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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Robert Sheppard: Some memories of the Creative Writing MA (cohort 1978-1979) at the University of East Anglia

I have recently been asked a number of questions about the Creative Writing MA at UEA, in particular about the year I took it in 1978-9. I found myself writing, broadly, the following and I thought it of enough interest to share. 

One of the lockdown things I seem to be doing is reading ALL my diaries chronologically. This request arrived extraordinarily at the right point in my journey through this scribble. And I had just read the Klavans novel that I refer to. 

Of course my ‘autrebiographies’ in Words Out of Time ‘tell’ the story differently (though it is there to be seen). See here: Pages: My REF description of my book Words Out of Time: autrebiographies and unwritings (robertsheppard.blogspot.com) 


The MA (as we called it; I don’t remember in those days using the term ‘masters programme’) was not the only one in the UK at the time. There was one at Lancaster (and Peter Redgrove was busy at Falmouth Art College teaching at undergraduate level). But UEA was the better known by 1978/9. We knew that Ian McEwan had passed through some years before – but these still felt like pioneering days. The Creative Writing MA shared half of its programme with the MA in the Novel, so we mixed with some of the regular MA students. We had to choose two courses of their four (I chose ‘Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Lawrence’ and ‘Postmodernism’) and the other two modules were creative writing modules. They were purely workshops for which we provided contributions. Later on, there were tutorials. Finally, we had a dissertation, which was purely creative writing. There was no requirement for what – decades later – I called ‘Supplementary Discourses’ in some research for the English Subject Centre, i.e., commentary or poetics. This work was supported by the tutorials.

 Malcolm Bradbury was running the programme, but he was a busy person and (somewhat to our consternation) he was often off all over the world and absent a lot. I understand this now, after a career as an academic. In fact, just as the lack of poetics at UEA at that time taught me the necessity of poetics, Bradbury’s inability to say no to invitations has taught me how to say no, when I have to. He was not there in the final months leading up to the dissertation, so we were all showing that work, in one to one tutorial situations, to his replacement, who was Angela Carter. Now a superstar, of course, she was then a rising star, and very much a UEA figure, in that Lorna Sage’s advocacy of her work was career-making. (A year or so before, and during the course, I think, too, I saw her read some of her fairy tales at a lecturer’s flat, probably Lorna’s; are there recordings of her reading them? she was splendid.) As a tutor many of us found her vague, after Bradbury, but in the end I think people got used to her indirectness. (She had difficulty with me, because I had decided to not write fiction, and submit poetry, which the regulations allowed, though I had to show them to Bradbury to convince him this was the case!) She worked out where I stood poetically by coming across an article about ‘English Black Mountain’ (her term) in Artscribe (which she gave me and I still have). She told me to send work to Bananas and to mention her name. I did, though nothing was published.

 Outside of these contact hours, we were left to ourselves. The Novel MA people stuck close to one another; the creative writing people were more dispersed. I had been an undergraduate at UEA so I had friends who were then third years, and others outside that pack, like Peter Stacey, the composer, and Frances Presley, the poet, who mixed with some of the European students. I lived in one of the famous Ziggurats, Norfolk Terrace, as did Walter, from Germany, next door. See My Favourite Building: the UEA Ziggurats | Journal | The Modern House .  I think there was a floor for postgraduates. But the core students stuck together, frequenting the Graduate Student Association, upstairs in University House, which sold cheap cocktails (deadly).

 The Creative Writing group was small, but not tightknit. I was close to Paul Stewart (who came from the Lancaster BA). He was a big fan of Bruce Springsteen and Bowie (he had singles of ‘Heroes’ in several languages!). In my diary I find: ‘He’s also one of the most essentially good people I’ve met for such a long time.’ I forget what he was writing then, but now he is famous for his ‘Edge Chronicles’ children’s books, of which he has sold millions of copies around the world! His adult non-fiction book Trek is about some English people driving a Morris Minor from Kenya to Britain in the 1950s, a great read. He gave me a copy when we met up after many years in 2008. He slept on my floor on the night of the election that brought Thatcher to power in May 1979 and said that if she won that election he would leave Britain: he did, (with Walter, my neighbour, I think) and didn’t come back from Germany for many years! (That provides a key sentence in Words Out of Time.) He’s the big success of the group.

However, at the time, Bradbury (the rest of us felt, resentfully, I have now to admit, with sorrow) only had eyes for our one American student, Jodie Klavans. She was a Southern Belle, immaculately turned out, and writing a violent kind of Southern Gothic. I think she told us that she picked Norfolk, England, because she was from Norfolk, Virginia. When she arrived at Heathrow, she got a taxi to Norwich: an unthinkable thing. She was enigmatic but kept herself to herself. She was the one creative writer who didn’t come to the fancy restaurant in Tombland, Tatlers, to celebrate my birthday, I remember. (Actually, I’m finding these forgotten things in my diary!) She went on and published one book, which I have only now (2021) read: God, He was Good (The novel It’s a Little too Late for a Love Song is its better US title). I enjoyed this story of working class Virginians and their lack of opportunities and (what the book is good at encapsulating) their moving yearnings and aspirations. It is gritty and fast-paced. Carter is quoted on the blurb. She may have taught a bit and wrote screenplays, but did not fulfil that great promise (other than in that one book). (I googled her recently.) She published as J.K. Klavans.

John Ewart was older than the rest of us, was married; his wife Jenny had a baby during the MA. My diary records his ‘attractive cynicism’! He published one of his well-crafted stories, ‘Birds’ in London Magazine. He moved to Sussex right at the end of the course.

Kate Raby came from Falmouth, where she had been taught by Peter Redgrove. She and I were repelled (I think isn’t too strong a word) by the thrusting professionalism being nurtured by Bradbury. This happened not so much in the classes, but at one evening meeting at Bradbury’s quite plush house, at which he held forth (I don’t remember literary agents being there, as I believe happened in later years) and we did once meet in the posh bar of the Maid’s Head in Norwich. I remember that a drunk pestered Kate and I had to tell him to push off, while Bradbury cowered from the encounter. I don’t know what happened to Kate, but she had a boy friend who taught at Falmouth. (Googling her name gives falmouth_school_of_art_page_3 (zen.co.uk) but I search in vain for her on that page, but I find a van that I suddenly remember showing up outside a Norwich pub once.) The diary records also she had a poem published in Bananas. Paul Stewart had a story accepted there by the end of the course.

 


And then there’s me. (Above.) My life and works are best related here:  Biography - Robert Sheppard (weebly.com) and through the associated bibliographies on this site. It’s never occurred to me that, after Paul, I’m a success of the course. I’d always thought myself a kind of qualified failure, whose chances came later. After the MA, I then researched for a PhD with Vic Sage. (One career, it seemed.) Writers Forum published a pamphlet of poems just at the end of the course: it seemed acceptance would lie with the avant-garde. (Another career.) 'Creative Writing' only returned to my life in the late 1990s, when the subject caught up with the alternative poetries. (The meeting of careers.)

Myth has it we were all meant to discover what the ‘unique selling point’ of our work was, under Bradbury’s tutelage. In fact, Bradbury encouraged us to identity what our ‘obsessions’ were, and to follow them, whatever. (Partly fatal advice in my case, as was his insistence that we should all write novels. He told me, I remember, that he had such problems getting Ian McEwan’s book of stories published. Again, this was fatal advice.) He introduced us to the work of Malcolm Lowry, which I thought extraordinary (but is another bad example for a young writer). I am today involved with annual Lowry celebrations in Liverpool! I am thankful for that introduction from Malcolm Bradbury. (See Pages: In Lieu of a Lowry Lounge 2020: Remaking the Voyage a book of essays (robertsheppard.blogspot.com))

UEA is famous for literary activities and the annual Henfield Fellow (writer in residence) that year was Roger Howard, who was a poet as well as a playwright. I published a poem by him in Rock Drill 1 a year after the course and his bio reads: ‘Chiefly a playwright, he has also taught at the universities of Peking, York, East Anglia and Essex, as well as writing poems and translating from the Chinese. He has written books on Mao Tse Tung and on Chinese theatre. Lives in Suffolk.’ I liked his workshops, open to all, but only Kate and I went along from the MA group. The playwright Snoo Wilson was around and about too.

‘I feel the apprenticeship is up. UEA has been that for me, this year,’ I wrote in August 1979. [A few days later I reveal a different attitude, though I suspect irony: 'Now for competition with the immortals!']

 

Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson 1970s, Norwich

Robert Sheppard: 9th March 2021