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Russell Believes Writers' Talent Will Shine Through

Acclaimed Liverpool playwright Willy Russell last night urged the city's aspiring writing talent to stand up and be prepared to fail as he performed readings from his works in his home city.

The writer was joined by a capacity crowd at John Moores University last night as he read from some of his best-known books and took questions from an enthralled audience.

He also played down any attempt to organise writers as part of 2008's Culture year, and instead said it was up to the talent to shine through - all they need is a platform.

Russell's works Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita have a common theme - the main protagonists are working-class Liverpudlians who discover the necessary self-belief to break out of their constrictions and successfully follow a dream.

The man himself is the real-life embodiment of his own gritty urban fairy tales. Born in 1947, he grew up in a terraced house in Whiston, and left school at 15 to be a hairdresser. An indifferent career beckoned until the age of 20. Fuelled by the visions of Orwell's Animal Farm, he decided to reinvent himself, get an education and become a writer.

Using two clich├ęs - to cut a long story short and the rest is history - he's now one of Britain's most successful writers. But - hairdressing pun not intended - Russell has never forgotten his roots or the struggle to get his foot in the door of success.

Hence his occasional but tireless tours of the country, reading his work and giving advice to budding authors and playwrights about honing their craft.
"I'm immediately shy of the crusading implications of that statement, especially as it's only following on from what other writers have done before," says the 58-year-old when asked about this apparent populist role of bringing literature to the people.

"I was brought up with the Liverpool poets scene of the '60s, which followed the principle that writing was not just for the page."

After getting his required clutch of O and A Levels, he went on to St Catherine's College of Education in Woolton where he finally got his degree in English at the age of 23.

He believes, though, that today's students are deprived of this delight.
"There doesn't seem to be a shared joy of studentness any more. They are also having to pay so much more for their own education. They are consumers and as such there should be more of them standing up shouting Hey, I'm paying for this and I should be getting a better deal."
He says he was especially pleased at the runaway success of Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels at the Royal Court, a first play staged by local writers Dave Kirby and Nicky Alt, whose perseverance and self-belief in their work mirrors Russell's own.

They are qualities he feels that cannot be manufactured, illustrated by an anecdote he tells about when he got married to his wife, Annie, in 1969. At the time he was working temporarily as a shelf stacker at Bearbrand to finance his studies.

The registrar asked him what was his occupation. He said writer. Unconvinced, she imperiously asked him where he worked.

"I said Bearbrand and she started writing a word beginning with W. I thought she was going to put writer down after all, but she spelt out warehouseman instead."

Such slights merely served to spur him on. Aspiring local writers take note - and heart.

MIKE CHAPPLE - Daily Post - October 2006