TEN YEARS ON – happy birthday, Churchill Writers

Ten years ago I started a little writing group in Churchill College, Cambridge where I’d studied law in the ‘70s. It wasn’t my first writing group. That began in summer 2010 in a Bermondsey book shop and when the shop went elsewhere, we moved upstairs at Greenwich Waterstones. The Churchill writing group has lasted longest, surviving my hospital operations, house moves and (thanks to Zoom) even this pandemic. I had no idea in those early days how much I’d enjoy not only watching the writers’ skills, confidence and enthusiasm grow but wonderful friendships too.

Bermondsey, all those years ago

Several have made writing their lives. Clare Lydon arrived in my Greenwich group with a clear plan for her future as a novelist. She knew what she wanted to write, how she would sell it and was a great writer from the start. I’m thrilled to see her success. Claire Wetton came to that same Greenwich group with comedy experience and ambitions to write junior fiction. She combines those talents brilliantly now writing for Horrible Histories and Pam Ayres. Irena Hill, one of my Bermondsey originals and still a close friend, published two books of fiction before poetry side-tracked her; since 2017 she has been running highly successful poetry events online and in south east London. When Sally Atkin joined my Greenwich group, she had been working with terrific drive and determination on three or four novels but kept getting rejections. I helped her deepen her work and she’s now working with editors on two exciting, beautifully plotted novels with more in the pipeline. Barney often sat quietly keeping her dark fiction to herself and once she found micro-poetry, has flourished as a poet and essayist.

Christmas with Greenwich Writers

Among the original members of my Churchill group is college alum, Michael Smyth. Michael and his wife were married at the college by Canon Noel Duckworth who had been a padre on the Burma railway during the Second World War before he became the chapel’s first chaplain.  Michael finished his biography of the Canon in the group and in 2012 it was published by the college. It sold out fast and is still available here. Michael is now deep in writing the life of the college’s first Master, Sir John Cockcroft and you can find a sample chapter in our Churchill Writing Group anthology here.

When Gervase retired as a Cambridgeshire GP, it was as if a lifetime’s ambition to write was unleashed. You can find his Belonging and Betrayal (a beautiful memoir of his courageous mother), a book of his parents’ love letters, Gervase’s spiritual reflections and thoughts on his career in the medical world here. We always look forward to hearing Gervase’s wise, elegant stories at the group and recently he used some Covid isolation time to publish them. He says, ‘Without the group, I’m sure I’d never have published anything.’

Incidentally, I am very grateful to Gervase who used his self-publishing skills to publish the Churchill Writing Group’s 2020 anthology. It’s an excellent read.

Helen, another Churchill Writers original, is an architect who loves screenwriting and, although I keep reminding her I know nothing about film, she’s been a regular member of the group throughout. She says she had trouble finishing things before she joined but is now incredibly prolific, writing stage plays and published stories as well as film. We’ve had the excitement of seeing Helen’s short film ExAudio at the Moller Centre in 2018 and enjoying readthroughs in the group of her feature-length screenplay of Gervase’s memoir, Belonging and Betrayal. We wish her luck with her short films, TV pilots and with My Good Side, a joint authorship feature film about breast cancer to be shot in the spring.

Nic arrived a couple of years ago and, sharing time between Cambridge and visits to his native Italy, has used the pandemic to finish his first novel. He is now on his third or fourth edit with literary advisors Cornerstones and says being in the group has given him extra energy and focus. ‘Before joining the group, I’d never realised how writing is also about listening to others,’ he says. ‘Feeling the effect it has on your peers, and hearing the opinion of an author like Rosie is incredibly helpful and thought-provoking. Listening to Rosie voice her advice on plot, characters and on the pain and pleasure of writing has been much more rewarding than simply reading about it myself.’

Mary, a senior member of Churchill College and another of the group’s originals, is deep in work with a publisher’s editor. Her great-grandmother set up a charity in the south of France during the First World War and since the group began, she has been quietly gathering chapters in her exquisite prose. Harley, a recent member, writes novels to educate about his scientific discoveries, particularly in relation to eczema. It was always poetry for Liz who has been anthologised and featured as a poet and has recorded her poems for blind people.

Churchill Writers in the Club Room, Churchill College, Cambridge

Not everybody wants to be a professional writer. Some – Kate, Claudia, Huw, Liz – enjoy the groups for company and morale while toiling with lonely post-graduate work. Every writing group has members who are talented writers but who are lured away (for now) by life. Special mentions go to David Hadland who kept us in stitches in Greenwich with his marvellous comic sci-fi, Bermondsey’s Terry who is prolific producer of first drafts, to Elizabeth who wrote the classiest gambling story I know, to Briony for her layered family novel and Catherine who brought zest to our Monday mornings in Greenwich with her prize-winning stories.

Another prize-winning story writer is blogger Lauren who now has a novel in progress. Her prose is deceptively light and has a marvellously understated way with emotion. Her friend Alice, also a blogger, writes magnificent stories too.

Others are under the radar, working hard on big projects: Terry, the Anthony Trollope of the Churchill group, has written and edited three political novels with a fourth (of ten) in progress; Graham, a sub-editor (always useful in a writing group) whose excellent novel started in Bermondsey before he found love and new family, deserves publication when he’s ready; and at Churchill, Caity and Simon have exciting works in progress too. Family groups enjoy this creativity together: sisters Sarah and Liz; father and son Peter and Simon. Novelist and comedy writer Simon says: ‘The group feedback is constructive and every person there is interesting, kind, talented and all writing such varied projects. Rosie is very skilled at rapidly picking up on important elements of an individual’s work when read out. I have benefited in so many ways from being involved.’

Many of these writers came with no writing experience at all beyond a passion to have a go. But people new to a writing group are often carrying doubts. The first thing they need is reassurance that nobody’s writing descends in perfect shape on command, or ever, and we need to be patient with ourselves. Sometimes the more education you’ve had, the tighter your inhibitions have become. PhD students can be toughest to loosen up. That’s why my ethos has always been about fun and gentleness, and never having to read aloud unless you choose.

Dorothy Parker said, ‘The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions such as, say, cleaning out ferry boats.’ No matter how experienced we are, the company of other writers helps to smooth the path. When I started these writing groups, I was struggling to finish my third novel (contracted to Arcadia Books) but my recently diagnosed PTSD made fiction impossible. Be among writers, I thought, keep close to their world and their laughter and it’ll come right. I was looking for a home of peace and nourishment for my writing and tried to offer that to others too. Well, that novel still isn’t written and maybe never will be, but what treasures these groups have brought me over the years.

So, appreciation and thanks go first to our kind hosts over the years: Shivaun Wolfson and Fran Tay who started it all off in that Bermondsey book shop, to Greenwich Waterstones, to the Churchill College library staff for your support and our amazing display.

Our library display at Churchill College library – thank you, Annie

Special thanks to everyone at Churchill College who not only gave space to our growing tribe but provided gorgeous homemade biscuits, tea and coffee, and to our star CW baker Lauren who shared her banana bread and brownies in those far off, olden days when we could meet in person.

Happy writing and success to all the writers who have joined me over the years. A shout out too to the thousands of you who turn to the writing part of this blog (2017-18) – I hope your writing thrives. Nothing gets us ahead as much as our own determination and talent and we all take help wherever we can. I am grateful to play a small part in your progress.

Above all, heartfelt love and thanks to all the Churchill Writers, and a very happy tenth birthday!

Faversham Literary Festival, Saturday 19 February, 2022 with Fiona Sinclair

On Saturday 19 February, 2022 I will be reading at the Faversham Literary Festival with my dear friend Fiona Sinclair. Fiona’s latest collection is Greedy Cow was published a few months ago by Smokestack and includes poems about her latest passion, riding pillion on her husband’s motorcycle around the lanes of Kent.

I will be reading new work like this poem about my mother published by The Phare magazine as well as pieces about the beauties of living on the coast. (You can hear Cleopatra on Portstewart Strand on The Phare‘s podcast here.) We look forward to sharing our poems with you – frank, poignant, often funny, always life-affirming – about surviving mental health difficulties. 2021’s festival was overtaken by the pandemic and it is wonderfully exciting to see its return. More details to follow.

Fiona and me with Amy Johnson at Herne Bay