Writer Of The Month: Lucy Kaufman
Introduced by Madeleine F White
As Editor of Write On! I get to see lots of writing and meet many writers from all kinds of different backgrounds and it’s been such a pleasure to foster and showcase the talent that is out there. Sometimes, though, I get to meet a writer whose work talks to my soul. A writer so accomplished, that very little editing is needed to make the work sparkle and shine, twinkling its messages and ideas beyond what I expect and forcing me to look at something in a new way.
Lucy Kaufman is such a writer. We share many things. We’re of a similar age, for example, with adult children. We’re also both passionate about women’s empowerment and social justice and have taken courageous steps to ensure our writing takes precedence over life’s ‘noise’. However, where I’ve reached a hiatus, Lucy has kept on pushing and, where my courage has failed me, Lucy has transcended.
The following work paints a picture of a writer who is not only accomplished and versatile, but also a writer of passion and courage; one who will not take no for an answer and cleverly ensures the heroines she cares so deeply about convey that spirit of hope, endurance and truth. Luckily for us, Lucy is a Write On! team member.
This first piece, the short play Vintage, is a wonderful introduction to Lucy’s work. This production was filmed during lockdown; produced by Encompass Productions. Clever and poignant, there are incredible layers to the narrative, including the superb acting that conveys the locked-in feeling we all had during those first months of the pandemic.
This is what Lucy has to say:
“Various parts of myself emerge in my writing, and I find it’s often when I bring two separate ideas together that I have the spark of a good idea. Vintage is my most successful short play to date. It’s been performed all over the UK and in Australia and I have a huge soft spot for it.
The idea for Vintage came when I opened the fridge one day and saw the whole thing, in a flash, from start to finish. In truth, the idea was a sudden collision of a teenage idea of mine about people who wear vintage clothes, and a more recent desire to write about couples’ therapy (I was a therapist for 18 years). My fascination with past eras is a thread that runs through much of my work.”
Next is a piece that has a strong connection to Pen to Print, reflecting a social and footballing history at the heart of east London, as well as introducing us to the struggle for women to find their voice and an equal footing. Below is Lucy’s introduction to an extract from it:
“Pretty Bubbles is a novel inspired by my mum’s and legendary footballer Bobby Moore’s schooldays when they were in the same class at school. The novel came third in Pen to Print The Book Challenge: Real People, Real Lives. It felt fitting to write a novel about two Barking and Dagenham children for a Barking and Dagenham competition.
One of the themes I return to time and time again in my work, perhaps unsurprisingly given my background, is the working-class struggle. Pretty Bubbles is set in the 1950s, at a time when people were waking up to the fact that working-class boys needed assistance in achieving their dreams. Girls, however, were still expected to work temporarily before becoming housewives and mothers.
Another theme ever-present in my writing is the role of women. Before this extract begins, my mum (called Gillian in the novel) has told her headmistress, Miss Steele, that she — a girl from an impoverished single-parent family — wants to become an actress.”
“An actress?” Miss Steele said. She looked as if she had prised the stopper out of a vinegar bottle and the most potent pong had shot up her nose.
“Yes.” Gillian said, “An actress. I want to act. On stage. Or in pictures. But in plays – theatre – mostly.”
“Good Lord,” Miss Steele said, “has Miss Furrier anything to say about this?”
“No,” Gillian said. “I haven’t told her.”
Miss Steele’s eyes shrunk inward. Her whole deportment changed. Whatever speech she’d had planned, she seemed to abandon immediately.
Gillian quickly added, “But I believe she thinks I can act.”
“Do you have any idea, Gillian, what acting even involves?”
Gillian cocked her head to one side, considering the question carefully.
“I have a great friend,” Miss Steele said. “We were schoolgirls together. I went on to study music and she to be a most wonderful actress. In pictures. You’ve no doubt heard of her. Greer Garson.”
“Oh yes,” Gillian said. Greer Garson was amongst the faces in the pictures Peggy used to cut out of magazines and paste to the wall by her bed.
“She has been most successful. She won an Academy Award. Best Actress. Mrs. Miniver.”
“Yes, I know,” Gillian said.
“She was always most beautiful. So beautiful.”
“Yes,” Gillian agreed, “beautiful.”
“She has graced the silver screen alongside many of the greats. Joan Crawford and Errol Flynn. She has been given the most marvellous opportunities. Been most fortunate.”
“Well, that’s what I hope, Miss Steele. That if I work very hard at my acting, one day I might get opportunities.”
Gillian grew excited at just how many strings Miss Steele could pull.
“Oh, Gillian. Greer was born in very different circumstances to yours. She was educated at public school. Her family had a name. Connections. Breeding.”
“I believe I can act,” Gillian said, “I think I’m rather good at it.”
“That may be so,” Miss Steele said, “but a girl like you would … would have to be exceptional. Exquisite-looking. She would have to have iron-clad support behind her. She would require a fortune. She would have to be absolutely determined.”
“I am determined,” Gillian said. Something of Jane Eyre rose in her. Her eyes even flashed. She felt them. “I really do want to act, Miss Steele. There is nothing in the world I want more.”
Miss Steele made a choking sound. “Oh dear,” she said and leaned forward. She continued in her most serious of voices. “Part of my job, Gillian, is to offer my girls wisdom. Guidance. And a healthy dose of reality. I’ve met girls like you before, Gillian. At the Association of Headmistresses we are all too aware of these ‘fantasy glamour occupations.’ It is the job of a Headmistress to deter her girls from such wild notions. Girls like you, Gillian. Girls who frequent the picture houses. Girls who read all about the lives of glamorous stars in the gossip columns. Silly girls, who know no better than to think they too can be stars. That they too can have that.”
Gillian shook her head. She wasn’t one of those girls. She wasn’t. She pictured herself in her Drama classes. How she became the character and the class always clapped and Miss Furrier wrapped up every lesson by lavishing praise on her. She would prove to Miss Steele she wasn’t one of those girls. She would do her very best and become an actress. She would act in plays. She would. She would. She would go on the stage and nothing would stop her.
Miss Steele fished for something in a pile of papers on her desk. She laid her hands on what she was looking for, and held it up. “I have here a letter from your mother,” she said.
A void opened up in Gillian. There was no question the envelope was from Peggy’s correspondence set. There was the posy of pansies in the corner. And that was Mum’s loopy handwriting. Mum had written! Only Mum would do a thing like write to Miss Steele.
“Your poor mother is expecting you to get a job,” Miss Steele said, waving the letter, “she is relying on you to bring in some money.”
Gillian didn’t say anything. She just sat there, looking down at her lap, the gingham pattern of her dress swing and overlapping until she had to close her eyes to make it stop.
“A little bird tells me you were at the meeting for Shorthand and Typing,” Miss Steele went on. She had switched back into her efficient voice. “That’s a move in a positive direction. If you work hard in class, you will, in time, I’m sure, find work as a shorthand typist. At Tom Hood we have a list of companies eager to take on schoolgirl leavers.”
Gillian said nothing. There was nothing to say. The dark knot in the wood on the side panel of Miss Steele’s desk resembled a face. The twisted face of a screaming demon.
Miss Steele butted Gillian with her eyes. At first Gillian did not know what the look meant but when Miss Steele did it a second time, she realised it was her cue to say ‘thank you’.
“Thank you,” Gillian said and Miss Steele’s lips turned up at the corners.
“There’s a good girl. That’s the way. You’ve made the right choice. Your mother will be very proud.”
© Lucy Kaufman, 2015
In the next piece, Lucy spins another tale around her family history, layering a poignant childhood memory with an adult’s insight. Says Lucy:
“I don’t always write about true events, nor my family, but my short story, Pianoforte, is also about both. It’s inspired by an emotional childhood memory of mine that never left me: the day my grandmother was moving into a sheltered flat and had to get rid of her piano.
Years later, I found a batch of her and my grandfather’s letters from when he was posted in India in WWII, and my aunt told me the story of how they met at that piano. I very quickly scribbled a story* in one session into a notepad, about Doris’s life-long relationship with the piano, from her point of view. I don’t usually write by hand but, in this instance, it worked and I barely had to change a word of the first draft. The story won a national competition and was published in an anthology, Toast, which is available on Amazon. In this opening extract, Doris is waiting for the piano-movers to come…”
They’re coming for him today. In half an hour. Oops, I’ve made them sound like a firing squad. Reg would tell me off for that, say I’m being over-dramatic.
“It’s only a piano, Dol,” he’d say, “It ain’t flesh and blood. It’s just bits of wood, brass and that.”
But then he’d see my face, spot the tissue I’m clutching in me fist for dear life and he’d change his tone. Become tender, like.
“Come on old girl — Blue Moon,“ he’d say, he always called me Blue Moon, when he wanted me to keep me pecker up – “If a piano is an anything, it’s a she. That’s why they call it ‘me ol’ Joanna.”
And I would smile a watery smile. “You’re right, Reg.” I’d say. Reg was always right. He was right about Churchill. He was right about Wilson. And he was right about the working man having all the power if only he could see it. He’d have been right about Thatcher ‘n all if he’d lived long enough to see her.
But today — this morning — standing in me housecoat and slippers amongst all these cardboard boxes in an icy room that was once the best in the house, like some poor soul who’s walked into a room and then forgotten what she went in there for, I am not so sure. Tucked deep behind the base of me ribs is this feeling. A tiny feeling but there all the same. I am not sure Reg is right about this.
“Reg,” I say, in a voice that dares not register above a whisper, “the box they carried you off in was just bits of wood and brass.”
The man on the phone said they get rid of pianos every day and didn’t need to be told how to do it. He’d be sending four men at ten, he said. Four. It’s all health and safety now, he said. Pianos are heavy, he said. They can injure a man’s spine if he’s not careful. I told him. I used to shift the piano meself all the time. Wheel it from room to room, from house to house. I had strength in me arms them days. But he cut me off. Said, ‘We’ll see you at ten.’ Then there was this pause. One of them where all these thoughts come flooding in. And for a split second you’ve still got a chance. All you have to do is say it. One little word. No.
“I’ll get biscuits in,” I heard a voice say. It did sound like mine.
© Lucy Kaufman, 2013
I came across Lucy’s play ELEANOR MARX on Eithne Cullen’s Thoughtful Tuesday in 2019 when Lucy wrote about why this story mattered to her on the occasion of International Women’s Day. A hallmark of Lucy’s writing, compelling dialogue, is perfectly showcased here.
“Eleanor was the remarkable daughter of Karl Marx and I was commissioned to write the play about her for theatre company Spontaneous Productions, based around the corner from where she lived and died, in Sydenham, SE London. Again, it’s set in the past (1898) and again it’s based on real people, and is also connected to the class struggle and the women’s struggle. This play, too, is about family and Eleanor’s terrible relationship with Edward Aveling that led to tragedy.
Here, Eleanor is telling her friend and confidante Freddy (who has just told her he is being blackmailed by her ‘husband’ Edward) how she came to learn of her family’s great secret and Freddy’s true identity. Eleanor’s family and friendship circle is complicated, but here ‘The General’ refers to her father’s best friend and work colleague, the famous Friedrich Engels, who was mentor and proxy father to Eleanor after Karl Marx died. Eleanor was an intelligent, passionate, verbose woman, so I’ve tried to reflect this in her speech from Act Two.”
FREDDY: It was not for me, Tussy, but for you. I know what the secret means for you. I had to prevent him telling the world. I didn’t want to ruin you.
TUSSY paces, distracted.
TUSSY: I shall never forget that night. How I thought you were wronged. My confusion. My head whirring with it all. Engels’s birthday. How Louise invited you, to his house, to his magnificent party, with all those people, and I thought, ‘at last, at last,’ and I was so happy, all the way there, brimming with it. ‘At last’, I thought, Engels – The General – had acknowledged you. Stopped his life-long snubbing of you. The secret I believed my family concealed for his sake, for his unsullied reputation. ‘But now,’ I thought, ‘the truth can come out.’ The older Friedrich can accept his namesake as his son, snub you no more.
FREDDY: (Firm) Don’t blame yourself for any of this.
TUSSY: But that night. I remember you. Standing unseen in a doorway like no more than a forgotten footman. My happiness flew to anger. Rage. And more confusion. ‘How could he?’ I asked myself. All the way home I asked it. ‘How could The General ignore you still, all evening, as if you did not exist?’ A father. Illegitimate, of course, but still a father. And at his ripe age, with time running out… My heart went out to you. I could have shouted at the General until I croaked. The General I thought so kind and loved my whole life. It would have torn me up but I could have screamed at him for both your sakes. What he’d done to Lenchen all those years ago. Your poor mother. What he had done to you.
FREDDY: (Grabs her shoulders) No more. You’ll upset yourself—
TUSSY: To think I could have let rip at him when my whole useless torrent of anger would have been misdirected.
FREDDY: You weren’t to know.
TUSSY: (Shakes herself free, during the following she sits in her father’s armchair) Oh, it’s true The General never said it in so many words, but he never denied it either. All those years he let me think ill of him, for his silence and indifference towards you, when all the time that good man covered for an indiscretion, protected the true perpetrator from the deluge of criticism that would have been foisted on him. The General lived that lie his entire life, right up until his dying days. I will never forget it, Freddy, all my life long. The look in that man’s eyes. He knew what was coming. He knew the question that was burning on my lips. He couldn’t even speak, poor thing. He sat in this very chair. The chair where my father had thought and toiled and suffered those blasted carbuncles. The armchair my father was sitting in when he breathed his last! The throat cancer had reduced Engels to a schoolboy. He had no voice. He could only etch what he wanted to say onto a slate. I rushed to him and asked him the dreaded question. ‘Is Mohr Freddy’s father?’ On that slate came the more dreadful answer. That devastating word: ‘Yes’.
FREDDY: You are not to blame for your father’s actions, Tussy.
During her next speech, TUSSY seats FREDDY in Karl Marx’s armchair. FREDDY sits awkwardly, seeming like a little boy, a fish out of water. TUSSY is pleased with the result, and seemingly surprised by FREDDY’s likeness to Karl.
TUSSY: (With passion) Our father. It’s our father. Whatever the world does or doesn’t know, however much Edward blackmails you, it does not change that fact. My father was your father, Freddy. He betrayed my mother, he exploited my dear, dear Lenchen, his housekeeper, a second mother to me, in my mother’s own home and worst of all he disowned you! And what’s more he allowed Engels, his trusty friend and confidante, to take the blame.
TUSSY: Our father was no different, in the end, from other men. His opponents would revel in that.
© Lucy Kaufman, 2018
Finally, we get to see why Lucy continues to inspire. A writer should always be seeking to find new avenues to express. Lucy has done so by discovering her poetic voice.
“When I was going through my inventory of writing for this piece, I discovered that, not only have I written hundreds of novels, plays and short stories, I’ve also written dozens of poems. I’m fairly new to writing poetry, kickstarted by attending Anna Robinson’s workshops for Pen to Print. Unsurprisingly for someone who writes about the past so much, I’m including here a poem I wrote about a childhood memory of playing with my friend in the garden in the summer holidays. It ends up being about the nature of memory itself.”
Under a sizzling six-week sky
we sniffed the show-off ruby heads
like wine connoisseurs
then snipped the roses one by one
until the bush was stripped
We plucked the velvet petals
into red confetti in an ice-cream tub
we carried stumbling, giggling,
before ripping them to shreds.
We crushed them to a bloody mush
we mixed with water
from the rusty outside tap
and poured into pop bottles
still sticky from lemonade.
Our palms stained pink,
our noses sweet with scent,
we young perfumiers
stood to admire our rosé slush
We would wear it forever,
we vowed; sell it,
gift it to our mums.
Later we returned to our eau-de-rose
to find it brown dank vinegar.
We tried to bottle Summer,
distill it to its essence
The disbelief, the disappointment
is preserved as fragrant fresh,
as the day I first bottled it.
© Lucy Kaufman, 2017
This next short poem is about an age-old problem. This time, it’s set in the present day and based on Lucy’s life.
I’ve Done the Maths So You Don’t Have To
I pick up four pairs of shoes every day
That’s one thousand four hundred and sixty
pairs per year in the way
I’ve no idea why this should repeat
When you’ve your own pair of hands
And only one pair of feet.
© Lucy Kaufman, 2017
Lucy wanted to finish off with this last poem, about changing times, changing seasons and human growth into adulthood. Something some of us are constantly striving for!
This Morning I Took Conkers For Granted
This morning I took conkers for granted
Ignored their mahogany gloss
peeping through October’s swish of leaves
and cracked their newborn heads
beneath my boot without a thought.
Once I would have pounced on such treasure
Scooped one from its green prickle crib,
stroked the silken sepia skin,
and nestled it, thrilled, to Dad
who drilled deep into its milky flesh.
Conscripted to a string, the brave pendulum
would swing in the face of its opponent
and they would clash, skull on skull
till both their brains smashed out,
playground casualties spread like vomit.
But these days I fight bigger battles
and the conkers lie abundant, redundant
snug in their horse chestnut dreams
Autumn means tax returns and Back to School,
where conkers are banned.
© Lucy Kaufman, 2012
Lucy Kaufman is an award-winning playwright, author, screenwriter and occasional poet. Thirty-seven of her plays have been performed professionally around the UK and Australia. Last year, her audio drama The Victoria Files was shortlisted for commission by BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds. Her four-part WW1 musical Till The Boys Come Home was the flagship event of Sydenham Arts Festival and her play Eleanor Marx was highly endorsed by Eleanor’s biographer Rachel Holmes and received coverage in the national press. As well as writing for Write On! she teaches Playwriting and Screenwriting for Pen to Print and lectures in Screenwriting at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is currently writing a contemporary fiction novel.
Her latest short play And God Created Steve And Steve 2.0 was performed on 18th February at the Sydenham Centre, Sydenham as part of Spontaneous Productions’ scratch night Love Bytes: Futureshock.
You can connect with Lucy on Twitter: @lucykaufman_ and Instagram: @kaufmanlucy and facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LucyKaufmanAuthor
Issue 15 of Write On! Magazine is out now. See it here.
Each edition of our Write On! Audio podcast features an exclusive interview. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo or find us on Anchor FM.
If you or someone you know has been affected by issues covered in our pages, please see the relevant link below for information, advice and support: https://pentoprint.org/about/advice-support/
A writer of passion and courage; one who will not take no for an answer and cleverly ensures the heroines she cares so deeply about convey that spirit of hope, endurance and truth.