that moment when the fire had flared up exposing the ferocity of his love for her as clearly as it had illuminated the daisies and cornflowers on the skirt of her old summer dress.’

That ambitious last sentence is the final one in the whole anthology.

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to trace Deborah Singmaster, but there’s a woman of that name who occasionally writes letters to the
Guardian on literary subjects. And there’s a biographical note on a website stating that a Deborah Singmaster reviewed a book on Charles Rennie Mackinotosh’s time in France in the 1920s, and that she’s a writer and co-director of Footnotes Audio Walks. OK, I’ll give that a go:

Dear Footnotes Audiowalks, Could you kindly forward this email to Deborah Singmaster? And would you let me know whether or not you are able to do that? Thanks in anticipation. Duncan


Two days later I get this:

Dear Duncan,

Yes, that's me. Clever of you to find me through Footnotes.

Your email has taken me back a bit, and even a bit aback.  

I didn't attend the launch, I never knew there was one, I may not even have known such events existed at the time, so I can't tell you anything about it. I did have an agent - probably Giles Gordon (who I see contributed), or maybe it was still Richard Simon … I can't remember.

How nice of you to say you enjoyed 'Bonfire Night' I thought your 'A Business Meeting' was very funny. (I wish there were more funny books written - why not have competitions for 'funny' short stories? But I suppose humour is such a subjective thing that it would be difficult to judge.) It's hard to think back to when I wrote it - but the one image that remains is probably the one that kindled it in the first place - the image of the burning dress and imagining the effect that would have on whoever recognised the dress - the wearer or anyone who had known the wearer. And back then there were annual bonfire parties in neighbours' gardens. Straining my memory I have a dim recollection of passing some Penny-for-the-guy children in the street who had dressed their Guy Fawkes as Mrs Guy - this would have made an impression.

I will spare you an account of my literary aspirations back then. I was a features writer at
The Architects' Journal through the 1990s - then there were Footnotes Audio Walks, 'still available as free downloads'.

I'm surprised someone thinks a book about the P.E.N 2 contributors would be of general interest. Why not P.E.N. 1, I wonder? I hope you enjoy doing it.

It was fun hearing from you. Deborah


Why the mention of PEN1? I turn to that book’s contents page and realize that Deborah Singmaster contributed to that volume as well. Actually, so did D.J. Taylor, J New, Thomas McCarthy, Robert Mullen and Penelope Shuttle. Quite a coup to be selected both by Allan Massie and Peter Ackroyd. La crème de la crème of short story writers of the day, one might conclude.

PEN1 story ‘Stella Artois’ is set in Paris. A young mother is staying with her baby in a second floor hotel room. She is struggling to produce milk, struggling to cope with her role as sole carer of another human being, and thinks that someone has entered their room at night and smoked a cigarette by her bedside, leaving the butt in an ashtray advertising the Belgian beer. The tension builds (she thinks there was an intrusion the second night also) until the morning of the third day when the woman wakes feeling happy, as if some miracle has happened in the night. Alas, what’s happened is that the baby has been thrown out onto the street below. As the emergency services arrive and the young mother is taken away, there can be little doubt that the strain of motherhood and her poverty have undermined her reason. I’m not too troubled by the fact that the story ends with enigmatic implications: ‘Madame stayed behind to clean up the room, the first thing she did was to empty the contents of the ashtray into the waste-paper basket.’

So, another story featuring a death and the strong emotions of someone closely affected by that death. Just as Andrew had to be rolled from the demolished bonfire, so the young mother had to be dragged from the open window.

But I guess I’ll stick to discussing the
PEN2 story.

Dear Deborah,

Thanks for the info about where 'Bonfire Night' came from. Essentially, it's imaginative then, building on impressions. This would seem to be in contrast to a couple of stories in the volume where women writers – Elsa Corbluth and Val Warner - have taken on very strong experiences in their lives (though Val disagrees with my analysis). In these cases the point of view is that of an incidental character and so the autobiographical nature of the story is not immediately obvious. The climax of your story is powerful - perhaps a better word would be visceral - and I wondered if it was based on the distress of someone you'd closely observed, rather than, as you suggest, everyday impression, imagination and empathy.


All best, Duncan

Deborah brings our flurry of correspondence to a swift close:

Dear Duncan,
No personal distress - just a 'what if' scenario. Do let me know if you want any more information. I shall read your Evelyn Waugh book with added interest.
Best wishes, Deborah

I’m left with the vague feeling of wanting more. Even as I go to the fridge and extract a chilled bottle of Stella Artois from it. 660mm of pure indulgence.


Penelope Shuttle’s story, ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, is one of the most intimate in the anthology. It focuses on a woman’s thoughts and feelings concerning her husband, whom she lives with, and her half-brother, whom she dreams about and receives a postcard from. There is no plot, instead there are unrelated incidents involving the husband and wife. Love, desire, jealousy, frustration and other emotions intertwine, separate and dissolve.

Penelope’s biographical note in
PEN2 states that she was married to Peter Redgrove, and that they’d written a successful book together called The Wise Wound. Her fiction was mostly published before 1987 but she’s published several volumes of poetry since then, the most recent coming out in 2012, with the intriguing title of Sandgrain and Hourglass.

Peter Redgrove, a much-respected poet in his own right, died in 2003 and Penelope Shuttle wrote a book mourning his passing,
Redgrove’s Wife. Elaine Feinstein reviewed that collection in The Times. Quoted from that review on Amazon is: “Her poems of mourning…are among the best she has written.” Clearly, Penelope missed Peter, just as we know Elaine missed Arnold and published a book of mourning poems in 2004.


I write to Neil Astley at Bloodaxe Books, the same editor who kindly put me in touch with Connie Bensley. A day or two later I hear from Penelope herself.

She thanks me for the email and thinks I’ve hit on a fascinating subject.

She asks me for a scan of her own story. Although she has a copy of the book on her shelves, she is presently staying with her mother in Staines and is flying to Madeira for two weeks from tomorrow.

But in passing she can tell me that the piece isn’t autobiographical, purely imaginative. Autobiographical material is found only in her poetry.

She asks me to forgive the brevity of her reply given her imminent departure on holiday which comes courtesy of the kindness of a coupe of friends who are letting her share a couple of weeks of their timeshare. apartment.

I send off the scans of Penelope’s story and wish her a lovely time in the winter heat of Madeira. She acknowledges the scan ‘with one foot out the door’ and tells me she will read the story while waiting at Gatwick.

And that’s it. Penelope flies off to her holiday, flies back (I assume), returns to her own house in Cornwall (I assume) and I don’t hear from her again despite a reminder sent a month later.

Well, that’s not true. A fortnight after the reminder, I do get another email from Penelope Shuttle. It tells me that my email slipped down the pile and that she’s only just reconnected with it. She is sorry. She has been busy with writing, and more recently with proofs, but she would very much like to pick up the thread of our email exchange. Tomorrow she is going into London to see the Klimt show at the Serpentine but will move things forward soon after that.


She asks if I will send her scans of her two stories in the PEN volumes.

So I send Penny the material she asks for and I wait until she writes back. When she does so, instead of moving things forward, Penny tells me that she is off to Normandy for a fortnight on retreat, but will be back with a detailed reply to my queries and some suggested dates to meet up and discuss it all. She is a member of the South Bank and suggests we might meet there.

So let’s summarise. First, Penny went to Madeira via Gatwick, now, to Normandy via the Serpentine! If she wants to go on retreat why doesn’t she just buy a Victoria sponge and a six-pack of Stella Artois from Tesco like everyone else?

There is a significant postscript. She confesses that she finds it strange reading her stories from so long ago, and she doesn’t know how she feels about it. It’s just possible that, despite her earlier claim, deep down she knows that her short story contains autobiography aplenty. They always do.

I really want to get something out of this dialogue, so let me just tell Penny that some contributors like discussing their stories and others don’t. And I ask her straight out if she was at the launch itself.

She replies that she didn’t go to the launch. Her daughter was about eleven then so she was pretty focused on parenting.

I suggest that if she’d really wanted to go, her husband would have looked after their daughter for the evening. Or overnight, if Penny had needed a stopping-off place in London, as she may well have done being Cornwall-based. I add: ‘Often men take their literary career much more seriously than women. Even if  - like mine – it’s been a fragile and flickering thing.’

A minute after sending this, I have to check that I haven’t written ‘fragile and flickering fucking thing’, but find I’m OK: I haven’t overdone the alliteration.


Penny concludes our exchange by admitting that she was a bit shy and retiring back then and if anything would have made Peter go to the party in her stead.

And that’s that.

Which is great – up to a point. It’s just slightly frustrating that I haven’t been able to get my teeth into the writing lives of Peter Whitebrook, Deborah Singmaster or Penelope Shuttle, because none of them seem to quite want that. Which is what my intuition may have been telling me in the first place, when I sought to draw the line after connecting with twenty-plus of the contributors.


I’m throwing an end of Part One party. I’ve set the table in the dining room with four places. Everyone has a clean glass and a bottle of Stella Artois to the right side of their plate.

There are no place names as such, but in my mind’s eye Peter will be sitting on my left, Penny opposite and Deborah to my right.

I must say this is a very nice little flat in Stockholm, Paris, Madeira, or wherever the hell I am. Well, no, I know exactly where I am. I’m in the large house that until recently was my father’s.

There is a big cake in the middle of the table that I’ve carefully cut into four equal segments.

I’m tempted to eat my bit of cake while waiting for the others to turn up. However, I suspect I know where that will lead. First, I’ll assume that Peter’s not going to turn up, and I’ll eat his slice. Then I’ll assume that Deborah is not going to turn up, and I’ll eat her slice. And so on. Well, I’m simply not going there. So what I’ve done instead is open my bottle of Stella which is slipping down nicely I have to say. Slipping down very nicely indeed…


Hmmm, it looks like Peter is not going to turn up. So I’ll just help myself to his bottle of Stella. There we go. “Cheers, Peter.” I turn to empty chairs two and three and salute absent PEN Pals.

I don’t really have a downer on these contributors.. They’ve given me what they’ve chosen to give me. I can ask no more. It’s something else that’s bugging me.

I exit the room, taking Penny’s bottle with me, and walk along the corridor. You see, I have a hunch that there is a second party going on in the premises.

Well, there is and there isn’t. Lying on top of a coffee table in the lounge is my diary. The week after next I’m going to London for a PEN party that will last six days. On day one, Thursday, I will be meeting Connie Bensley in her home in South London in the morning, and Elaine Feinstein at her home in North London in the afternoon. Then on Friday, I’m meeting Frances Fyfield at her Central London pad in the morning and Peter Parker at his East End
maison in the afternoon. That will be the end of the home visits, thereafter the PEN party goes public. On Monday I meet Jonathan Steffen at the St Pancras Hotel for afternoon tea. On Tuesday morning I meet Wendy Brandmark at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury and in the afternoon it’s over to Brixton for slopping out with Charles.

Seven fellow contributors to talk to this time around. At the original party there were a few more but I didn’t have much time with any one of them. In that sense, life has only got better over the last 30 years.

Why these particular individuals? Because they’re London-based. Because a dialogue has been begun with each of them and I feel it can be taken further. Because having met Jeff New and Ian Rankin I know there is a lot to be gained from a bit of face to face. And because I simply must toast the Beast of Brixton in his natural environment.

The meeting with Charles has been arranged since January and the others have been added to give my spring trip to London a bit more purpose.


Someone that I won’t be meeting is Ralph Goldswain. He’s based in north London and has been part of East Finchley Writers for many years. Alas, he will be in South Africa next week.

The central role that he played on the night of the launch of
PEN New Fiction 2, and the knowledge that I hadn’t read much of his output, prompted me to order Selected Short Stories (1980 -2009) last week.

It’s a 450-page book that is printed to order by Lulu. When it arrived, the shiny paperback reminded me of the look and feel of Geography textbooks that I used at university in the late seventies. Inside it was different though: no introduction, no frills, just straight in to the first of 55 stories.

Whatever else it is, The Bonanza Book of Ralph Goldswain is a complex self-portrait. His great, great, great grandfather, Jeremiah Goldswain, emigrated from Buckinghamshire to the southern Cape of Africa in 1820. Jeremiah’s memoirs, transcribed and tidied up by Ralph, record his ancestor’s life on that extraordinary frontier, where English settlers and Dutch ones rubbed up against each other and African natives.

The Chronicle of Jeremiah Goldswain exists as a separate book that Ralph had published in 2014, but it also informs some of the short stories in Ralph’s collection. Other stories are set in the South Africa of apartheid, where Ralph was raised. Still more in England, where Ralph resettled in 1971.

One of the stories, is particularly intriguing in a
PEN PALS context. ‘Doppelganger’ begins by telling the reader that the writer has just had his first story published in a magazine and that this has reminded him of a dream he’d had five years before.

In the dream, the protagonist finds himself outside a modern conference hotel. Something makes him go in. A woman looks him up on a sheet where all the names are Goldswain, and ticks off his own Christian name.

Ralph talks to individuals, all of who show distinctive family characteristics. One Goldswain in particular wants to talk to Ralph, and leads him to a book-lined study. This Goldswain is also called Ralph and is a famous writer, apparently. Young Ralph notices that there are hundreds of books with his own name on the spines. The older Goldswain suggests that Ralph is a writer and that in five years that will be shown to be the case.


Actually, I should quote that section. So I fetch the book, take it to my place at the dinner table, and read to a notional audience of Peter Whitebrook, Deborah Singmaster and Penelope Shuttle:

Who are you” I said.

“My name is Goldswain. Have you heard of me?” He laughed again. “Of course you haven’t, but deep down you know me, although I know you better than you know me, and, in fact, I know everything about you. Does any of that make sense?”


“Unless I’m saying that I am you.”

“That makes even less sense.”

“Look around you. I’m possibly the most successful writer in England. Take a look at that shelf.”

I got up and on the shelf was wall-to-wall book spines. Hundreds of books, all with my name on them.

“You’ve thought about writing, haven’t you?” he said as I sat down again.

“Yes, but I haven’t written a word.”

“But a theme is going round and round in your head, isn’t it? You’ve been reading around political themes – fascinated by them, aren’t you? Very political in your thinking, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “How do you know?”

“After tonight, you’ll forget that, as I did. You’ll research cutting edge science – something else that interests you – and beat all other writers to new ideas. You’ll begin a writing apprenticeship, learn how to be effective, and sell your first story in five years from now. And you’ll be typecast as a science fiction writer. You’ll want to be taken seriously, and you will be, but as a science fiction writer. And something of a prophet.”


I sighed. “All I want is a good career. You don’t know me at all.”

Let’s leave it there. I think that section reveals quite a lot about Ralph Goldswain’s competitive nature and his sense of mission as a writer. Worldly success may indeed have a place in it, despite what Ralph claimed in emails.

Of course, the older Goldswain in that story was only benefitting from the wisdom of a writer (Ralph Goldswain) who was five years older than the young Ralph of the story. A much older Ralph (in his mid-seventies now) has discovered his subject, and that is Anglo-African history. First,
The Chronicle of Jeremiah Goldsmith. Then Roughing It: 1820 Settlers in their Own Words. And I think Ralph told me he had another historical book on the go.

Did he? Well, why don’t I just ask him? It’s only a matter of walking up the stairs and entering the study where my desktop Mac sits waiting for me.

Hi Ralph,

While writing a new PEN Pals chapter I realized there was an opportunity to take my investigation of your own writing a bit further. So I ordered
Selected Short Stories (1980 - 2009) and have been enjoying reading that

You don't provide an introduction, but if you did it would have to mention the rich heritage of raw material you've got access to. The memoir of Jeremiah Goldsmith means you have a handle on Anglo-African affairs from the start. (‘Be Thou Perfect’ is clearly indebted to JG) And of course you must have been living in South Africa when apartheid was in full swing (hence ‘Concert’?). Do you ever think that there is a nice arc from Jeremiah Goldswain leaving Buckinghamshire in 1820, to you enjoying your retirement in north London nearly 200 years later? What a lot of Goldswaining must have happened on the frontier between English and Dutch settlers and African natives in that double century.


A story that I paid particular attention to was 'Doppelganger'. Where an old Ralph Goldswain meets a young Ralph and tells him to take up writing. Not writing about politics, but science fiction, and that the young man will come to be well-respected for that, even be seen as something of a prophet, as the older man has.

Neither of these Ralph Goldswains could have known that it was history that would be your main subject. Or at least that's the way it seemed to be going when you told me a while back that
Roughing It was going to be followed up with a third historical work: same place, same time. Is that book written now? In your last mail you mentioned a competing idea, a novel about family life influenced by Charles Webb's The Graduate. Have you taken that any further?

Pity I won’t see you when I come to London next week. Albany’s gain is East Finchley’s loss.

All best, Duncan

Ralph answers there and then, which means he doesn’t address the more ambitious paragraphs in my email. He tells me that in South Africa he’ll be at several book launches for Roughing It, giving him an opportunity to talk, take questions and sign books. He enjoys these things: it’s nice to meet the people who read your work. He tells me he’s abandoned any idea of writing novels. He reckons it’s far too hard to make fiction work, whereas doing historical research and turning it into a story is relaxing and pleasurable for him.

Have I abandoned any idea of writing a novel? Not at all: sometimes I think that’s what
PEN PALS fundamentally is. Turning my research into a story has proven relaxing and pleasurable, so far. Let’s see what happens when I up the stakes. I cannot wait to get to London.

Ralph asks me about
PEN Pals. He wonders who my anticipated audience is. He reminds me that it’s one thing writing a good, interesting book for a minority audience, but another for the book to have general appeal. I reply:


‘The strapline of PEN PALs is 'What Happens to Writers', which is an attempt at broadening the appeal. I want the book to seem of interest to anyone curious about the lives of writers. It's a case study, focusing on all 32 of the contributors to PEN New Fiction 2. Though the 24 that I've actually communicated with are best served. There is a startling variety of response, a variation in the writers' histories almost disguising what amounts to a consensus (not the right word), that writing is its own reward. Two or three writers have been uninterested in the correspondence (but only after expressing interest in the first place). And one or two more actively dislike my style and stance. But that still leaves about 20 who are very much on board and have provided fascinating perspectives on the writing life, including you, of course.’ 

I sit at the computer drinking beer, urging Ralph to take my mind off the non-party downstairs. Soon he comes back with this:

Hi Duncan
I disagree with your critics. I like your conversational tone - kind of thinking aloud. It's unique and engaging.
Some of my stories have curious publication histories. For example, 'Graffiti for the Soul,' one of my favourites, was published in 'The Reader.' After submitting it I got a call from the editor who told me that she had sent it round to her editorial committee, who all rejected it. One said it was incomprehensible and didn't finish reading it. Another said it was disgusting. But she said that she was over-ruling them and publishing it. In the event, a woman prominent in one of the big Jewish organisations got hold of it and circulated it among her subscribers. That caused a huge debate. Some said that a non-Jew had no business in writing it (of course, as you know, a writer can write what the hell he or she likes) and others said it was an important story and all Jews should read it. Read it and see what you think.
Anyway, off to warm and sunny South Africa on Thursday. Yippeee.



In the short story he mentions, the most famous artist of the 20th century, Carlos Casals, is incarcerated in a concentration camp during the second world war. While there he has a number tattooed onto his arm. After the war, he has the tattoo removed and goes on to make an extraordinary body of work that culminates in Tattoo Cartoons, a series of images, concentrating on the female nude, that is reproduced in many different mediums.

When Casals dies, it’s discovered that his body is covered in the images that have become so famous: the ultimate expression of
Tattoo Cartoons is writ large on his own skin. A government committee decides that the dead artist should be skinned and that the skin should be preserved and displayed in a frame, looking as little like a human torso as possible.

I rush off another email in order to try and catch Ralph before he leaves his computer for the night:

'Graffitti for the Soul' greatly interested me when I first read it the other day. Intriguing Pablo Picasso parallel. I think ‘Carlos’ did well to turn his concentration camp experience (and the individuality obliterating tattoo) into such a celebration of life via the body tattoo (Guernica revisited?). Being a fan of the ‘anything goes’ philosophy of contemporary art, I have no doubt that this wonderful work could most meaningfully have been preserved in the context of the body.  (Do you know Marc Quinn's work, for example, where an amount of his own blood is cast in the shape of his head?) In other words, no need to frame the skin of Carlos Casals, better to preserve the whole body through taxidermy. One would then see the tattoo in the context of the person who created it and lived with it. It would amount to an actual illustration of how important biography is to creativity, how close to the surface self-portraiture is in any work of art. Yes, the taxidermy option gets my vote every time.

I send this off. Then, as I sit there waiting for Ralph to respond, I start to think that my own history of writing fiction correlates with Carlos Casals’ creativity. That is, first something horrible happens and it needs to be responded to through an act of creativity. In due course, the joy from the creative response gains its own momentum and gives point and purpose to the life that had previously lacked it. Is that what I mean? Thanks to the beer I’ve been necking, I fear my thinking may be losing its edge for the evening.


I walk down stairs and back to the dinner party, return Penelope Shuttle’s empty bottle of Stella to the table, and pick up Deborah Singmaster’s full one. As I take a swig from it I’m trying to remember how many bottles are left in the fridge.

I wake to find myself lying curled on the floor in a pool of sunshine. For the first time in weeks I am aware of feeling happy. I lie, still basking in unfamiliar sensations of warmth and well-being. Then I hear voices outside and the first blow of an axe splinters the wood of the upstairs bathroom door where I seem to be lying. A hand stretches through and undoes the lock.

They pull me roughly to my feet and hold me upright. They say things to me that I scarcely hear, as if my head is underwater or swathed in invisible bandages. Only the ambulance siren sounds through the confusion.

I look round for a cake or a beer or Dad himself, my eyes searching the windowsill. My scream takes them by surprise and they are not quick enough to restrain me from floundering across the room to the open window and looking down at the small bundle, covered with a white sheet, on the pavement below. If they had not dragged me back I would probably have flung myself on top of it. They have to half-carry me out of the bathroom sobbing and raving in an incomprehensible mixture of French, Swedish, Afrikaans and English of which they can make no sense – apart from catching my endless repetition of my father’s name: Stella Artois.

pen pals - Version 3

Part three