A tall, young man approached me. No. I could probably lose me; I learnt this on the course. Start again.

A tall, young man approached, complete with the most modern of appendages — the wheelie-case, designed to clip the ankles of the unwary and amplify the sound of the normal perambulation of the human species.

An amendment to the ape-to-man image sprang to mind. You know the one: there is an ape on the left of the image, which gradually evolves by standing more erect from left to right until the final figure image is that of a man. I added one more element: a man dragging a wheelie-case.

It seemed that every other person was dragging such an item along the busy pavements between St Pancrass and Kings Cross stations around lunchtime on the Saturday of the masterclass. The traveller probably approached me because I was the only stationary individual in his line of sight. I wasn’t in the way of the hurried travellers when he drew near; I was standing near a bollard at the edge of the pavement, trying to remember the way to the offices of the Guardian and Observer newspapers prior to calling upon my smartphone to show me the way.

“How to get to Illy?” he asked. At least it sounded like “Illy”.

“Illy. Is it in London?”

“No. About sixty miles.”

“Illy, Illy. I’m sorry; I don’t know it. Could you write it down?” I made a writing gesture with my right hand, which is interesting given that I am left-handed.

“Three letters: A – L – Y,” he answered.

“Ah, I think you mean Ely. Three letters: E – L – Y. Ely.”

“Sorry. My English. I am Russian.”

“That’s okay. I’ve got it now. It’s Ely you want.”

“Where do I get ticket, give money?”

I pointed to the entrance of Kings Cross station, “Ask in there. You’ll find the ticket office.”

The man nodded and set off across the road. I watched him enter the main entrance of the station, just to make sure he was on his way. I realised suddenly that I had guessed that the train to Ely left from Kings Cross. I hoped I had done a good deed, even if it was informed by speculation.

When the Russian had disappeared into Kings Cross, I remembered the way to the Guardian and set off on the short walk to attend the writing masterclass.

A fellow attendee sat at my table in the canteen before the start of the masterclass. During the course of our brief conversation, she mentioned that she had arrived at Kings Cross. It turned out that my advice to the lost Russian was correct, much to my relief. When we repaired to the canteen during a break; it occurred to me that I might be sitting at a table that could have been occupied by any of the brilliant Guardian journalists (that I read daily) at one time or another.

The masterclass was delivered by Joe Moran, Professor of English and Cultural History at John Moores University (in Liverpool) and concentrated on sentence writing, a simple enough task you might think. As Joe’s recent publication First You Write a Sentence shows, writing good sentences is not easy and is not something that any writer should take for granted. His book contains many inspiring ideas; the masterclass was an opportunity to consider some of them in the context of examples.

David Wake, of New Street Authors, put me on to Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, recently. Then I bought Gyles Brandreth’s excellent Have You Eaten Grandma? Followed by Joe’s book. As a result of this self-imposed onslaught of advice about style and writing good, correct English, I found that my day-to-day writing (of my third novel) slowed down, because I was self-conscious about every sentence and was probably over-thinking them. What I need to do now is to use the second draft as an opportunity to put some of the ideas in Joe’s book into practice and pay attention to each sentence. If they haven’t come right in the first draft, then there is ample scope to do so in subsequent drafts.

If you have read this far, thank you for indulging me. I set myself a writing task based on the encounter with the Russian and jotted down our conversation, as near to word-for-word as I remembered, on the train on the way home after the masterclass.

What is it about Russians and cathedral cities? At the time, I hoped that disturbing news from Ely wouldn’t emerge in due course: it hasn’t as yet.


By David Muir:


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  1. Thanks for the name check. The advice is to write your first draft badly, quickly, for the story and then use all this advice about sentences for your second draft.

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