Then & Now, Writers at Work

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of InTouch. This online version has been extended to include additional projects.

Maureen Duffy FKC (English, 1956) is a poet, playwright and novelist. Alongside her writing, she is celebrated for her activism on a wide variety of causes, from animal rights to LGBTQ+ causes and authors’ rights. She holds many positions of note, from Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature to President of Honour of the British Copyright Council. She was made a Fellow of King’s in 2002.

‘I had applied to Oxford, but was unsuccessful, and one of my teachers wanted me to go to Royal Holloway. But King’s, being in the centre of London, right on the Strand, settled it for me. I found a little two-room lodging with two elderly ladies that was very cheap, which was important, but also I could get the train from there straight to the Strand.’

Getting a place on a chosen course and finding somewhere to live are the first challenges to tackle, but starting
the course itself can prove to be the biggest test.

‘The very first language lecture we had, the lecturer came in and announced, “You must all lose your accents”, which was such a blow. We came from all over the country, all different backgrounds. Of course, we did as we were told, but it was a bit of a setback. I found it reasonably easy to make friends, there was a little group of us that knocked about together. We were rather a poncey lot and we insisted on wearing gowns! We found that some of the staff were really quite elderly but, in contrast, there were also two very young assistant lecturers from Cambridge, Mark and Molly. They brought a very lively, more expansive way of teaching with them. They were favourites amongst us.'

In time, Maureen found that there were many opportunities to take advantage of at King’s. She published numerous poems in Lucifer, the student magazine, and went on to take the role of Sub-Editor there. Writing became her primary focus and, in her third year, when not studying, she began writing plays. However, just as students do today, she also needed to work to supplement her income, and took a job in an electronics factory. Her day job inspired her, and prompted her to write Pearson, a drama set in contemporary London with characters reflective of London’s growing diversity. Maureen entered the play into the City of London Young Playwright’s Award, and, as a result, was asked to join the legendary Royal Court Writers’ Group. She went on to write several more plays, but her early success proved hard to repeat.

‘It was almost impossible for a female playwright in those days, and eventually a publisher said to me, “You keep writing these plays that nobody wants, why won’t you write a novel and I’ll publish it?”. I’d never attempted one before, but, at that point, I’d been thinking about my life, and if there was a reason why I was gay. That formed itself into an idea, and I said to him “if I did write a novel this is what it would be about”, and the said “oh go on”. Well, he didn’t know if I could write a publishable novel, neither did I! So I wrote That’s How it Was.’

Her first novel was a success, and was closely followed by The Microcosm, set in the now legendary lesbian nightclub, the Gateways. As the first female public figure to come out as gay, Maureen has long been lauded for her work as both an LGBTQ+ writer and campaigner. In 2014, she won the Icon Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement from Attitude magazine in recognition of this. Maureen is currently working on her next novel.

Sabrina Mahfouz (Classics, 2005) is a playwright, poet, screenwriter and performer. She has recently been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was a recipient at the 2018 King’s Distinguished Alumni Awards, where she won the Arts & Culture Alumni Award for inspiring change in the industry. She has been shortlisted for the Arts Foundation Award for Performance Poetry and has won a Sky Arts Academy Award for Poetry, a Westminster Prize for New Playwrights and a Fringe First Award.

On choosing King's Sabrina told us, ‘I wanted to be a Greek and Roman Antiquities Curator at the British Museum and King’s had a specific course that took place at the museum. Plus Somerset House, Waterloo Bridge and Southbank had been some of my favourite places for my whole life. I also knew I’d have to work full time at night to afford to attend university, which is far easier to do in London.’

Much like Maureen’s experiences at King’s, Sabrina found that her arrival at university came with significant challenges she would have to overcome.

‘There were times when I felt like it was difficult to feel settled and comfortable, as my background was quite different to that of most of my classmates in my particular department. Receiving support from the King’s Hardship Fund made everything so much easier, as I was able to work a bit less and concentrate more fully on studies. I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity and now always try to donate to the Hardship Fund. There was a point in my second year where there’s no doubt I would have left if it had not been for that Fund. The Hardship Fund’s importance in ensuring students from all backgrounds are represented in their chosen fields cannot be underestimated.’

Her dedication to writing paid off and in 2010 her first play, That Boy, won a Westminster Prize for New Playwrights, the current incarnation of the very same award that propelled Maureen to success. This proved to be just the first of many awards for Sabrina and, in 2018, she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

With the extra support from the Hardship Fund, Sabrina was also able to take advantage of other activities available to students, including taking part in the annual Greek play. But, alongside all of this, she always found the time to write. ‘I used to write on the job when I was working elsewhere – on receipts, envelopes, meeting minutes, the clichéd serviette even.’

‘I’m so grateful for the opportunities this city has opened up for me and so lots of my forthcoming projects will be about attempting to help others access creative opportunities. I’m editing an anthology due out in September 2019, Smashing It: Working Class Artists on Life, Art and Making It Happen (Westbourne Press), which will celebrate current British working-class artists, as well as offer guidance on applying for arts funding. I’m also working on my first novel, The Lost Clubs of London, aboutabusive teenage relationships and the golden age of now-closed London nightclubs, which is being accompanied by national creative writing workshops for young people.’

In spite of the years between Maureen’s and Sabrina’s time at King’s we are struck by the many similarities to be drawn from their experiences. You can found out more about the Hardship Fund, which supported Sabrina during her studies, here.