Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Hired Gunn

Today I have an interview with Ali Gunn in the Guardian. She is the literary agent who now advises the Tories on lifestyle and women's issues. We met up a few weeks ago, and although I was expecting her to be very scary, she actually wasn't! I think that might be because she was worried about how she came across. She told me a few times that she didn't like talking about herself. "I like talking about other people," she said. "That's what I do."

Anyway, here is the interview...(or to see it online, cut and paste this link:,,2096420,00.html)

Hired Gunn

One of London's leading literary agents, Ali Gunn has been advising the Conservative party on 'lifestyle' issues for the past year. Sarah Ebner hears her views on class, Cameron and the women's vote

Sarah Ebner
Wednesday June 6, 2007


Ali Gunn is a reluctant interviewee. It has taken months of cajoling to persuade the Tories' first "Head of lifestyle and features" to talk, and she is visibly uncomfortable. "This whole thing is terrifying me," she says, with only a half smile. "In 20 years of dealing with the media, I have only ever done one other interview, and that was for Publishing News. Now I won't give one for another 20 years."
Gunn has long been known in the publishing world as a tough literary agent, noted for the huge advances she negotiates for her clients. She represents celebrities such as Nancy Dell'Olio and Carol Thatcher, as well as best-selling novelists including Jenny Colgan (who recently landed a £1m advance to write two new novels).

Almost a year ago, Gunn was asked to lend her expertise to the Conservative party, after a mutual acquaintance set up a meeting between her and David Cameron's closest adviser, Steve Hilton. She is now an important part of Cameron's coterie, working for the party "at least" one day a week.

It has been said that her key responsibility is to persuade women to vote Tory, but Gunn says her remit is wider than that, explaining, "What I'm actually doing is looking, overall, at what we're doing with all our people in all our areas. It's much more about engaging the media and the electorate in our key personalities and our policies and not just about women. It never has been."

But it is also true that now, more than ever, the Conservative Party is frantically reaching out to women. The Tories' dismal electoral outings over the past 10 years haven't been helped by their dearth of women MPs (at the last election, just 9% of Tory MPs were women, compared to Labour's 27.5%). Cameron has therefore been making changes, with women now accounting for around 33% of the Tory candidates selected for the next election. Whether they are in winnable seats remains to be seen. They certainly need to be - as Theresa May has pointed out, there are fewer women in the shadow cabinet than men with the name of David.

While her remit may extend beyond the women's vote, Gunn notes that she is "working on a big new campaign about equal pay ... It's a cause that's very close to my heart, having worked over the years for many organisations where, not necessarily me, but other women were woefully underpaid. It all goes back to being a working mother as well. It is very hard to juggle your life and get childcare at the right times. What do you do in school holidays and at half-term? Your life is a constant negotiation.

"David and his team believe in women. He knows that women make up over half the workforce. He is not a traditionalist. He believes in flexible working hours. He believes that if you want to stay at home, that's fine, but if you want to go to work, that's absolutely fine as well. I think he is probably the most modern leader the Tories have had in 30 years."

Warming to her theme, Gunn dismisses the Lib Dems as being a "busted flush" and is openly hostile to Labour's new leader. "I think life under Gordon Brown is going to be pretty miserable," she says, and, when I ask if Cameron is better for women than Brown, she nods vigorously. "Sans doute," she says, "for women and men."

She is married to Nick Pople, head of an investment fund involved with environmental technology businesses and the couple have a four-year-old son, Jack. Gunn says, strikingly, that she suffers from none of the guilt that consumes many working mothers. "For me - and this is purely for me - I believe I am a better example for my son, as a mother and as a woman who works incredibly hard and wants to be there for him as much as I can. That's my choice."

Indeed, her personal philosophy appears to be perfect for the Cameron-led Tories. She insists that, although she had a private education, she doesn't believe in class. "I was brought up to believe in meritocracy, I wasn't brought up to believe in class," she says. "I was brought up to believe that if you work hard, hopefully you will get to be where you want to be and what you want to be."

Now 38, Gunn grew up in London's Notting Hill and attended Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls, then boarded at Repton. But she won't be drawn on the current grammar school debate ("I'm not going to comment on that, because it's not my area of expertise"). However, she says she has always been interested in politics, and turned down a place to read law at Cambridge in order to read politics at Bristol.

Her father, John, is one of Britain's leading investors in smaller businesses, but she says her parents were not interested in politics. She notes, though, that her mother's experience of growing up in and leaving communist East Germany was a major influence in her decision to vote Conservative. "My mother escaped from the Berlin wall three days before it was finished, and left her whole family behind. We used to go through Checkpoint Charlie like other people go to Bognor Regis on holiday, and we used to try and help them as much as we could, emotionally and fiscally.

"With what my mother went through, under the thumb of communism, it would have been very strange for me not to have believed in the free market economy and the right of free speech. I always used to call myself a Whig actually. I believed in being strong on law and order without being fascistic, but also liberal on the social agenda, women's rights, that sort of thing."

Gunn made her name in publishing while working at the big literary agency Curtis Brown. She admits that being a Tory in the traditionally left-of-centre publishing world has not always been easy. "You absolutely did not declare your political affiliation," she says of the early days of her career.

When she left Curtis Brown to set up on her own 18 months ago, rumours abounded. Gunn initially insists that it was to "pursue my own opportunities". Later, however, she explains that "one of the major reasons for leaving a big agency which was run by men ... was to get more control over my life. I can take my son to school, and sometimes pick him up, and that makes me happier than anything."

She is also extremely happy to have become involved with the Busoga Trust (, a charity which seeks to provide clean water in rural Uganda. "What attracted me," she says, "was that in some small way it was helping to empower women in Uganda, whose lives were hitherto spent fetching and carrying water. Women are the mainstay of family society in Uganda, and if, through water, we can help them to help themselves, that has to be good, right?"

Gunn says she "decided what my priorities were in my life a couple of years ago. Trying to get the Tories elected would be one of them, definitely, and trying to get our message across, not just to women, but to everybody. Another would obviously be looking after my son, and also Chelsea winning the league next season. I am driven - yes, very - by the fact that I don't want to fail," she adds. "And also by the fact that I want to provide a good future for Jack."

Gunn is something of a contradiction. She is articulate but appears hesitant; and while she is clearly tough, she appears worried about how she is going to come across during the interview - she has a crib sheet with her, and ponders each answer carefully. Although she has a reputation for negotiating the biggest possible deals for her clients, she is charging the Tories far less than her usual rate. "Sometimes you have to do things because you really believe in them," she says firmly, "not for the money."

Saturday, 2 June 2007

It’s only make-believe...

Today I have an article in the Times about the phenomenon that is Rainbow Magic (huge for girls aged between 5-8). The books are "created" by a company which comes up with series to order......Read more here,
or below

It’s only make-believe
Sarah Ebner looks at the bestselling children’s writers who don’t actually exist

YOUNG READERS CAN’T GET enough of Daisy Meadows. Her Rainbow Magic books have sold ten million copies and girls aged between 5 and 8 are enraptured by the tales of Kirsty, Rachel and their fairy friends.

Ms Meadows should be a happy soul. Except that she doesn’t exist.

“It is unusual for children’s books to be written under a pseudonym,” Penny Morris, a director of Orchard, which publishes Rainbow Magic, agrees. “But it needed to happen in this case because there is more than one writer. Ownership remains with Working Partners, not the authors.”

Daisy is actually three people – and most people outside publishing will never have heard of Working Partners, who are responsible for her, and a huge number of other books. As well as Rainbow Magic, their creations include the Animal Ark series (“by” the equally nonexistent Lucy Daniels), the Lady Grace Mysteries and Warriors series. A series for boys aged 7-9 entitled Beast Quest is now in development. The company has deals with almost every big British children’s publisher, and is moving into the adult market (its first novel is out next year).

“I am surprised that they are the only company of their kind in Britain,” Ms Morris says. “But it would be difficult to match them. They now cover all the bases with their ideas.”

The company, set up 12 years ago, aims its books at specific audiences. “We want projects that are going to run for a very long time,” Chris Snowdon, the managing director, says. But he bridles at suggestions that the formula destroys the magic of being a writer. “A lot of people in books try to create a cult of the author, but a lot of demystification can be done.”

All Working Partners’ ideas come from its editorial team – not authors – and are developed in meetings. Once a story has been created, two people build it up, and authors compete to write it. “The storyline can be up to 2,500 words,” Snowdon says. “Rainbow Magicbooks are only 4,500 words long, so that’s a lot of detail. But it can be liberating because the writer is free to focus on the voice.”

Some writers might be aghast at idea, plot and structure being taken away, and Snowdon agrees that it’s a precise way to work. “We tell new writers our rules and that they shouldn’t deviate from the story,” he says. “If they have their own ideas, that’s fine, but they should tell us. Our integrity as a business is the ownership of the idea.”

Narinder Dhami, a children’s writer in her own right, is also one of Working Partners’ most prolific authors. She wrote Ruby the Red Fairy, the first Rainbow Magic adventure. “I prefer coming up with my own ideas,” she says, “but when those aren’t flowing very well, it’s a nice change to have someone send you a synopsis and tell you what to do.”

Many parents and teachers argue that the books are not great literature. Snowdon agrees, but adds: “I don’t know what great literature is, and I’d be interested to ask these people what they think it is. In this country there’s a huge snobbery about books, but we’re creating a reading habit.”

In fact, Working Partners no longer own Rainbow Magic (although they are working on the next two series). Ruby, and her fairy companions grew too big and were sold to HIT Entertainment last month. HIT, whose stable includes Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, promises to build the fairies into a “global brand”.

Working Partners will focus on other titles. And while they may have “lost” Daisy Meadows, they haven’t lost the writers behind her. Children might not know their real names, but they’ll soon have more of their stories.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Turning out to be Jewish - what is it like to find out that you're not what you think you were?

Today I have an article in the Jewish Chronicle.
Here it is....

Roderick Young was 23 when he found out that he was Jewish. It completely changed his life.
“I knew I was home”, he says of his first Friday night dinner. “It felt completely comfortable and right. I can’t say more than that. You can’t explain the inexplicable.”
Young, now 47, had no idea of his Jewish roots. He was christened at three weeks old and attended chapel twice a week at his public school. But discovering his Jewishness was a clearly an enriching experience. Eight years ago, he became a rabbi.
Barbara Kessel is the author of Suddenly Jewish, a book which tells the stories of Jews raised as gentiles, who discover their roots. She was prompted to write it by the experience of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who found out she was Jewish at the age of 59.
“I was so shocked and intrigued,” says Kessel. “I just wondered what it was like to find out that you’re not who you think you are.”
Kessel says that Young’s response, of feeling comfortable or “home”, is common. “It isn’t so much that they found out they were Jewish, but that they had been given an explanation of why they didn’t feel whole,” she says. “Some had even converted to Judaism before finding out.”
Rabbi Young’s Jewishness was hidden away from him on purpose (even his name was his mother’s attempt to situate him firmly in “English” society). His grandmother had been embarrassed by her East-End Jewish roots, and, when her observant husband died, decided to cover them up completely. Young even grew up thinking that his grandmother, Julia Stewart, was descended from King Charles II, Charles Stuart. It was not until he found her wedding certificate that he discovered she was actually named Julia Siegenberg.
“Being Jewish was often seen as something that could hinder your professional advancement, so it would get lost along the way,” says Barbara Kessel. Often it was also seen as dangerous.
That is certainly true of Zoltan Boros’s family, who turned their back on their religion after the horrors of the Second World War. Boros, 30, (who works as a security guard at a Jewish school in London) grew up Christian in a small town in Hungary. He knew little about the Holocaust, and nothing at all about Jews. But after the collapse of Communism, he started to travel, and at the age of 20 went to Israel. “I loved it there,” he says. “I loved the people, the weather, the fact that everyone was smiling, not like at home.”
Keen to stay in the country, Boros asked his mother if there might just be some Jewish connection in the family. This, he thought, could enable him to make aliyah. “My mother told me, over the phone, that when I came home, we would talk,” he says. “I felt there was something she was going to tell me.”
When Boros came home, his mother told him the truth — at least as far as she knew it. “She said that our family was Jewish, that we originally had a different name, and that my great-grandmother, who was no longer alive, had been in Auschwitz. She also said that her mother, my grandma, didn’t like to talk about it, so I should leave her alone.” However, Boros immediately went to his grandmother. “I asked if she could tell me more, but she didn’t want to,” he says. “She was still scared, and said she didn’t want me to be Jewish. She has numbers on her arm, and perhaps they are from Auschwitz. I would like to know more, but she’s the only one who knows.”
Boros’s grandmother told him nothing, instead asking him to do something for her. “She asked me not to do aliyah and I promised her I wouldn’t,” he says. “I love and respect her.
“I don’t feel I am Jewish or Christian. For the last 10 years I’ve been around Jewish people, here and in Israel, so maybe in some way I’m Jewish. But I can’t say I feel it. I know who I am, but if I look back at the past, then I’m not so sure.”
Boros’s experience is not entirely unusual. Some of the people in Suddenly Jewish talk about feeling “nothing”, even though they accept that they are “biologically Jewish”. Many also find it hard to deal with the deception involved.
“It seems so hypocritical that their parents — the people who are supposed to teach you right from wrong — have lied and manipulated reality,” says Barbara Kessel. “Sometimes, it’s the actual revelation that’s extremely painful. One man was training in a Lutheran seminary. The day his mother told him, he was livid. He told her it had ruined his life, and that he never wanted to speak to her again. They have not spoken since.”
When Roderick Young’s elderly aunt told him that she and his mother had been born Jewish, his immediate reaction was anger. “I said I was never going to speak to my mother again and it took me a long time to understand,” he says. “I certainly felt I’d missed out on things, and that I should have been told.”
American journalist Stephen Dubner had been told, but did not understand. The best-selling author (he co-wrote Freakonomics) was the eighth child born to religious Catholic parents. But his parents had not hidden their Jewishness because of fear of persecution. Instead they had both, separately, converted. “I didn’t know what a Jew was when I was growing up,” says Dubner, 43. “Even though I knew on some level that my parents had once been Jewish, I didn’t connect that with me.”
It was not until Dubner moved to New York that he became more interested in Judaism. He was 23 when a friend told him that if his parents were Jewish, then he was too. “When I learned that I was halachically Jewish, that was very jarring to me,” he says. “It made me think, what kind of religion would claim me as a member even though I had never set foot in a synagogue or uttered a word of Hebrew? I didn’t think I was Jewish at all until then — I was a contentedly lapsed Catholic. But the curiosity made me want to be Jewish, and so did the move to New York, where being Jewish is a state of mind.”
Dubner — whose sisters and brothers remain Catholic — has made his Jewishness a major part of his life. His wife is Jewish, and they are bringing up their two children as practising Jews. But his relationship with his mother did suffer — although the pair were reunited before her death in 1999. “She saw my decision as a kind of na├»ve one, and a rejection of her faith,” he says. “She also saw a problem that when she died and was sent to heaven, it would be a heaven for Catholics, and forbidden for us ever to reunite. As a mother, that was a very painful thought.”
Dubner sat shivah when his mother died, and seems happy with his new faith, but it is Roderick Young — now principal rabbi at Finchley Reform Synagogue in London — whose life has changed beyond recognition. “Ma used to be worried about what I wanted to do with my life and I told her that when it happened, I would know. Well, it happened and I love it. I feel 125 per cent Jewish.”

The first female American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is one of the most high-profile adults to suddenly discover that she was Jewish. Born in Czechoslovakia to a Catholic family, she left as a child in 1939, coming first to Britain and then to the US. As an adult, she became an Episcopalian. However, in 1997, Albright discovered that she had had three Jewish grandparents (they died in Auschwitz). Her parents had converted to Catholicism. “All this was a major surprise for me,” Albright said. “I have said many times my life was a reflection of the turbulence of the 20th century.”
Oscar-nominated film-maker Stephen Frears did not find out he was Jewish until his late twenties — and is not sure why the fact was hidden from him. The director of The Queen has described how he regularly attended Church of England services when he grew up in Leicester. It was not until his grandmother’s 90th birthday party, that his brother divulged the news.
“He said how pleased our grandmother was that I had married a Jewish girl — and that our mother was Jewish. Of course I was surprised that something like this had been concealed for so long.”
Playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, whose original name was Tomas Straussler, always knew there was Jewish blood in his family. But it was not until he was an adult that he discovered both of his parents were Jewish. Sir Tom’s father died when he was still a young child. After his Czech mother remarried the very English Kenneth Stoppard, she was keen to hide her Jewish origins. “It was protection for me, mainly,” Stoppard has said, adding that he does not consider himself Jewish or Christian. However, in an article published in 1999, “On Turning Out To be Jewish” he wrote about his state of mind “now that I’m Jewish”.