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Write On! The Wordsmiths

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It’s likely that you’ve heard of Gillian and Verner Bickley whether as educationalists, writers or publishers.
Ray Au sits down with the 19-year DB residents.

PHOTOS BY Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

Gillian and Verner Bickley met on November 28, 1985 at a par ty held at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. They were there to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong. The question is, was it love at first sight? “Verner was then immersed in arrangements for the first Institute of Language in Education Conference, soon to take place (and which I was already planning to attend). He talked a lot about Donald Moore, a well-known impresario and publisher from his Singapore days,” Gillian says, neatly avoiding my question with a flicker of a smile.

What’s surprising is that Gillian and Verner hadn’t met sooner. Gillian moved to Hong Kong in 1970 when she was offered a lectureship at Hong Kong University (HKU) in the Department of English, teaching English Literature. Verner arrived in 1983, to take up the post of Founding Director of the Institute of Language in Education of the Hong Kong Government. They moved in the same academic/ literary circles, and they were both long-time expats, originally from the UK. (Verner started his career as a British naval officer, colonial servant and British Council officer, based primarily in Singapore; Gillian was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Lagos before moving to Hong Kong.)

The couple tied the knot at Cotton Tree Drive Marriage Registry on May 7, 1986, less than a year after they met. With Hong Kong as homebase, the Bickley’s careers flourished. Gillian taught English Literature at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and, for 22 years, at Hong Kong Baptist University. Verner led cultural and educational departments and projects across the world, including as Director of the Culture and Language Learning Institute of the East-West Centre in Hawaii. (Verner also found time for a spot of acting – cameo roles in Thunderbolt, with Jackie Chan; Bodyguard from Beijing, with Jet Li and City of Glass, with Leon Lai – but that’s a story for another day.)

Arguably, the Bickleys are educationalists first and foremost. But right now, we find them focused on their writing careers, and the continued expansion of their publishing house, Proverse Hong Kong.

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Verner dates the expansion of the work of Proverse Hong Kong from 2002 with the publication by Gillian of a major academic work on early education in Hong Kong, The Development of Education in Hong Kong (1841-1897). Its predecessors, Gillian’s The Golden Needle: The Biography of Frederick Stewart and Verner’s Searching for Frederick and Adventures Along the Way were published by other presses, but taken together with The Development of Education, provided the impetus for the establishment of Proverse as a publishing house to be reckoned with.

“Since those early days, Proverse has thrived as a general publisher, with growing international connections and an impressive list of poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles, first published in print form and then as E-book editions,” Verner says.

The Bickley’s main motivation continues to be to get talented Hong Kong-based writers published. “We co-operate with other publishers, providing editorial input and assistance, research (including picture and archival research), proof-reading and indexing,” Gillian says. “We can provide advice with UK contracts, and we now have a UK distributor, in addition to our Hong Kong-based distributor, the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.”

Importantly too, Gillian and Verner mentor writers and authors to improve manuscripts and occasionally run creative writing workshops, which lead to publishable work. They are happy to work with texts by non-native-speaker writers of English, as well as by native English-speaking writers. Proverse’s success led to the establishment in 2008 of the Proverse Prizes – the International Proverse Prize for Unpublished Non-fiction, Fiction and Poetry and the International Proverse Poetry Prize for single poems, for work submitted and previously unpublished in English.

“We realised that most literary prizes had regulations which would rule out entrants like ourselves. We thought it would be a contribution to create prizes which anyone (over 18) could enter, irrespective of place of birth, nationality or residence,” Verner says. “The Proverse Prizes similarly do not rule out entrants on the basis of age, gender, prior publication status,
or any other criteria, except that all entrants need to be at least 18 years old.” For those looking to submit manuscripts, the entry period for both prizes is May 7 to June 30 annually.

The 2021 winners have been chosen and will be announced on November 17. The 2022 entrants are being judged at the moment, and the 2022 semifinalists will also be announced in November.

Importantly, of course, the Bickleys are themselves prolific writers of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What do they gain from the process? What do they set out to achieve through their work? “As for my historical work (19th century Hong Kong), seeking accuracy, finding as much recorded information as possible, analysing it and putting the results out as a (corrected) record,” Gillian says. “As for my poetry, simply putting down on paper things that strike me: People, ideas, experiences; then putting them out there to find those with whom these resonate.

“Verner’s Poems to Enjoy five-book graded poetry anthology shows his love of poetry, rhythm, rhyme, stories, complex experience, romance and his desire to share and encourage similar enjoyment. His two books of autobiography (Footfalls Echo in the Memory and Steps to Paradise) show his desire to make his own record, reflecting on his own experiences.”

So what would the Bickleys say to anyone who doubts the continued relevance of literature… of poetry? “Literature and poetry are means of expression and the repository of human thought, emotion and experience with varying degrees of sophistication, including of language and style. Through reading, we can have access to a considerable variety of human thought, emotion and experience and become more informed, cultured, thoughtful and open-minded human beings.

On a pragmatic level, learning how to read a text is good training for the world of work. In particular, habits of critical thinking can serve as a guide in this world of mass information.”

At a time when so many people are leaving Hong Kong, the Bickleys are definite about staying on. DB has been their home for 19 years; they settled here just before Gillian retired as Associate Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “During SARS, it was possible to afford to purchase an apartment in DB, so our planned retirement to Europe was put on the back burner,” Gillian says. “There are plenty of things that continue to interest us about DB – the pleasant environment, agreeable and quiet neighbours, helpful and friendly management and the residents’ clubs.”

Editing the books they will publish, together with all aspects of publishing, continue to occupy nearly all of the Bickley’s time. Gillian has been commissioned to expand on her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on George Smith, the first Anglican Bishop of Hong Kong, and needs to find time to write a longer biography of this important 19th century
figure, himself a writer, traveller and educationist, as well as a church leader and missionary.

The Bickley’s are also looking forward to hosting two Proverse events – the first, later this year, on November 17, and the second on April 27, 2023. “Usually, we go to Andorra in the Pyrenees to administer the Proverse Prize judging,” Gillian concludes. “We hope we can resume this in 2023.”

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