Skip to main content

My Month in Books May 2022

The books I've selected this month are The Writer's Tale, a "tell-all" discussion of Russell T Davies's creative life, with lots of fascinating insights into how Dr Who is made. Of the fiction I read, the highlight was Lisa See's wonderful story of two women in nineteenth-century China, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter, Russell T Davies with Benjamin Cook (BBC Books, 2010)

I read a lot of books about writing and creativity. I think, though, they are two different things. Books about writing are about the nuts and bolts – how tos and guides. Books about creativity are explorations of what creativity is, how and why we create books or art or whatever we create, how creativity happens or how we make it happen, what it means, what it does. I love all the different approaches there are to creativity, the variety of experience, reading a book and thinking “yes it’s like that for me” or “no it isn’t like that”, and knowing that both the yes and the no are wonderful and intriguing and inspiring.   


Russell T Davies doesn’t like books about writing. He tried to read Story by Robert McKee once but it scared him so much he only managed a paragraph. It wasn’t that he disagreed with the book, rather that he didn’t want “some tutor’s voice intruding into my head”. He wanted to think things out for himself rather “than be taught about it”.

Unlike Davies, I think books like Story can be useful. But I think he’s got a point. I think it’s wise to approach the guides and the how tos with caution. What puts me on the alert is when someone declares that their way is how you “should” write. Sometimes it’s merely implicit in the bossy tone, or the hints of inevitable failure for those who don’t accept the author’s version of reality, or the assumptions that there is only one model for being a successful writer.  

The Writer’s Tale is a book about creativity, although you could also pick up some tips from it about writing – for example, how to construct a story. But that would be by seeing a writer in action in specific situations, rather than being told in general terms “this is how”. As Davies says, he’s “wary of anyone who’s about to start writing ever reading something like this and thinking, that’s the way to do it, that’s what I must do”. He adds that he doesn’t “think the creative process copies too much anyway. I think it finds its own way”.

Davies is open about the way he works, he’s willing to tell all – to answer a question about lying (“isn’t writing one big fat lie?”) for example – but he never once says “this is how it ought to be done”. Perhaps it’s because of the form the book takes. It’s basically an edited email exchange between him and Benjamin Cook, and for that very reason it can’t solidify into bullet points and “top ten tips”. It’s all over the place, Davies zips from topic to topic, he goes to Tesco’s, fancies the barista in his local coffee shop, the letter a on his keybard flls off. Of course, he knew when he wrote his emails they were intended for publication, but there’s still a sense of honesty and immediacy about them, that this is what he really thinks, this is how he writes (his ideas come from an ideas shop in Abergavenny), these are the mistakes he’s made, these are his doubts, this is how he feels about success, money, fame.

Maybe it is all one big fat lie. I don’t think so, but even if it is, it’s an entertaining one. It feels like you’re eavesdropping on a real conversation, as if you’re in a café and two people on the next table are discussing their private lives and you don’t want to miss a word. That can make it a bit cringy too sometimes: Benjamin Cook’s frequent “you’re brilliant” for instance should perhaps have been kept between the two of them. Of course, everyone wants to hear “you’re brilliant”, but to us eavesdroppers it sounds a bit – well – sycophantic. And all the fan boy stuff and whittering on about people’s arses gets a bit tedious.

But I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s behind-the-scenes-stuff about Dr Who, for goodness’ sake. And though I’ve never written a television script and have no plans to, I think Davies has got some fascinating things to say about creativity. I suppose if you hate Dr Who you wouldn’t read The Writer’s Tale, let alone get much out of it, but as Davies says, it’s “whatever works for you”.

I also read…

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Lisa See’s book about the lives of women in nineteenth-century China is a marvel. It follows two friends, Snow Flower and Lily, as they prepare for adulthood. That means learning how to be obedient to – just about everybody: parents, elders, husbands, mothers-in-law, sons; having their feet bound; learning how to run a household. In a strictly regulated world, how are they to have any kind of private or inner life? They do it by learning nu shu, a form of women’s writing which enables the two women to share news and express feelings and opinions that must otherwise be silenced. 


It's a beautifully written exploration of how, even in the most confined setting, women carve out a life for themselves – even if that life is not always a happy one.












Popular posts from this blog

Dickens and Chickens

On 17 April 1860, in fields near Farnborough, Charles Dickens joined an audience amongst whom were the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, as well as a number of MPs and clergymen, to watch the American John Carmel Heenan and England’s Tom Sayers (the Brighton Titch) beat one another blind and bloody in a bare-knuckle fight that lasted nearly two and a half hours. The fight ended in a draw when Aldershot police stormed the ring, forcing the fighters and their illustrious spectators to flee the scene. It was the brutality of this match that signalled an end to the bare-knuckle era and prompted the development of the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules. Dickens’s interest in pugilism was of long standing. In 1848 Dombey and Son , which had been published in serial form over the preceding two years, came out in book form. One of many of his novels that draws on the world of the prize fighter, it introduces the unforgettable Mr Toots, a would-be man about town, an

The Bristol Boys: The Bare Knuckle Champions and The Hatchet Inn

The Hatchet Inn on Frogmore Street in Bristol is all that remains of a row of seventeenth-century timbered houses dating back to 1606 – making it one of the city’s oldest pubs. It was substantially altered in the 1960s, and these days it stands on a traffic island. But at one time it boasted extensive grounds – and amongst the facilities on offer was a bare-knuckle boxing ring. Plaque at The Hatchet Inn, Bristol The pub’s connection with Bristol’s boxing heroes is commemorated in a plaque illustrating five of Bristol’s champions – one of whom, Hen Pearce, features in Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery. Hen Pearce (Detail) Bristol born Hen Pearce, The Game Chicken (1777 – 1809), a former butcher’s boy, became champion of England in 1805. He was a hero inside and outside the ring. In 1807 he climbed onto the roof of a building in Thomas Street, Bristol to rescue a servant girl from a fire. Always a popular figure, this courageous act inspired many eulogies in pr

Spotlight On...Begbrook House, Frenchay, Bristol

On 11 November 1913, the head gardener at Begbrook House in Frenchay near Bristol discovered that the   building was on fire. The house stood in its own wooded grounds, and was said to have twenty rooms and a fine old staircase. Within a few hours the house was gutted. The fire caused £3,000 worth of damage. A copy of the WSPU newspaper, The Suffragette , was left at the site with the message, “Birrell is coming. Rachel Pease is still being tortured”.  Begbrook House Picture: Frenchay Village Museum Augustine Birrell was the Liberal MP for Bristol North, and a cabinet minister. He was frequently targetted by militants in Bristol. Suffragettes interrupted his meetings and two women once accosted him at Temple Meads Railway Station with their demand for the vote.    Begbrook House belonged to Hugh Thomas Coles, a wealthy banker. Hugh Coles was the son of   William Gale Cole of Clifton, who was also a banker, and was born in Clifton in 1856. Lik