RLF Fellows

Here you can read a selection of work by some of our previous writing fellows.


John Farndon

City & Guilds of London Art School is a place for discovering secrets. Behind a row of eight Georgian houses is hidden a magic kingdom of creative talent. You step in through the door to an extraordinary and seemingly undiscovered world of art, nurtured away from prying eyes. Blind passages and stairways weave in and out of myriad rooms in which you glimpse all kinds of artists at work – painters, installation artists, sculptors, stone carvers, wood carvers, artworks being meticulously conserved… A miraculous, mysterious hive of artistic production. Every corner you turn, every room you enter affords a new surprise and delight. And it’s like that for my role here, too. I’m tucked away myself here, in my own perfect room – the room kept aside for the Royal Literary Fellow. And I’m in some ways like a secret, too, waiting for the students to discover. Fortunately, they have found me. I have been so blessed that so many of the students have sought me out for help with their writing – and thereby I have stumbled upon the Art School’s greatest secret treasure: its brilliant students. As each of them has come to see me, it has been a privilege to see revealed the hidden depth of artistic talent that has made its temporary home here. The work the students do, from simple sketches to grand paintings, from carving to conserving, is quite remarkable, and it’s been really exciting being allowed to see some of it. But the secret most apt to me, perhaps, and so most thrilling, is a secret that so many of the students have found themselves, with only a little nudge from me: that they can write after all, and write well. That maybe they can be as much themselves in the apparently alien world of words as in a studio with a brush in hand. It’s a secret I hope to go on sharing for the remainder of my all too brief time here.

From the 2016 Newsletter
Annette Kobak

Artful Writing

Did you hear Daniel Barenboim explaining in his Reith Lectures how he gauges the precise moment to break into the silence of the concert hall with his first piano notes? He does it, he said, by imagining the music is already there, preexisting, and that he’s just joining it – or, as he put it, just “stepping on a train that’s already in motion”? When I heard that, I realized what a helpful concept that was for writing – for that often problematic opening sentence of a book. So as a writer, instead of facing a blank page and your first marks on it, you slip into the world you’re conjuring up mid-stream, rather as Laurence Sterne famously does in Tristram Shandy: “I wish”, the book starts, “either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them […] had minded what they were about when they begot me.” We’re joining Shandy’s up-and-running world without fanfare or preamble – almost on an offbeat.

Like many people in the arts, I find it helpful to take ideas about strategies in writing from an art form other than my own, like this. Not that I don’t love reading writers’ thoughts on the process and pitfalls of writing: to a fault, I do – from Montaigne to EM Forster, from Dorothea Brande to Stephen King, from David Lodge or Ray Bradbury and all the Paris Review interviews up to the whole proliferating (and often repetitive) world of blogs on how to write.

To a fault, because it can be another all too seductive displacement activity, another sharpening of the pencils; and while it’s consoling to read of writers like Norman Mailer or Hanif Kureishi encountering the same troughs as we have, it can compound the problem and angst for us writers, locked in our studies and our thoughts with no way out but words. Sometimes other artforms offer just the right jolts and practical insights, just the sturdy artisan’s tips that move things on and expand our worlds. For me, it’s art rather than music that does this on the whole. […]

Both art and writing typically capture that attention in notebooks and sketchbooks, accumulating scraps with no particular agenda. I find artists’ habits and attitudes in keeping their sketchbooks instructive in keeping a writing notebook: they value, but don’t over-control their material, making the books tactile and sensuous objects in themselves, while not being too precious about them. ‘Dud’ pages are kept in on principle, cheek by jowl with good ones, and a seemingly perfect drawing overdrawn by something else.

Once committed to making an artwork, though, the tables are turned: a little formality and boundary-making are in order. It’s a common practice in painting, for example, to make a pencil or tape frame around the edge of a blank paper or canvas before beginning a picture. With writing, such a framing device can also serve to contain massing initial thoughts within some simple structure, to stop them getting out of hand at the start. This can be anything from setting up files with working titles for parts or chapters of a book (colour-coded perhaps for research, chronology, drafts – thank you, Mr Jobs) to imagining the actual look of the book you’re starting: its front cover, design, its title, your name on it, the fonts. Sometimes this process can even throw up a title.

Of course, as with the painting, your work may end up spilling over its boundaries altogether, or changing tack: the framework isn’t there to limit you, but to give reassuring signposts to your subconscious about your serious intentions. With painting, the bonus is that you have a payoff when you finish: that satisfying moment when you strip off the tape and reveal the crisp edge which offsets your work. And similar ta-da! moments in writing come when clicking on the word length and finding you’re hitting it (thanks again, Mr Jobs), or when you suddenly see your way to an unexpected final sentence, and realize you’re home and (reasonably) dry.

Do these connections seem too obscure, too personal or even too obvious, to you? If so, I’ll offer you a random bouquet – in the spirit of Matisse and Renoir – of practical painting tips that have excited me or spurred me on with their parallels to writing. I leave it to you to imagine if and how they could be applicable to your own work – and therefore stealable, in Picasso’s well-known formulation.

First: it’s a good idea to allow for a sacrificial quarter of an hour or so at the beginning of the working day, warming up with something connected to your work. Allow for some pfaffing – some sharpening of pencils, some drawing with the left hand, as it were. This particularly applies if there’s a tight deadline. (As Garrison Keillor put it for writers, “Deadline? Then slow down.”)

Secondly: think layers. The old masters created paintings in layers, invariably with the darkest colours first – starting with black. Black itself was – and still is – best made with, for example, lemon yellow, alizarin crimson and Prussian blue, rather than straight from the black tube. (Lemon yellow in black, who’d have thought?) In the same way, the richest and darkest villains in literature – the Satans, the Richard IIIs – have many hues to them. By putting the darkest areas in first, you give yourself an overall pattern, and the confidence that subsequent layers, ending with any highlights and lines, will work at their best against them.

Thirdly: when painting a portrait, it’s good (I’ve learnt), if entirely counter-intuitive, to paint a layer of blue under the flesh colour. This – rather nicely – is because of the blood-veins under our skin: our underlying colour is blue (not even red, which you might think for blood). Think Lucian Freud. And an additional tip in portrait painting is to determine which direction the eyes are looking – even what they are looking at, which may be out of the picture. (This resonates in non-fiction for me: I cracked my biography of Isabelle Eberhardt the moment I began looking at the world out of her eyes – as if I were inside her head, looking out.) And then – a random tip – watch out for magenta as a colour: it dominates, and also stains. Use it sparingly and judiciously. As you would an exclamation mark(!).

Finally – the ribbon around the bouquet: a wonderful end-moment in oil painting, akin to ripping off the tape around the canvas, is putting the glazes in. Boy, do they pull things together. But, master painters say, never put white into a glaze, because it makes things too chalky. (Which is why yellow ochre is bad for a glaze, as it has too much white in it.) And, importantly: don’t be tempted to over-glaze at the end. And it is very tempting to over-glaze: to smooth everything out, to gloss over the bits that don’t quite gel. Does that sound familiar, with writing? To over-glaze a sentence, tidying it up just that bit too much on the surface, to give an appearance of coherence, without fully addressing why it doesn’t hang together? […]

That cross-fertilization between art and writing has always gone the other way, too, of course, as with Hockney drawing on Cavafy or Wallace Stevens, or Van Gogh on Hugo, Zola, Balzac, Dickens, Shakespeare and many more. As Van Gogh puts it, “There is something of Rembrandt in Shakespeare, and of Corregio in Michelet, and of Delacroix in Victor Hugo… it comes to the same, if one only understands the thing in the right way.” “You see,” he writes to Theo, “there are many things which one must believe and love”, and he urges him to “admit… that the love of books is as sacred as the love of Rembrandt, and I even think the two complete each other… But one must learn to read, exactly as one must learn to see, and learn to live.”

How helpful it is, in the everyday isolation of writing, to know one’s joining a conversation – a train of thought – that’s already bowling along.

From the 2015 Art Histories publication
Gabriel Gbadamosi

Life-Changing Literature: Romeo and Juliet

I played Capulet, Juliet’s dad, when I was sixteen in a youth theatre production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic Theatre in London. Really, I wanted to be Romeo: we all did; only the Nurse among the girls wanted to be in the play about a Nurse sorting things out instead of the one about Juliet falling in love; we all wanted the attention of being the ones to be loved. We didn’t like Romeo, who played it flaunting himself, and so we liked it when the first night came and all our jealous dreams about him came true. It happened like this: the Inner London Education Authority who organised us to put on the set text for schools had one of those days – like the one in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – when you flip a coin and it keeps coming up Heads: they only booked in girls’ schools. On the opening night we had an audience of a thousand teenage girls screaming their heads off in derision at Romeo trying to get past the line – “O sweet Juliet, Thy beauty hath made me effeminate.” Well, he was a bit limp, but we didn’t mean for them to tear him apart. He was like a mouse panting in the spotlight under an enormous black cat stretching out its claws from the darkness. Of course, they were only sharing that they all knew about first time nerves ending in impotence – it was part of the sex education we all got out of the play at school – but contempt for a performance not coming up to scratch can be cruel. It started with giggles – which are infectious – and became the roaring sound of a mob starting to enjoy it, ready to pounce and kill anything that moved across the stage if it even opened its mouth. No one wanted to go on – not Capulets, not Montagues – none of the boys, not one of the girls. And seeing it from the audience point of view it must look funny when instead of making an entrance the actors get pushed on to the stage struggling in their costumes. Everyone was getting killed out there. It was blood all over the stage. Until I came on as Juliet’s dad, and grabbed her by the hair, ripped her dress open, and threw her across the room for disobeying me and meeting a boy. I even remembered to glare at Juliet’s mum, daring her to say anything (she didn’t have a line there, so she just turned away). You could hear a pin drop, the silence of Juliet sobbing. And that’s when the penny dropped. The dirty secret was out about who I was and what was going on for all those girls – I was my dad, jealously guarding the burgeoning sexuality of my teenage sisters against those lurking boys, and they, out there in the dark, were all my daughters, because what was going on in my house was going on in theirs. It was out of the closet, the dirty secret of sexual jealousy and violence between fathers and daughters, made public by the silence that surrounded it – the pin drop, the sobs. Now when I write, that experience of becoming my father to play Capulet informs the way I make characters. And the public silence of 1000 London teenagers has always sounded more thunderingly truthful to me than applause.

From the 2015 Art Histories publication

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