The Virgin Atlantic Intergalactic Writers’ Workshop
Oliver Michell (University of East Anglia, UK)
Two weeks ago, I had some terrible news. The oxygen on this spacecraft is not running out.
Consider what this means. Turn it over in your head.
It means there is no end. No finale, no epilogue. It means that thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of Richard Branson and the incompetence of his mechanics, this flight upon which the five of us are trapped, heading deeper and deeper into space, can promise us no delicious asphyxiation, no ecstasy of suffocation. I shall have no final, zero-gravitational fun, watching my fellow delegates turn from pink to red to purple. Instead, the oxygenation plant will carry on keeping the five of us floating, but alive. Ratchett, Rollo, Lynne, Marina and me.
Compulsively workshopping into infinity.
In one another’s company. Reading each other’s work.
And appreciating it.
I have spent five years trying to finish a novel about Enoch Powell. Even as I write it, I can scarcely believe it. As one side of my brain remembers, the other is incredulous. How many years? The Enoch Powell? Seriously?
I thought a so-called Writers’ so-called Workshop in space would be my last chance. After a long selection procedure, we were handpicked, the five of us, by Richard Branson himself. Rollo, a twenty-eight year old prize-winning novelist, still attending Creative Writing Conferences because he “still had so much to learn.” Ratchett – her actual name Sue, but she reminds me so strongly of Nurse Ratchett from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that I now can’t think of her any other way. Thirty-two years old, very severe, very plain. Harbours a passionate dislike of me, generously reciprocated. Lynne, a forty-nine year old “single mum” from Surrey, writing a novel about how tough it is being a single mum from Surrey, constantly showing me photographs of her shockingly unattractive kids. Then – I can hardly write her name – Marina. Marina Carew. Poetess, bee-fancier, ethereal spirit, possessor of the husky eyes, a sort of fairy goddess. Ah Marina!
At first it all went well. We whizzed up through the stratosphere, straining to be complimentary and constructive and encouraging of one another’s literary endeavours. Then it happened. A big bang. One of the rockets malfunctioned, blasting us away from Earth.
Leaving the five of us. On board. With each other. And our novels.
You, dear reader, at this point throw your hands up in the air. “Why don’t you just stop? I mean, you’re in space, doomed to die from old age, or boredom, or a lethal surfeit of literary appreciation, which is the same thing, or smashed into pate by a merciful asteroid. Face it. You’re buggered by Branson. Instead of orbiting the stratosphere, in a last desperate search for your Muse, a blaster mistakenly blasted in the wrong direction and set you on course for oblivion. Which, as unpublished novelists, was sort of where you were in the first place. So stop turning up. Stop debating whether or not sunlight really does fall through leaves like a handful of golden coins thrown into the air, or whether Enoch Powell’s wife would describe her husband’s penis as ‘iron-hard’ or as ‘a thousand tiny claws tearing at her being’.”
Christ, I can still picture it. Lynne, holding up her tiny, papery fist. “Well, you see, Mark, I think, a hard one of…well, of those…you see, it’s more like this…” – she makes a grotesque punching motion with her fist – “but that’s just one view.” Another writers’ group staple: it’s just one view. What else would it be except “one view”? Never “I’m right. Change it.” The constant polite hedging of bets. The constant Englishness. The endless disclaimers, even flying towards the sun at two thousand miles per hour. We’re about to be vaporised and die miserable and terrified, but at least we’ll die miserable, terrified and polite.
You, dear reader, are now rolling your eyes. “Oh stop complaining,” you say. “If you feel that way, give up. Do it as a last gasp of the Human Spirit. The string quartet playing on the decks of the Titanic. Salvage some bloody dignity and quit. You only signed up because you couldn’t meet girls.”
And that’s another thing. Have you ever tried being sexually frustrated in an environment that has “Virgin” written on everything? Where you brush your teeth with Virgin toothpaste, stir your coffee with a Virgin spoon? Do you have any idea what that’s like? It’s like being fifteen years old and your parents are force-feeding you Viagra. That’s what Rollo and Lynne always say in Writers’ Workshop. “Oh Mark, why are you always so cynical?” Because, Rollo, I wank myself off five times a day onto loo paper that has “Virgin” written on it in a never ending scroll.
Well, dear reader, there are a number of counterarguments. The first is, you don’t exist. This diary will be fizzed into a trillion atoms along with Marina’s blue-eyed perfection, when we hit the Ultimate Literary Criticism In The Sky in the form of a bloody great fireball, somewhere just past the Rings of Saturn. So frankly, as you’re just one half of my brain talking to the other half, you can do as you’re bloody told.
Secondly, have you ever tried giving up going to Writers’ Workshops? There are no nicorette patches. There is no methadone. The horrors of cold turkey cannot be diluted. “I’ve decided to focus on radio plays.” Even I have never sunk to that level. Focus on radio plays and you’re properly fucked. That’s like getting up at lunchtime. That’s Red Stripe lager and Doritos for breakfast. I have nothing against the Big Issue, but it’s a well known fact that most of their vendors have, at one point or another, focused on radio plays. You aim for the afternoon slot on Radio 4 when you’ve really given up. You’re living with your mum, metaphorically and probably literally. I’m on a spaceship going to my death and, even then, I wouldn’t mess with the Afternoon Play. There’s no going back from that shit. But even before you reach that level of self-hatred, before you start submitting ideas to BBC Writers’ websites that have taken literally not one idea, ever, from that website for a programme that actually gets made, before you blog, before you twitter, there are all kinds of stages you go through before you can face up to the fact that you’re actually just no good. You put your novel ‘on hold’ (a state mysteriously different from ‘abandoned’ which, while requiring the cessation of all creative endeavour, rules out all possibility of returning to paid employment). You work on short stories. You start your memoirs, describing your career as a writer before you actually have a career as a writer.
I’d better introduce my fellow castaways. And let me say at this point that, of the three of them, if I want any one of them to find this diary, it’s you, Rollo, you smug Oxbridge shit.
Rollo is really, really talented. I mean, properly talented. Rollo comes from one of those London families, the members of which have devoted their lives selflessly to worthy causes that pay nothing. They’ve gone on marches. They’ve written articles for the Observer. They’ve shunned private schooling, they’ve campaigned for cars to be banned from Richmond Park. They sit on the Board of Hospital Trusts. They serve on immigration appeals tribunals. And somehow, magically, over the course of their lives devoted to these admirable and poorly remunerated pursuits, they have acquired a shitload of money. How this works, I have no idea. My parents worked all their lives in jobs they hated and ended up with nothing. Rollo’s parents have fucked around directing plays and taking up occasional fellowships at the LSE, and have ended up with multiple properties, including a five storey house in Camden. Camden so their smug hypocritical bastard children can all go to comprehensive schools but still go to Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford, inevitably, in Rollo’s case.
About a week after the crew of the ship had used the only means of escape to return safely to Earth, we realised that we were about to lose radio contact with Virgin Ground Control. We had five and a half hours of radio time left. So we decided that we would read someone’s novel down the blower, so the work of one of us would be preserved for posterity. But then we had to decide. Whose novel would it be? Finally all the polite hedging of bets had to come to an end. All the “hm, really interesting” and “what vibrant imagery” and “what a strong sense of place.” Finally we had to decide who was best.
Five of us, five votes, and you couldn’t vote for yourself. Of course I voted for Marina. Beautiful, lovely Marina, blonde haired, blue-eyed, light-limbed pale-skinned, with her wonderful gentle, caring voice, her lovely delicate nose, her graceful, yet strangely seductive way of moving her limbs…oh Marina. I knew it wouldn’t be me who won the ballot. I just prayed it wouldn’t be…
“Rollo Marshall-Williams is the successful delegate, congratulations…”
Rollo, of course, was magnanimous. Particularly towards me, and on purpose. “Guys, guys, let’s divide up the time between us. Mark, what about that amazing radio play you’ve written about Enoch Powell…”
It is hard to communicate the depth of hatred you can feel for someone who is truly talented at writing fiction. I pictured his handsome face spinning away through a cloud of radioactive dust, the vacuum gently disembowelling him as it muffled his screams. “No Rollo, you read your novel…after all, you’re the only one of us who’s been published…”
“Mark, mate, I keep telling you, it’ll come…”
“How, precisely?” I wanted to answer. “A particularly open-minded vanity publisher on Pluto? A literary agent in a passing lunar module?” Instead, of course, I bottle it. “Thanks, mate.”
“Anyway, if you feel you have to write, you have to write. Success or no success, it’s irrelevant.”
Rollo is complimentary about my novel in the way you can be when you know that your own writing is better. Marina is complimentary about my novel in the way you can be when you know that you will never, ever have sex with the author. There is that sort of ineffable sweetness, so readily recognised by men who never get laid, that big sisterly, doting manner adopted by attractive women who know at the most fundamental level of their being that you really, really want to sleep with them and they will never, ever let you. It makes prose take wing. When I read from my novel the 8th redraft of Chapter 71 of Part Five – “Thorneycroft, Powell and Birch – Falling on the Sword of Fiscal Responsibility” – Marina described herself as being on the edge of her seat. “Oh Mark! I believe you have given me my first nightmare about Harold Macmillan!” This is Writers’ Group code for “Mark, I am never going to have sex with you because you are 35, and short and losing your hair, and a bit overweight, and the fact that you have pissed away your tedious but secure career for an elaborate delusion of Enoch Powell-related artistic integrity is neither romantic nor daring, but slightly pathetic. But what I can offer you in return is a big pile of lies. When you attempt a Wolverhampton accent as you read out your three page monologue of Enoch Powell rejecting the public spending plans of Harold Macmillan, I will fake rapt attention as a way of compensating you for the fact that you will never see me naked.” Oh Marina!
Instead, there is another member of the group for whom Marina saves her waspish remarks, her catty asides. You guessed it. Fucking Rollo. And why does she attack him? Sexual bloody tension, and the heightening thereof. Rollo, a qualified teacher of the Alexander Technique, the twat, spices up their sex life with literary badinage. Marina’s cattiness towards Rollo is matched by her generosity towards me, as if towards a deaf uncle. This reduces me in effect to the role of Rollo’s fluffer. “I think Mark’s point about subordinate clauses is an extremely valid one, actually, Rollo.” “Well, Mark’s spot on, I think, Rollo. The plot of Great Expectations would be perfect set in Las Vegas.”
None of this is lost on Nurse Ratchett, sitting on the opposite side of the circle, eyeing me as if I were a short, fat Jack Nicholson. The most remarkable thing about Ratchett is her hair. Do you remember from school or telly – why do you ask whether you remember, you’re talking to yourself you fucking moron, of course you remember, you’re you – that famous picture of Henry V in profile? His hair is black like Ratchett’s, but it’s a kind of bowl haircut, slipping down the back of his head. Ratchett has exactly that haircut and, even more extraordinarily, she has clearly trimmed it since take off back into that shape. It leaves a harsh black fringe across her pointy face, giving her a striking resemblance to Rowan Atkinson in the first series of Blackadder. It has always fascinated me how Ratchett acquired this haircut. You sit in the barber’s chair and they say “What would you like, a Jennifer Aniston, a Julia Roberts, a Keira Knightley?” Ratchett says “Give me a Plantagenet.” “Ooh, the Hundred Years War. Not a lot of call for those.” “Do your best…”
For weeks after take-off, I was nice to Ratchett. I was nice to everyone. Even when the engines malfunctioned and the gravity cut out, I agreed with Rollo that it was essential that we stay positive. What can I say? I thought the oxygen was running out.
Then I discovered that no such respite awaited us. And I thought it might be time to tell everyone frankly what I thought of their novels.
Ratchett’s book is set in South London. It’s about angels who speak in a West Indian accent, ie the way white middle class Londoners think West Indians speak. Lots of “Ay mon, bamba klat Babylon” bollocks. Ratchett is profoundly proud of the fact that she has read Paradise Lost and her book works on the fool-proof marketing conceit that your average reader in WH Smiths has also read Paradise Lost several times and wants to be titillated by cross-references to that piss boring poem in every chapter.
This is another mystery of Writers’ Groups. Some people are good, some are bad. But occasionally you get people who are obviously bad, who everyone else thinks are brilliant. Rollo, Marina and Lynne love Ratchett’s novel. They can’t wait to hear the next instalment about the Angel Gabriel selling weed outside Brixton Tube. But after we discovered that the ship generated its own oxygen, I’d had enough.
“Sue, what makes you think that constantly referring to Milton is an effective way of engaging the reader’s attention?”
There was silence. You don’t say this kind of thing at Writers’ Groups. You say “Very Martin Amis. I was definitely hooked in, but could the emphasis be differently distributed to make the prose a little less rich?”
Instead, when Ratchett sighed and snapped “What didn’t you like about it Mark?”, I said what I had been yearning to say for twenty thousand light years of space travel.
“I was bored.”
There is no sound in space. But the sound of four people shrinking back in their chairs seemed to boom the length and breadth of the cosmos.
“You were what?” Ratchett said.
“Bored. I was bored. Why should I care about a bunch of angels fannying around South London talking like Lenny Henry doing Theophilus P. Wildebeeste?”
Ratchett crossed her arms, tucking her fish-eye nipples under her armpits. “This from a man who has written a two hundred and fifty thousand word novel on the subject of Enoch Powell.”
“Guys, guys” Rollo interjected.
“I must say, Mark, I’m beginning to find your constant cynicism detrimental to the productivity of the group.”
I rounded on Lynne. “What exactly are we producing, Lynne? This isn’t the Hay Festival, we’re on a space ship for God’s sake, beyond radio contact, heading into the outer solar system. No-one gives a shit whether we write well or not.”
“We give a shit, mate,” said Rollo calmly.
“Why? I mean, what’s the bloody point? My novel about Enoch Powell, at least my Dad read it before I left.”
“Mark, your novel is absolute bullshit,” Ratchett snapped.
“Maybe it is,” I replied. “But what does it matter? No-one is going to read this crap, let alone publish it. We’re all just deluding ourselves, can’t you see that?”
Rollo leant forward. “Mark, I have to say, I’m finding the negativity coming off you really detrimental to my creativity at the moment.”
“What creativity? Why are we even sitting here?” My voice broke into sobs. “We’re going to die, don’t you get that?”
“We were going to die on Earth. That’s why it’s important for its own sake.”
“No it isn’t!” I screamed, tears rolling down my face. “It is so absolutely not important for its own sake!”
It’s a quarter to six. Time for our Writers’ Workshop. Nobody has spoken to me much since that last session. I resolved for a while afterwards to stop going. Stop writing. To turn instead, to you, my dearest reader, my darling diary. A private exercise, just between you and me.
But look. I’m on my feet. I’m out of my bunk. I’m writing these last sentences standing up. And now, my dear friend, I’m going to take you to the Richard Branson Recreation Area at the other end of the ship and expose you to the judgment of my peers.
Oliver Michell is originally from South London, but currently divides his time between Norwich and Berlin, where he has a four year old daughter. He is a full-time student on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.