Thursday 20 December 2012


Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2012: some of the prizewinners at Troubadour Prize Night on Mon 3rd Dec 2012 (l to r) Gillian Laker, Helen Overell, Gerrie Fellows, Caroline Smith, Richard Douglas Pennant (Cegin Productions), Anne-Marie Fyfe, Bernard O’Donoghue (judge), Betty Thomson, Nicky Arscott, Jane Draycott (judge), Judy Sutherland, Vanessa Gebbie, Judy Brown and Paul Stephenson 

Cue two stressless train journeys from Edinburgh to London and back the following day, to attend and read at the Troubadour Prize event.  I can spend the stressless train journeys working - so I won’t miss too much precious retreat time. I am mid-Hawthornden month... note the repetition of ‘stressless’ there? ‘Let the train take the strain’ - remember that old advertising line? I will have a restful hour at a hotel in London before the event, a relaxing bath. I can change from my travel clothes into something  poetic. Stick make up on, become 

Actually, it would not ever be entirely stressless. I have never read a poem in public. Oh sure - at the three workshops I’ve attended..first draft stuff. Does that count? But this is like sending an untried violinist to do a solo at the Albert Hall. Or it feels like it. 

I have practiced reading my winning lines, helped by the lovely Andrew Forster  back at the castle... and am trying to run through the rhythms and pauses in my head as I collect my tickets from the machine at Edinburgh Waverley. A  counterpoint of tinny carols doesn’t help. There IS no Christmas at Hawthornden. It is like Narnia. Being out here is surreal.

But machines are efficient, and necessary, and I punch in my ref. number. Click. Buzz. Click. Oh...I reckoned without technology. Oh bring back the quill and dippy ink.  Oh bring back one price for a simple train ticket. 

  • Booked from return tickets to London.  
  • Delivered by machine at Edinburgh station: one single ticket. Stamped ‘Single’. 
  • Machine says, ‘Get thee to the ticket office,  this is a partial delivery’. 
  • 25 minutes to go to my train’s departure.
  • I go to the ticket office and queue. Eventually, a dour Scot says, ‘Nothing to do with us. Get thee to Scotrail offices on Platform 14. Tis a Scotrail machine.’ 
  • Platform 14 needs a train ticket to access. Dour station employee says, ‘Are you sure you are going to the office? We get a lot of this.’ I check watch. 
  • 20 minutes to go. ‘Yes. I need to get on with it.’ Am let through. 
  • Scotrail official, putting down coffee, checking screen (this is a hard, hard job): ‘There is no record of your booking.‘ Me: ‘But there must be - look.’ I show him the ‘single’ tickets.  Scotrail: ‘So you’ve got a ticket. What’s the problem?’  Me: ‘But... what about the return? I’ve paid and not got the ticket...’ Scotrail: ‘Not our problem.  If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s The’s.’ He goes back to his coffee. I give up. 
  • I need to get back to the concourse. 
  • 15 minutes to go. 
  • Platform 14 barrier needs a train ticket ... I find another official. ‘Please could you let me out, I’ve just been to the office?’ Official: ‘How do I know. We get a lot of this.’ Me: aaagh. They let me out.
  • I reckon the first class lounge might have a phone. They do. Official very helpful, rings on my behalf. 
  • 10 minutes to go. 
  • Trainline: ‘Our system shows that all tickets have been collected.’  Me: ‘No, I have one stamped ‘single’. No return ticket for tomorrow.’  Trainline: ‘How do I know that?’  Helpful Official takes phone: ‘I can see the ticket. It says ‘Single.’ Hands phone back. Trainline: ‘What does the receipt say?’ Me: ‘Nothing. I do not HAVE a receipt. The machine...’ Trainline: ‘Stay by the phone. I am going to call Scotrail offices,  which are at Edinburgh... Me: I know, I’ve just been there.’ Trainline: ‘I will try. They will print you another ticket, and...’
  • Trainline man leaves me on phone, waiting...
  • 5 minutes to go.
  • 4
  • 3...I put phone down, can’t wait. Say thank you to nice official, and run for my train.
  • On train: Courtesy of East Coast Trains wifi I now have an email from visible on my laptop showing I have bought and paid for a return. I talk to the guard when he/she comes round. Can they help? 
  • Guard: ‘Hmm. It’s not East Coast’s problem. It’s a Scotrail machine.‘ ‘Me: And Scotrail say they have no record. And Trainline say all the tickets have been dispensed. And Edinburgh Station say it is Scotrail’s responsibility.  And Scotrail say...’  ... (Obviously look distraught.) Guard: ‘So everyone’s passing the buck...’  Me: Sniff. Guard: ‘Let me see. I’ll ring East Coast..’ disappears.
  • Guard, whose name is Eddie Barr, comes back. He is a delight, lovely, wonderful. I am setting up an Eddie Barr Appreciation Society. East Coast are aware, but there’s not much they can do... but he can try, at least. Eddie checks the email, prints out something that isn’t a ticket, but says what train I’m meant to be on the next day, complete with reservation seat number.  He  then writes a little letter to any interested officials the next day, giving his name, his mobile number, explaining the situation, that East Coast are aware - etc etc. He tells me to get a printout of the email. And to get to Kings Cross tomorrow with his ‘ticket’ and the email - leaving plenty of time for arguments, and ‘keep my fingers crossed’.

Bless Eddie. But I am now a wreck, and there is no way I can work.  Spend journey doing sudoku to try to stop myself worrying about the next day's journey. 

  • Until we stop. Before York. And don’t get going again. Some poor sod has jumped in front of a train down the line and there needs to be... and...delays... all trains are being held. My head is full of visions of whoever has this ghastly job sorting this out in the dark. I am hoping someone is looking after the train driver. After half an hour we pull slowly into York, and stop, and wait for an hour and a half. I email Anne-Marie Fyfe at The Troubadour to explain - I can do nothing, but will get there as soon as I can.  Bugger.

OK. I got there. Just as people were taking their seats.  It was packed.  No, I had no bath, no leisurely change of clothes. I had on my warmest unsmart, unpoetic woollies, suggested earlier that day by  Hawthornden's chill, my walking boots. No make up. I sat with the two judges, Jane Draycott and Bernard O’Donoghue, both of whom were terrific. I listened to wonderful, wonderful poems from the runners up.  I read my poem. I was presented with a lovely cheque. Met some more smashing people.  Listened to a great routine from a stand up comedian. Listened to the judges reading their work... unforgettable. Went out afterwards for supper, with said judges,  the sponsor Richard Douglas Pennant of Cegin productions, the organiser, Anne Marie Fyfe. A very charming poet called Paul Stephenson who came second with a poem he’d entered twice before.. now there’s a lesson! 

Fell into bed at just gone midnight. Did not sleep, worrying about the journey back. No proper ticket. An email printout. 
  • And no - it did not go smoothly. East Coast office had not kept a record of yesterday’s conversation with Eddie.  They suggested I buy another ticket, and claim my money back from Trainline...and do we think I’d ever have got my money back? Nope. 
  • I decided, as Eddie had been so sensible, practical and nice, I would try my luck with the guard on today’s train. 
  • To do that, I needed to get to the train.  
  • The nice official guarding the barriers at Kings Cross would not let me through. Official: ‘But what if everyone just came with an email and half a ticket signed by someone who says he is a guard...?’  Me: ‘That would be awkward. Why not ring Mr Barr - look, his number's on the note?’ Official:  ‘How do I know that's him? Could be anyone.’ Me: ‘How would I get hold of a blank ticket, half print it, look -  it tallies with this email from Trainline...?’
  • Official: ‘I’m letting you through this once. Don’t let this happen again.’

Don’t let this happen again? So the whole thing was MY fault? Oh, I see! And all the tens of thousands spent on customer service courses... 

The guard on the return train was lovely. No problems. 

But you see - that’s LIFE. And Hawthornden Castle Fellowships are a rare and precious gift, to enable you to dispense with LIFE whilst you focus just on your work.  Moral of the tale is, do not leave for a day or two if you are lucky enough to get one. Lovely as it was to win The Troubadour, I should not have gone to London - the universe was telling me that, shouting it as loud as anything. 

PS - I have written to East Coast Trains. Not to complain - it was no one’s fault but some alchemy between and Scotrail machinery. But to commend Eddie Barr - as a jolly helpful, good guy. They are lucky to have him. If it was up to me, he’d be in the Cabinet. 


Thank you to everyone, organisers, and judges, at The Troubadour International Poetry Prize - who are in no way to blame for the trains and technology (!)

The following prizewinning poems were chosen by judges Jane Draycott and Bernard O’Donoghue who read along with winning poets at our annual prizegiving event at the Troubadour on Monday 3r d December 2012. All the poems can be read on their website
  • First Prize, £2500‘Immensi Tremor Oceani’, Vanessa Gebbie, East Sussex
  • Second Prize, £500The Teenage Existential, Paul Stephenson, London
  • Third Prize, £250Explaining the Plot of ‘Blade Runner’ to my Mother who has Alzheimer’s: C.J. Allen, Notts
and, with prizes of £20 each:
  • Horse As Accordion, Nicky Arscott, Powys
  • A Tale from the Town Maze, Mike Barlow, Lancaster
  • East 17th Street or How I Met My Husband, Mara Bergman, Tunbridge Wells
  • The Third Umpire, Judy Brown, London
  • The Ledge, Miles Cain, York
  • Brood, Claudia Daventry, St. Andrews
  • The Language of Memory (The Bees), Gerrie Fellows, Glasgow
  • Lost, Rebecca Goss, Liverpool
  • When Jesus Played the Piano, David H.W. Grubb, Henley-on-Thames
  • Woman on a Cliff, Peter Gruffydd, Bristol
  • X-Ray Vision, Alex Josephy, London
  • Woolpit Child, Gillian Laker, Kent
  • October 1962, Shelley McAlister, Yarmouth
  • Burning the Clocks, John McCullough, East Sussex
  • HazMat, Dawn McGuire, Orinda, California
  • A Psalm for the Scaffolders, Kim Moore, Barrow in Furness
  • The Mercedes, Helen Overell, Surrey
  • The Scarlet Lizard, Caroline Smith, Rickmansworth
  • Underworld, Judi Sutherland, Berkshire
  • Peter Doig’s Studio, Betty Thomson, Co. Wexford

Monday 3 December 2012


Hawthornden Castle

I am here, for four blissful weeks, and there is no internet. How, in that case am I posting this? Ah, I've been let out for a poetry event in London and there is wifi on the train.

Happy writing.

Friday 16 November 2012

Welcome Jon Pinnock, and his Scott Prize-winning 'Dot Dash'

I am thrilled to crash in to a blog tour in celebration of Dot Dash, the long-awaited (in some circles, mine for one...) Scott Prize-winning collection from Jon Pinnock. 
        I thought I'd start with one of the worst questions any writer can be asked - 'Where did the idea for xxx come from' - because you usually can't answer that. 'From my head. Duh...' is the standard reply. However -  structure is another matter, methinks, so I can ask it with impunity. This collection is alternating tiny tiny stories (and I mean tiny - one is reproduced with permission below...) and pieces of 'normal length (what's that?) short fiction. 
       When I was a kid, I loved Roald Dahl. Actually, when I almost grew up, I still loved the stories of Roald Dahl - and I think Jon has the same magic about his work.  So there you go - Jon Pinnock is Roald Dahl's natural successor.  Quote.
        The work feels so 'nutty' and supremely creative, free-and-easy - and yet something unexpected is always round the corner, waiting. It is very clever stuff, an absolute joy to read. Dare I say it's perfect for Christmas stockings? No? Oh OK, I won't... 

Hi Jon. 
 1. The obvious worst question is ‘where did the idea for tiny tiny pieces interspersed with larger pieces come from?’ 
First of all, I like things to have some kind of structure. I'd been playing around with tiny stories on Twitter (and elsewhere) for a while, initially just to see if I could. I was quite pleased with the way some of them had turned out and I thought it might be nice to incorporate them into my putative collection. It turned out I had enough to alternate the two types of story, so I now had my structure.
2. Do you think a very tiny story can ever hold the weight of a  full length short?  
 Sometimes, yes. For one thing, a good tiny story - like, say, the classic six-word Hemingway one - is inherently memorable, because you can literally remember the whole thing without much effort. More importantly, because of its concision, the reader has to work a bit harder to engage with it, and that makes it ultimately quite satisfying. The other thing is, sometimes how much you like a full-length story can come down to just one line. A tiny story isolates that line.
3. My favourite short short short is ‘The Experiment’. Please can I reproduce it here?
Of course!
The Experiment
Professor the said, "surprise a was that, well." Backwards run to began time, on machine the switched they when." 

              4. Do the shorter pieces here serve several purposes? What?
The primary purpose is to give the collection its structure. I think there's maybe also a sense of    giving the reader a little break between courses - to refresh the palette if you like. If I were to be honest, the marketeer in me would also see them as an opportunity for differentiation - a bit of a talking point, perhaps.
 5. Your work remind me of Roald Dahl - snappy pieces, often amusing, then suddenly, a turn in the journey that takes me somewhere unexpected. ‘After Michaelangelo’ for example. Do you have a relationship with the wonderful work of RD? 
Oh yes. I used to read a LOT of Roald Dahl short stories back in the day. He is, I know, a bit unfashionable these days, and the idea that every story has to have some kind of twist in it is regarded as a bit naff. I can see that, but at the same time I do like a story to come to some kind of conclusion, to have some kind of point to it, and I don't see any harm in a well-executed twist as long as it doesn't come out of nowhere. One of my favourite recent examples is "Far North" by Sara Maitland, which performs the most extraordinarily breathtaking handbrake turn - and then you go back over the story and realise that everything's been pre-planned without you realising.
6. I love the way you can tell a story that is on one level entertaining - but which holds real weight. ‘Return to Cairo’ for example. Or ‘rZr and Napoleon’ to name but two. When you start a story, is it ‘inspired’ in some way by something you want to say? Or does the ‘something’ just appear?
The theme almost always emerges in the writing. If I were to sit down and think "I want to write a story about XXX", it would turn out to be thoroughly boring. A good story should start out as a blank canvas onto which the writer's prejudices, worries and convictions get painted, almost unconsciously.
7. What does it mean to you to have won The Scott Prize? 
So many things. First of all, it's wonderful to have a collection published at all, let alone one with "Winner of the Scott Prize" printed on the cover. And it's especially wonderful to have my name on a book published by Salt. When I started out writing seriously a few years back, all the best collections seemed to be published by them - including one about a glass bubble, I seem to remember - and it became my ambition to join their list. But I guess the most important thing is validation, though. Sometimes you need someone to say to you, yes, you can do this.
8. Sticking with competitions - you have many many competition credits - what is it about your work that sends it to the top 10% regularly, do you think,?
Ha. You should see the list of the ones that have flopped! Having seen things from the judge's position as well now, I guess there are a few things that I've done - almost unconsciously - to make my stories stand out a little. I always try to make the title intriguing, for starters. But I think the most important thing is that I tend to come at things from a slightly unusual angle, often with a bit of humour. It's surprising how few short stories there are that are prepared to risk a laugh along the way.
9. Loads of good luck with this collection - and is it too soon to ask what’s next from the Pen of Pinnock?
Thank you! Well, what's next is an odd non-fiction project that is currently out on submission, and I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen with that. I'm trying to work out what happens next. I've probably got half of another short story collection in the can, but it's going to be a few years before anyone lets me publish that. I've also got nearly enough poems for a collection, but  - well, that's not really going to happen, is it? More seriously, I'm about 5000 words into a reasonably serious scifi-ish novel and I really am going to have to decide whether to go any further with it or if I'm going to try something else instead. I have quite a few novels hidden away in a metaphorical drawer that haven't made it past the first chapter or so, and I suspect this may turn out to be another one.

Whatever it is, I shall look forward! Good luck. 
So - Dot Dash has its own website, from which you may purchase signed copies:
Here is the Salt Publishing website, from which you can purchase many many excellent books: 
Here is Jon's blog:

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Coming soonish - a visit from the author of 'Funderland'...

In the spirit of spreading the word... I want to talk about a writer called Nigel Jarrett, who I 'met' on Facebook.
Yes, I know, Facebook can be an utter waste of time. But occasionally it turns up good things. There is a group called The Welsh Short Story Network - I became a member suddenly, somehow - and that was nice. Interesting if spiky and oftentimes depressing debate occurs, in which I blunder about, putting my own point of view. No the short story market is not dead. Yes publishers are having a hard time selling them. We have to work hard too, don’t stop writing them, literary fiction is pretty dead, but it doesn’t mean we stop writing it, does it? What about these massive competitions suddenly? .... that sort of thing, guaranteed to attract a few snippy remarks. But debate is always A Good Thing, innit?
Anyhoo. One of said debaters was/is this writer called Nigel Jarrett. To my shame, I had not heard of him, or his collection Funderland, (Parthian). Well - I haven’t heard of a lot of writers - I’m no expert - but at one point, he listed the places his collection had been reviewed. The Guardian. The Independent. Hang on a minute. Why didn’t I know of this writer?  What had happened? I began to wonder what I was missing, whether he was hiding behind Offa's Dyke (now there's an image...) and ordered a copy. 

The blurb:
Driving to the seaside together are a young girl on the verge of womanhood, her mother and her stepfather with his son. But this is no ordinary trip. There's something sinister about Evan Charlton and all too soon the girl is plunged into a nightmare world that she cannot understand.This debut collection of short stories by award-winning writer and journalist Nigel Jarrett brings together places of violence, longing, helplessness and vivid remembrance, where characters must cope with the darker side of human relationships inside the seemingly cosy world of the family.These stories explore romance with tragedy, family with madness and the lives of people with a warm and tender humour.

Here are extracts from the reviews - there are links on the web page below:
The Guardian
' a music critic by profession, Jarrett has a marvellous ear... And the stand-out story, 'Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan', is an enigmatic study of a Japanese woman's displacement in rural Wales.' Alfred Hickling 
The Independent
'Nigel Jarrett's stories take seemingly ordinary or innocent situations and gently tease out their emotional complexity. Both 'Funderland' and 'A Point of Dishonour' confound expectations superbly...He's not afraid of unusual perspectives and his bravery is well rewarded in this unusual and sensitive collection.' Lesley McDowell
Planet Magazine
'Funderland, Nigel Jarrett's superb short story collection, demands the tribute of slow and careful reading [...] The revelation of these stories is the vast and subtle and inarticulate web that links and separates us all. Read them slowly, more than once, and learn.' 
New Welsh Review
'Funderland is an excellent first offering, giving a thought provoking series of wry, often wistful fresh angles on the fragility of relationships. Readers will want more, anticipating the emergence of a strong, telling voice in fiction from Wales.' Robert Walton
Now Robert Walton’s name I recognise - he was kind enough to review The Coward’s Tale for New Welsh Review too - with its US cover, somehow:
Funderland sounds like sounds something I will enjoy hugely. I’m waiting for this collection to arrive - and have invited Nigel Jarrett to talk about his work here, as and when. I'm afraid it will be more 'when' than 'as' - for a Hawthornden month will intervene - but there’s something nice for me and my reader to look forward to. I may bring you others from this network in due course. is Funderland on Parthian’s website.
and of course all good bookshops will be able to order a copy for you. 

I was going to end with a eulogy to The Short Review  run by the lovely Tania Hershman, and dedicated to reviews of short story collections and nothing else - and I see that its hiatus might be coming to a close... yippee! 

Saturday 10 November 2012

Vienna Writers' Studio - different music, different openings.

1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th November. (Re-) Start that Novel! A four-morning workshop in Vienna.

The first question is: Which is easier - to lead a workshop for  ten writers, or three? It sounds a no-brainer - until you factor in the following: Writer 1 wanting to start a genre novel, happy to write in English, mother tongue German. A list of ideas, all different.  Nothing started. Writer 2 is already working on a memoir in German, but her spoken/listening English is fine. First person narrative. And Writer 3 - English speaking and writing, but who understands and speaks good German. She has a hugely complex novel that has been on the chocs for a long time and is not finished.  If you do a word count, it already sounds like a paperback's worth,  has a need for clarity, order, structure.  Revisiting. A need for a game-plan.
        The second question - how can a single workshop series deliver the goods for three completely different practitioners, three different pieces of work?

The answer seemed to be to address their specific needs by giving them all individual time when necessary, eminently possible with this small number. By using group sessions to focus on craft issues which would be useful to everyone.  To devise exercises that might spark something different for everyone. And by making good use of the fact that we were four brains, four writers - harnessing group intelligence, even though I was the one who was lacking in language skills.

I'm obviously not going to give away what my writers were working on, but by the end of Day 1 a lot had happened. Given a few pertinent questions to address, Writer 1 was away with her first novel, making notes, planning, exploring,  having fun. Writer 3 was considering the question of timelines - as the seeds of something important were already in the work, but hidden. Once light was let in, there was more than one 'Aha!' moment.  Interestingly, after one great exercise, Writer 2 had discovered a rather important character had been waiting in the wings to contribute massively to her memoir. A different voice.
        The different voice was speaking, as was the main character, in German. It was important for us all, me included, to listen, to see what came across - and so Writer 2 shared this new voice over the last couple of days.
        Group feedback in workshops/writing groups can be a sticky one. Encouraging writers to share new work with people they don't know, people who comment on unedited/unpolished work from an unknown level of expertise, can be the wrong thing to do - at best it may be useless, at worst, potentially damaging for the writer.  Beneficial for the commenter, maybe...
       However, a couple of days in, the group had gelled. We all knew a little more about each other and our work. Then,  we discussed and agreed a form of analytical feedback and the writer sharing their work could request specifics. In this way, we controlled a process that can easily go awry. Purely subjective broad-sweep comments did not occur - neither did comments designed to say more about the commenter's 'brilliance', as opposed to the work in question. Ahem. We've all met that one, yes?
        One of the specifics for Writer 2 was obviously 'How well differentiated are these voices?' I was interested to see whether I would pick up anything that differentiated this from the original voice - and indeed - whereas I would not 'understand' the content, whether I would 'understand' the underlying music of the new voice, hearing it as  different to the first.  This process reminded me a little of "Poem in the space between languages" - my collaboration with Dutch poet Siennke de Rooij at the 2011 NAWE conference,  written up in Writing in Education, the NAWE magazine: (see pp 26 et seq)

Suffice it to say that in Vienna, the 'underlying music' of Writer 2's voices came across beautifully. They 'spoke' across the language divide. I heard different rhythms, different sounds, different inflexions, as the different vocabulary and level of maturity in each voice sang across the space. I listened to the other two German speakers addressing the questions (discussions were in English) in a professional, tempered manner, hearing them giving the sort of feedback I would be pleased to receive myself. Reflecting that the voice was indeed well-differentiated. That the vocabulary, the rhythms, the tone, felt 'right' for the speaker.
        Fascinating stuff indeed. And by the end of day 4, Writer 2 had progressed a long way with this voice - writing in her own time as well as in the workshops. Indeed, the new voice had opened up avenues she had not thought of for the memoir. Different perspectives, enriching, layering, bringing more than just surface interest.

Writer 1 wanted to begin her novel. So her 'homework' after day 1 was to write three different openings. Start in different places, use different voices. Experiment. Enjoy. And we would give her feedback the next day, saying which opener held the most potential, and why. First, we discussed what a good opening does. How hard it has to work. What does it have to do, ideally? We ended up with quite a list. Writer 1 then shared the first two versions, both of which were fine... but...then came version 3. No contest! It was as though the other two had been written in the very early stages of a novel's development - whereas this one - the voice, the characters, where she had chosen to begin, the level of intrigue, and more than that, the confidence/assuredness, was palpable. We all gave her good feedback to that effect.
         It turned out that the first two openings had been written as homework, the night before. That they had 'felt' sticky, forced. The third had been written when she woke up, that morning - and had flowed perfectly. There's something about sleeping on your ideas that makes them appear fully clothed, sometimes!
Writer 3 has written about the workshops herself - so rather than repeat what she said, here is her version! 

and here - a photo of  the novel... finally printed out, on the floor in scenes, ready for labelling, moving about, rejigging, playing, sorting timelines...

So - three happy novelists - much further on with their projects than when they started - and that's great!

With Sylvia Petter at Shakespeare and Company
 The few days in Vienna also included an evening reading at Shakespeare and Company English bookshop...
Sylvia poses interesting questions during the reading!
Thanks so much to Sylvia Petter for her invitation to teach - for putting me up, for organising the reading and radio interview - and for being a general good egg and brilliant company!

Added: Writer 1 has sent me this lovely feedback:
I participated in Vanessa’s workshop as writer 1. Thanks to Vanessa’s help my thoughts are clearer now and I have a better idea of what I want to write and how I’m going to do it. I enjoyed the workshop immensely as we all got the opportunity to share our ideas and doubts. Furthermore, we received precious feedback and advice from Vanessa and our fellow writers. Thanks a million for your encouragement and support, Vanessa, and for giving us such a wonderful time!
Can't ask  for more.

Tuesday 6 November 2012


7th November 2011 seems a long long time ago - but it is only a year. An awful lot of firsts have happened since then: 

  • a real first birthday party for a gorgeous granddaughter, 
  • a successful first year completed at Newcastle University for my younger son, 
  • my first trip to Athens thanks to the British Council, celebrating the launch of an anthology, 
  • a first translation of my work into Greek. 
  • I went to Ghent for the first time. 
  • Had my first commissions from BBC radio -  a short short and an appearance on Radio 3’s The Verb, a short story on Radio 4. 
  • I attended my first residential poetry course back in August, led by Pascale Petit and Daljit Nagra, 
  • had my first acceptance from The SHOp in Ireland for a poem I’d sharpened on said course.  
  • I read my first novel by Julian Barnes - loved it - started a flurry of finding and reading his others. 
  • Just been teaching in Vienna for the first time, staying with a writer I’ve ‘known’ on the net for years but have just met for the first time, the indomitable Sylvia Petter.  

All those firsts - and it just goes to prove that life goes on, even after your first novel comes out with a big publisher!
UK paperback

UK hardback

US trade paperback
More firsts. The Coward’s Tale was my first novel. I had reviews  and interviews in the national press for the first time.  I had a book come out in the USA for the first time. A book by meself was chosen as a book of the year (Financial Times, thanks to critic and writer A N Wilson) for the first time. 

Guess what? Nothing changed.

Strange, maybe we writers new to the world of publishing think things are going to change? A bit like waking up the morning after losing your virginity - you expect the world to be different (if I can remember back that far...!) and it just isn’t. Everything looks the same as the night before, and so do you. Ha! 

Oh sure, for a very few writers the world changes hugely.  But for the vast majority - take it from me - the world keeps on turning at exactly the same pace as before.  

So - would I change anything? Not at all. It's been an interesting year, and I have learned a lot.
Did it go as I expected? No!

What advice might I give myself, if I could have a quiet word with ‘Me, a year back’? It would go something like this:

Dear Me,             
           The world of books is a vast and complex one. Your book will fall into the maelstrom like a drop of rainwater into a sea, and become part of something exciting, ever-moving and unpredictable. For all the wonderful efforts of the professional marketers and publicity people, your efforts will be important too. Don’t take your eye off the ball. 
           Don’t expect anything. Be thankful for every review you get, whether from a professional reviewer in the press or from a kind reader on a blog or a website. Don’t keep dates free because there is a big literary festival on that week, and you might just... You probably won’t. 
          Do your best by this book, just as you did when writing it. Start something new, and gradually, gradually, transfer your allegiance. Write another novel. Write poetry. Make a cheeseboard.
                     With lots of love, 


Thursday 25 October 2012

A bit about teaching...

UCS Ipswich

A couple of times a year I travel to Ipswich from my home in Sussex, and back again, to work with undergraduates in the English Department at UCS. It’s a long way to go for just two hours, but the workshops are invariably some of the best from the point of view of making a difference. The students have not chosen to take a Creative Writing Course. They are studying English, and one of the courses, The Short Story focusses on the literature, but it also includes a practical element. “Write a short story...” I take my hat off to them - it’s hard enough to tackle writing,  even if you’ve chosen to do it - it certainly isn’t easy to get your head round creating literature if you haven’t chosen to. 
That’s where, I guess, it is good to have a visit from a practitioner. 

This time,  we were looking at the need to depart from fact, if you are going to write successful fiction. Sounds obvious - but hard to do, especially for those who don’t write fiction routinely. 
        Starting with my usual ice-breaker’ of  word-cricket, and NO need to read anything out (phew!) I then used the current story of the shooting of Malala Yousufzai  We read some articles, made a list of central and peripheral characters in this particular story, then I took the articles away.  Trusting that we had enough grasp of the main events, we then split into groups, to collaborate. What did their chosen characters want to say? How would they say it? The students had to use their imaginations. This is fiction. Start with some facts, then let go - make it up. And they did! We had a group working as The US Military. Another as Malala the child, another Malala the injured teenager. Malala’s father. Angelina Jolie. And challengingly, the Taliban gunman who shot her. 
After a few minutes, the noise level rose - ideas were flying. After fifteen minutes of brainstorming, they had to choose one scenario, and another fifteen minutes to write, as a group,  a first-person narrative, in their character’s voice. We then had half an hour of group feedback - sharing the voices, the new stories - because of course, without the facts to rely on, they’d had to invent. 
We had terrific black comedy from the US Military group. Empathy with the  anguish of father - which was about to veer into a futuristic piece  Astonishing voices from the ‘Malala’ teams - the child who wanted to be treated like her brothers...and a guilt-laden speech from the “injured girl”, causing so much trouble. We had a layered character in the gunman, chosen to do the deed by others, frightened not to. We had an Angelina Jolie behaving in one way, pushed by publicists, and her ‘real thoughts’ running alongside. 

I think the point was made. No one was writing journalism. Or history. Or political commentary. Just fiction. Based on a nugget of fact. Spun, like a spider’s web, away from those facts. 

Senior Lecturer in English, Gill Lowe (who is always such a sport, diving into all the writing exercises with gusto) asked each student to scribble a few lines after the session was over. “What will you take with you from the workshop - something you didnt know before?”

Here are some scribbles: 

“We all have imaginations, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Thank you for an inspirational lecture today."
‘Being ‘forced' to write from  different points of view and on subjects that aren’t self-chosen, brings a different perspective  and instills confidence that  it can be done.” 
“Let go of wanting the story to be as close to fact as possible!”
“How easily an imagination lies dormant - and can be used, with a nudge. Good lesson :).”
“Drawing inspiration from all manner of places - unlikely places such as this news story. And that we can take it anywhere we want. It doesn’t have to stick with the news story. For example, the girl ends up with superpowers...”
“Examples of how to use different voices - very interesting. Thoroughly enjoyed the ice-breaking exercise - what a great feeling of freedom it engendered.”
“WHAT IF??!”
“Writing at speed can often produce the best ideas...”
“It was wonderful to hear from a real writer who has experience. You can use factual stories as influence for fiction - it’s your imagination, so use it!”
“I found it refreshing to bask in the rewards of letting one’s imagination run wild. In turn, I enjoyed sharing the fruits of this imaginative process with colleagues.”
“Fiction IS fiction and can be anything you want it to be. Freedom to write.”
“It was interesting to think about spinning a story from a fact. To hear someone saying that you don’t have to ‘write what you know’ (as in  sticking to facts) was refreshing. Brilliant enjoyable session. Thank you!”
“It’s okay to let your imagination run completely wild, especially when finding a story.”
“More appreciation for the value of spontaneity.”

That's what I mean about 'making a difference'.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Thoughts on visiting the cemeteries of The Great War

Panorama, Sunken Road Cemetery, Fampoux
Monday 8th October. 
A rainy mid-day, Sunken Road Cemetery, Fampoux, near Arras, listening to a description of the action that took place in the amphitheatre of fields in front, fierce fighting for the heavily defended village of Roeux and its chemical works - battles that raged throughout April and May 1917.  
Three specifics: 
First, the terrific experience of hearing the detail of a battle from such a vantage point. The terrain now looks so benign... and yet anyone with half an imagination will see far more than crops. And, of course, many of the men who fell in the action are here, below your feet. 
Second - the immaculate solemn beauty of this and indeed all the Commonwealth cemeteries. Their uniqueness. Large and small, every one is different. The planting - English country garden - roses, asters, lavender, you name it, it’s there. Tended with huge care and pride often by generations of the same family. 
Third - it was lunchtime. Some of us sat on the wall to eat their sandwiches. I had mine by the grave of a 20 year old, and texted my son, the same age, to tell him. He texted back, ‘Good stuff.’ 

Those three observations just about sum it up, for me. Carnage happened. The evidence is right here. Paying my respects is the least I can do, giving those who fell a little of what they had taken from them. Time.  
       What about the sandwiches? Isn’t that disrespectful? I don’t think so.

Before The Last Post, Menin Gate
 I am reminded of a  service of the Last Post under the Menin Gate at Ypres recently. 
        A wreath was laid by a young airman, and in support, a whole group, uniforms immaculate, marching in perfect order. To see the wreath laid, the last post ringing out, the young man snapping to attention and saluting before wheeling on his heel and returning to his comrades - was wonderful. As was the normality of passing them no more than six or seven minutes later, as, having marched  out of the Gate, they’d now relaxed. ‘Right, take me to the nearest pub,’ one said. ‘I need a drink....’ They all walked away chatting and joking, into the city.    

That’s about right. Job done. Life goes on, for some. To do otherwise is to try to make the men who fell into saints, when actually, weren’t they all ordinary blokes? Not saints at all. Respect is of course due in immeasurable quantities, but I get the sense that it is more than OK, as far as they would be concerned, for you to eat your sarnies alongside, bringing a sliver of the everyday to those who lost their everydays on our behalf. That is not overstating it, even nigh on a hundred years later. Britain would not exist were it not for the outcome of this war. Whatever one thinks of the strategists and their plans, every man who fell, named on a headstone or not, is part of the sometimes faltering juggernaut that ultimately crushed Germany. 
        I have a strong sense too, that it is important for women to visit. Important for the fallen, not us. This woman has many many roles - wife, mother, colleague, friend, writer, teacher, editor - as well as daughter of a much-missed decorated WW11 veteran - but when I’m there the most important role is that of a mother. Of sons. So in a sense, I’m not only there saying a quiet hello to the fallen, I’m also there for all the mothers who couldn’t go across to see where their lad was. For all the mothers who aren’t here any more. Maybe they know. Maybe not. That's OK.
Morval Cemetery
How do I feel after visiting the battlefields and cemeteries, six days on the Somme, Arras, then Ypres? Wrung out, still. But I think that’s natural. We talk about ‘paying’ our respects. This act is not cheap - it’s something that costs. Maybe it is the mix of response that is so exhausting. Sadness, for every single man who fell, for their families and friends. A determination that we who follow on must not forget. The deep peace of these places - every response builds into a mesh of emotion that is impenetrable at first. It lifts after time. 
 “Battlefields are one thing, cemeteries another. I wouldn’t bother with the cemeteries.” A quote, from someone gloriously unaware of the effect of what he was saying.  I was just sad for the speaker.  The effect was to shriek his ignorance. It was to reduce a battlefield visit to a disneyesque experience, sanitised and two-dimensional. You might as well draw up lines of opposing plastic soldiers on a model of the terrain, knock them over with pea-shooters in order of battle-history. 
           What did he think he would find in the cemeteries? I don’t know. But for my money he was ignoring some of the biggest reasons to go to the battlefields. Those reasons are not those things you can pick up in text books. To avoid visiting the cemeteries is not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by many stark realities.  Not to allow yourself to feel. If we seek to protect ourselves from our feelings - and that may be one reason for my colleague ‘not bothering’ with the cemeteries - is that not a little dangerous?  
Asters, Essex Farm Cemetery, at the grave of Pte. E Wynne, Leinster Regiment.
 It is hard not to feel sadness standing by the grave of a lad who went to his death on the battlefield from a farm in Sussex, or a terrace in a Welsh valley town.  One of the realities of war is the vastness of the numbers. Vast numbers of graves of lads like this, headstones with names, dates, inscriptions.  Vast numbers of graves alongside, holding remains that were un-nameable. Name after name after name on the many memorials to the missing. 

Thiepval Memorial
We had an interesting difference of opinion on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. To many, it is the ultimate memorial, the best. Not to me. It is majestic, yes, overwhelming, yes - but it is something else. It sits astride the ridge like some gigantic alien, no lack of hubris, a definite air of triumphalism. It lacks beauty. Contrast it with the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, the Menin Gate at Ypres, Memorials to the Missing at Ploegsteert, at Arras, at Vis en Artois or Tyn Cot. There, beauty melds with sadness to produce an extraordinary, deep peacefulness. Thiepval holds no peace. It just shakes its fist at the world. I wonder whether the triumphalism of Thiepval might have been an additional thorn in Germany’s side during the mid 1930s...provocative? Who knows?
Langemark German Military Cemetery 
Visiting Langemark German cemetery is a very different experience to spending time in Commonwealth cemeteries. In comparison it is dark, stolid, Wagnerian in character.  At its heart is a mass grave holding some 25,000 soldiers, guys who, just like our own, fought for something they believed in, most of the time - you can’t forget that. There are also two British soldiers buried here, as there are often German soldiers buried in Commonwealth Great War cemeteries. My writer’s imagination with can’t help but create irreverent fictions in both settings - unsettled after-hours conversations. Black humour and war go hand in hand. It helps to salve the harshness.
           Apparently, some time into the war, our cinemas screened newsreel footage showing bodies on a battlefield. Beforehand, only ‘managed’ information had been screened - propaganda-led. Sanitised. There was uproar. ‘But people are dying...’. Well, yes. That’s what war does.
"Let me like a soldier fall..."

        Maybe at the tail end of the Victorian era with its predisposition to sentimentality, the lads now in these graves might have written letters home busting with sugary cliches, but meaning every single word. 

Then, they’d turn on the black humour and belt out trench songs they’d never in a million years sing in front of their mothers, giving a V sign to the reality they faced:

When old Jerry shells your trench, never mind
And your face may lose its smile, never mind
When the sandbags bust and fly, you have only once to die
If old jerry shells your trench, never mind
Under the Menin Gate- one of the many walls covered in names
 Here you go lads - a new verse or two:
When you get blown to bits, never mind
and your arse flies through your tits, never mind
If you make the Sargeant linger to pick up your little finger
When you get blown to bits, never mind

When you’re just a word at Wipers, never mind 
Bleedin’ bugles, bleedin’ pipers, never mind 
You’ll be so high up the wall, Mum won’t find your name at all,
when you’re just a name at Wipers, never mind

Tyn Cot, sundown

My 20 year old lunch partner at Sunken Lane was Private A Law, 47117, 10th Bn, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales's Own). He died on 28/08/1917 and was the son of Alfred and Jane Elizabeth Law, of 53, Joicey St., Sherburn Hill, Durham. 

Writing this is akin to why I go - quite apart from finding the cemeteries and memorials to the missing deeply moving places, and feeling a strong sense of 'Be yerself Missis, that's all we want...' - each time I read a name or stand by a headstone saying ‘A Soldier of The Great War’ I am acknowledging that person existed and while he did, even if it was for a short time, he accomplished something far more extraordinary than I ever will.

Pics of Sunken Road Cemetery and Langemark German Military Cemetery are by Jeremy Banning.