Saturday, 3 March 2012

Batmitzvahs, Books and Beards - Liz Kessler

I attended three celebrations last week. The first was the 20-year anniversary of Orion publishing; the second was The Book People’s celebration of children’s books; and the third was my niece’s batmitzvah.

On the face of it, these events were all quite different. The first was about the dinosaur in the middle of the room (which we all hoped was in no way symbolic), the meeting up with friends and fellow authors, and the trying (and utterly failing) to say ‘no thank you,’ when asked if I would like my champagne glass topping up.

The not at all symbolic dinosaur

The second was mostly about being in awe of the amount of talent in the room, the collective wisdom, the inspiring speeches - and the Jamie-Oliver-designed cocktails. Oh, and the fact that I was out in a dress for the second time in a week. A fact which has not occurred since I was thirteen, so I'll 'treat' you to a pic, otherwise you might not believe it actually happened.

Yes, it's me in a dress

And the third. Well, the third was the point when I realised what the first two were really about.

As I sat in the synagogue, listening to my youngest niece singing – beautifully – her allotted portion of the Torah, and trying not to cry, as I wasn’t sure my mascara was waterproof, I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging. I’m not religious – AT ALL – so at first, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was feeling. But as I looked around me, at the packed synagogue, at the family members greeting each other as they came in, at the strangers turning to face those who had recently lost loved ones during the Kaddish, at the children plaiting the tassles on their father’s tallis, I realised what it was about – what it was all about.

It’s about community. It’s about being part of something with other people. And something that is in constant flux, like a river that we are all being swept along together.

As Katie continued to sing, it occurred to me that we were at the point where this river was ending, and would soon flow into another. The sixth and youngest of her generation, hers would be the last of these occasions for many years. The next bat- or bar- mitzvah in our family would be for the child of one of these six.

Once I’d made this connection, the mascara didn’t stand a chance. And as I looked at my older nieces, standing with their boyfriends who all suddenly seemed to look like grown men, with their suits and their beards, I realised that this day might not be such a long time coming.

One of the nieces, with two of the bearded boyfriends
When the Rabbi blessed Katie at the end of the service, his words took me back to my own childhood. The ‘Cheder’ or Saturday School, where my strongest memories were not of any religious teaching but of the times we sang happy birthday to someone, or played hide and seek behind the beautifully stained windows. And I realised how seamlessly the past flows into the present and catches us out when it gets there. Glancing again at my nieces and their beard-clad boyfriends, it occurred to me that before I know it, the present will already have flowed on into the future.

And then I was reminded of the book-related celebrations earlier in the week, and how those were about community and flow as well.

Just as Katie’s singing held the moment between this generation and the next, the two earlier events marked a pivotal moment in the world of books. As Orion Chief Executive Peter Roche said in his speech, 'The world of the written word has experienced its biggest transformation since the invention of the printing press'.

E-books have brought new challenges to everyone in the world of publishing. But as well as the fears that all of us must have, if we approach the situation in the right way, it has also opened up new possibilities. The 'right way' will be different for all of us. It might mean having a publisher who is forward-thinking, proactive and creative enough to thoroughly embrace e-books without deserting the world of paper and bookshops. A tricky balance.

Or it might mean having a serious go at self-publishing. Many are seizing the opportunity to publish or re-publish their own books. For some, this is a bold and exciting step forward. For others it may be a last resort. Either way, some authors are beginning to do very well from it.

Whichever way we face these new challenges, I believe we need community. Whether that means a loyal and monogamous relationship with a publisher, or a team of fellow authors setting out on an e-publishing (or blogging!) venture together - or any number of other possibilities - my point is that, as we travel from one era of publishing to the next, we need each other.

As with family, there will be squabbles – and possibly even divorces – along the way. But if I think now of my niece singing, my brother looking proudly on, and the warmth of their friends and family all around them; if I think of the chief executive of my publishing company telling his authors, 'Our future is in your words,' and if I think of the fact that, whilst I was with my family, thirty children’s authors were spending a weekend together in a hotel in Peterborough, sharing ideas and inspiration – that’s when I know that, wherever these rivers take us, our best chance of successfully navigating the waters is by joining up with others to share a raft.

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Penny Dolan said...

Inspiring post,Liz! So many lovely moments gathered together here. Thanks,

Keren David said...

What a wonderful post! Just to add to that community feeling, I want to send congratulations to all the family - Katie was, for a while, in the same class in primary school as my son - there are few people who work as hard for the wider community than your brother, Katie's dad. I'm constantly impressed by the friendliness and generosity to be found in the world of children's authors, exemplified by the weekend in Peterborough.

Liz Kessler said...

Thanks Penny!

Keren, thank you for your lovely words about my brother. It's very kind of you to say - and I agree with you. What he's done in starting a new school is incredible and inspiring (and will probably be the subject of an ABBA blog further down the line!)

Susan Price said...

A beautiful, beautiful post, Liz! Best wishes to all your family, for now and the future.
You always look relaxed and lovely in your jeans and t-shirts, but you do look great in your LBD! I can only repeat the compliment someone (rather startlingly) paid me the other day - 'You look SO Italian, Missis!' (I think - hope - they meant stylish! It's what I mean.)
I wish I could have been at Peterborough - but I was busily paddling the Authors Electric raft (, along with 28 other independently e-publishing authors.

Ness Harbour said...

Liz, I had awoken this morning feeling quite grey and your post has painted my world with colour again. Community is so important. I am also with you totally on the impossibility of saying 'no thank you' when it comes to refills of champagne. Thank you for writing such a delightful post

Liz Kessler said...

Susan - I like it! I might add an Italian accent next time I don the LBD!

Ness - what a beautiful comment. Thank you. (And good to hear you agree on the champagne issue!)

Abi Burlingham said...

What a wonderful and moving post Liz, brought tears to my eyes. Community, mutual support, sharing and love, these are the things that hold us together and shine through everything else aren't they? Your post so beautifully expressed that.

madwippitt said...

A sense of Family is a wonderful thing - and the best thing about the best families is that you don't even need to be related by blood or marriage - there are other, just as deep and potent ties.

Kit Berry said...

Such a beautiful post! I was at the Orion event and I had an emotional moment at one point (possibly fuelled by that ever-flowing champagne!) when that sense of belonging to a community struck me too. I felt like a proper grown-up author surrounded by colleagues and it was a wonderful feeling. Especially as writing can be such a lonely business. I remember feeling the same emotion when, as a newly qualified teacher many years ago, I sat in my first school assembly and felt so much part of a special communty. You're so right, Liz - as humans, we need that sense of belonging and community every so often. Lucky you getting three doses of it in one week!

Sue Purkiss said...

What a lovely post, Liz! Thank you!

Miriam Halahmy said...

So inspiring to see all the communities you are part of brought together in this lovely way. And yes, there are ups and downs and even divorces - yes, even in the writer's world - but I have always been someone who believes in the power of community - of putting in even more than you take out and I am very proud to belong to the many and varied writers' communities I am part of - for more than twenty-five years in one case. Thank you Liz.

Marina Sofia said...

Very moving and inspiring. I am still in the honeymoon phase of writing (starting out) and am finding a real sense of community at some writers' conferences and writing groups, just as I have found over-inflated egos and malicious competitiveness. But for now, I am determined to focus on the positives only!

adele said...

I have a feeling I met Katie at a Jewish Book Week event once! Mazal tov to her and all the family. I certainly remember meeting your brother!

Pauline Chandler said...

What a joy to read this! Thanks for such wonderful, beautiful words.

Lynne Garner said...

Love the post, love the dress and love being part of the SAS community. It's great to share the ups and the downs. A prime example was last week (or it may have been the week before) when I saw your name on the list for the Blue Peter best books. I instantly 'showed you off' to family and my non-writing friends.

Leslie Wilson said...

A lovely blog, Liz, and so true. Very moving. We missed you at Peterborough, but glad you were having such a great time elsewhere.

Rosalind Adam said...

I really enjoyed this blog post. It pulled together a lot of strands of thought from my own life this week, not a Batmitzvah but a Stone Setting, and even though the stage of life was different, it still evoked thoughts of ever-moving generations and the importance of community.