Monday 1 December 2014

Remembrance, resistance, writing

A new kind of war memorial, the brainchild of Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger, went live earlier in the year. Focussing on the statue by Charles Sargeant Jagger on The Great Western War Memorial at Platform 1, Paddington Station, this was an initiative which, like the ceramic poppies at The Tower of London, burgeoned into something bigger than at first envisaged. The statue represents a Tommy in a hand-knitted scarf reading a letter. The public were invited to write that letter...
       The initiative, pump-primed by 50 well known writers, attracted a huge response.  Almost 22,000 letters came in, up to the closing date of 4 August 2014.  Some direct into the website. Some handwritten and posted 'To the statue, Paddington Station.' The posties got to know where to send them. Letters from all over the world. 
       Letters from children, from adults of all ages, the very old,  letters from veterans and serving soldiers, from politicians and teachers. From writers too. 
      Initially, that was it - the website where all the letters are available to read, and subsequently archived by the British Library - a clever war memorial for today. But then along came publisher William Collins,  and the anthology was born. 120 of the letters were selected for multifarious reasons, and bound in a rather great hardback. 
       Unindexed, you have to read wherever the book opens. You might stumble across a letter from Ed Milliband or Dawn French, Stephen Fry or a ten year old schoolboy. From 1914 Sikhs or a schoolgirl, Benjamin Zephaniah, Daljit Nagra or Andy McNab. Mark Haddon. Or David Cameron. And a mass of others, including 10 Anons, and one by me.
Here it is on the Book Depository:

And here is the start of my letter:

Things you do not know:
      When you leave, you will leave a child, growing. When night falls on the day you die, your officer will write two letters to two families, your and his own. He will say to his mother that he has never had to write a letter like that. He has never knowingly lied before. He helped three of his men bury what was left. He will ask does his mother think, under the circumstances, he did the right thing when he said 'it was quick'?

You can read all the letters here:


A few weeks ago, I went to see another memorial - Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red - the ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London. Because each poppy was intended to represent one death of a British soldier in WW1, I waited to go on the penultimate day when all but one or  two were in situ. It was an extraordinary sight, and one I won't forget.

It is a brilliant work of art. It looked extraordinary  from ground level, and even more extraordinary from The Shard - the day was so sparklingly clear on Monday 10th November that it was worth spending the cash to travel up in a lift to grab the views. But for me, something was missing. 
    The way they'd allowed the installation to be used for political purposes by the Prime Minister for example, and Ed Milliband - who happened to plant poppies surrounded by a battalion of the world's press -  cheapened it for this viewer. A shame. That overshadowed the day.  But a brilliant work of art, still. 

On 11th 11th, we spent most of the day at Seaford, starting with a service at a windswept cemetery which contains the graves of men who died at the training camp in WW1. They include the graves of soldiers from the West Indian Regiment who died of the flu. You can read a somewhat disturbing account of how we used the West Indian Regiment here:

   There are also the graves of two Irish soldiers who drowned off the beach a matter of a few weeks after arriving: one got into trouble, his friend tried to save him and they both drowned. And another - the grave of a man who was known to be a dreadful bully, and who made the lives of the new soldiers hell. He was shot by one of those young soldiers, who gave himself up immediately. And oddly, he was only given a three year prison sentence...

We then joined the members of the Seaford branch, Royal British Legion in their club for lunch. 
     I was particularly moved to meet an Irish veteran. For the last twenty years, he told me, the Irish Veterans  had marched at the Cenotaph on Remembrance day, and laid a wreath. This year, they had not been allocated any places in the line-up, or on the march. Thinking it was an oversight, he had repeatedly tried to contact the organisers to rectify the situation, to no avail. 
    Watching the ceremony on the television, they saw the Irish Prime Minister laying a wreath, for the first time. 

Again, a political move, this time sidelining veterans in order that someone might make a political statement. A shame.


The evening was spent in Brighton University, invited with Neil Bartlett of Letters to the Unknown Soldier fame, and many other fames,  to a literary salon called Remembrance, Resistance and Writing. The invitation came from writer-in-residence Clare Best. 
     The event opened out the resistance I'd been feeling to how these things can be manipulated. Neil was very impassioned about Remembrance - very keen to show that without action it becomes questionable - "yes, he said, you are moved by these things. And?"

       He pointed out how poor it was that the organisers had not protected the Tower art installation from exploitation.  How easy it is to manipulate a an example,  he cited an image that I'd found disturbing since Remembrance Sunday - a child in uniform placing the final poppy at the Tower. 
    I asked the student audience to place that image alongside the recent 'Passing Bells' - a series on the BBC aired in the evening, aimed at young people. The reconstruction of battles was so pretty, so bloodless, literally - lots of smoke, lots of men lying in artistic poses on the ground afterwards - with not so much as a cut. No shattered limbs. No split skulls. No blood. No bone. 
       And according to the BBC, there was utter silence after the first day of the Somme, apparently. Maybe not utter - a few slight groans from a few perfectly whole men in shell-holes - as if they had hangovers.

   Not good enough. Bringing up a generation of kids to think that war is not as terrible as it actually is. And patronising in the extreme - most of the viewers of that programme have far more violent and bloody games on their phones.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

September/October catch-up - Western Front, Poetry, Physics, call for short story submissions, Holidays...

Caroline Davies at Pigeon Ravine Cemetery, one of the prettiest and most poignant cemeteries on the Western Front. 

On 2nd October, the 2014 Writers' Pals met at Lille Europe for the annual trip to the trenches with military historian Jeremy Banning. Five days, four nights to The Somme and Ypres this year, with a flying visit to Mons and the Boar's Head en route between the two - it was another unforgettable trip. We'd asked to walk as much as possible, thus the cemetery above became to start of a very hot walk up the 'Gloucester Road' up to Lonsdale Cemetery, Authuille. We had extraordinary weather this year!
        Caroline Davies and I are collaborating on a collection of poetry inspired by the memorials of the Great War, and these trips are always such a rich source of ideas.

Unveiling of the monument to the Royal Sussex Regiment, at Priez
 The regimental badge, the wreaths

Back in time a few weeks, to 10th September, and we (Chris and I) were in France as well, at a village called Priez, for the unveiling of a monument to the Royal Sussex Regiment. The village is tiny - blink and you'd miss it, as they say - but 100 years ago to the day, Sussex lost its first men on the Western Front right here. It was poignant in the extreme to be with many ex-servicemen of the Sussex Regiment, who marched down the hill from the ridge on which the battle was fought, into the village - man in their eighties, seventies - veterans of the last war, many of them.

The Western Front holds many such memorials, most of which were put up after the Great War. It was a huge privilege to be there to witness this one being unveiled - and when the French band played Sussex by the Sea with great gusto, this Sussex-dweller certainly felt it.

Backwards again - my husband isn't the keenest of battlefield visitors - but on our way down to Priez, I managed to introduce him to a few places, not just British/English memorials, but Vimy Ridge (Canadians), Mametz Wood (The Welsh), the Ulster Tower (Ulstermen), Ayette Cemetery (Indian and Chinese and a German grave), McCrae's Battalion memorial (Scots), and Thiepval memorial (Commonwealth and French).

Dieppe marina
Fast forward - having enjoyed our Dieppe trip (see previous post) in August, C and I also grabbed a few days later in September, just the two of us, and went back to this terrific city - so often, I think, rushed through by visitors arriving off the ferry, on their way somewhere else. The harbour is surrounded by bistros and restaurants, there are fascinating cultural visits to make - a converted theatre holds a wonderful exhibition on the Dieppe raids, for example. Art galleries, castle, gardens - sea, beaches, plenty for the kids - what more do you want for a decent place to stay in for a while?
Church, Varengeville, with Monet's view of the same church from the valley...
Not far away, the cliff-top church at Varengeville, where Claude Monet found inspiration. While C sketched in the graveyard, I took myself off on a walk down the same track Monet went all those years back. Magic.

Writing things have not taken that much of a back seat - (despite the fact I'm not meant to be writing much, opportunities keep popping up, too good to miss!)
Hershman and Gebbie, Oxford. 
Yes, that says 'Physics' - and it is the Physics Dept at Oxford University. Let's put this into context - I was so hopeless at it, for reasons which will become clear - that I did not even take O Level Physics. It was fine by the way, until I had the temerity to ask what electricity was and exactly how it worked. The teacher could not answer, blustered and said I didn't need to know that. Yes I did! Hence, no more working, pen down, dig in.  However. Friend and writing colleague Tania Hershman is co-editing a short story anthology to be published on the centenary of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity next year. And a group of writers have been approached to contribute stories. Thus, we all had four rather stunning (and in places completely incomprehensible) lectures, after which we will extrapolate, and mull, and produce a piece of short fiction for this initiative. Freight Publishing is producing the anthology - and there is an open call for submissions - details on Tania's blog, here:

And, also with writing,  I had a wonderful wonderful week at Anam Cara Writers and Artist's retreat from 11 to 19 October. Goodness me - what a lot I learned. Led by Bernard O'Donoghue, and in the company of some stunningly good writers from the US, Ireland, UK and Switzerland, it was the sort of week that should be prescribed on the NHS and after which all would be well for years.

Other writing bits - poetry getting written, a poem due out in Confingo Magazine, and nice news about the illustrated collection Ed's Wife and Other Creatures, which has found a publisher - but  more of that when contracts are finalised.

Thursday 21 August 2014


The promenade and beach at Dieppe, Seine Maritime, today. With its bright noisy fairground,  people enjoying blustery  August walks on the pebbles, the ferry port buzzing with visitors, shops, markets, cafes, restaurants  - it is hard to imagine how it was seventy two years ago. 
On 19th August 1942, the scene looked a little different, as a disastrous raid from the UK led to the deaths of hundreds of young men on Dieppe's beaches, most of them Canadian volunteers. This photo is on the information board at Puys Beach - scene of one of the worst massacres. The raid, it is said, can be justified because we learned much from our mistakes that day that led to our success on D-Day, two years later. However, these assumptions can be questioned.  There is a good reasoned article here:

Afternoon, 18th August. The first ceremony we attended was in remembrance of  two badly injured young Canadian airmen who were cared for by the villagers of St Aubin le Cauf at great risk to themselves.  Sadly, the airmen both died, and were buried in the local churchyard. After the war, the families of the airmen asked that their lads should stay among those who had cared for them. Every year, still, the village remembers them in style.
This permanent display is above their graves, on the church wall. John Edwin Gardiner, aged 23.  Norman Monchier, aged 19. RIP

Then on to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Canadian Cemetery, Cimitiere des Vertus, for a twilight vigil. Here, there are 948 graves, of which 187 are unidentified. 

The vast majority are Canadian soldiers, sailors, airmen who died on the day  - 19th August 1942.   Annually, on this date, schoolchildren place red roses by every grave. It was the most poignant experience, to walk between these graves and see the same date on them all.  More casualties of the raid are buried in Rouen, where the wounded were taken to hospital. Others lie in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. 

After a wreath laying at the foot of the Cross of Sacrifice, there was a vigil held in front of the Stone of  Remembrance,  and an 'eternal flame' (inverted commas as it is dismantled after the ceremony...) burning at the heart of a maple leaf.  Here, the young people in red jackets, forming the Fourth Guard to stand vigil, are members of the Vimy Foundation 
The following day, 19th August, the actual day of the raid, we were back at the Cimitiere des Vertus for the main wreath laying, and the number of wreaths was astonishing. Moving. Above you can see  just some of the wreaths waiting to be placed - some young people from the Vimy Foundation again, and four clergymen who would be taking an interfaith service in French and English. 

'The Angel of Dieppe' - Sister Agnes-Marie Valois, who celebrated her 100th birthday in July. She tended casualties on the beach.  Seeing a German soldier about to shoot a badly injured young Canadian, she stood between the injured man and the gun and said he'd have to shoot her first.

"It wasn't war," she said. 'It was a massacre."

Sister Agnes-Marie laid a wreath. She stood, with help,  throughout the silence.

Then we went to a new development on the outskirts of Dieppe, where seven of the new streets are being named after the fallen of 19th August. Robert Boulanger was the youngest to die that day.

Flowers were laid at the new street sign with due dignity,  and a minute's silence. All in the middle of a huge building site. The mayor of Dieppe's speech was very good - knitting the past, the present, and the future as well - represented by the two hundred families who will be moving in to the first phase of the development.
Back to the town and to the Square du Canada, and the main memorial in town, where wreaths were laid by many many individuals and groups, including the Dieppe Fair queen resplendent in  a dress of mauve and silver netting. Speeches followed in the community hall which replaced the casino, destroyed in the war.

On to the final ceremony, at Puys Beach, where the Canadians took their worst losses. Chris laid a wreath here, as he had at all the other places, causing not a little interest in his 18th century court get-up as High Sheriff. In the pic is Revernd Canon Will Pratt, C's Chaplain.

Today Puys Beach was benign, with the sun shining, families playing on the sand. Seventy two years ago it was a different story - the beach strewn with bodies of both dead and wounded, as the landing craft had emptied out their men onto a beach with no access to the valley. In front of them rose a wall topped with barbed wire, and there were gun emplacements on either side. You can still see these.

Puys Beach 19th August, 1942. 

So ended one of the most moving series of commemorations. The series had begin at Newhaven, in Sussex, the week before, with a ceremony at the Canadian Engineers' memorial, as so many of the Canadian soldiers left from here for Dieppe.
        In Newhaven, I chatted to an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair - a veteran of the Raid. His name is Alan Saunders, and he is nearly 92. Blind now, he told me he was looking forward to going on the longest zip wire in Europe, in north Wales, after his 92nd birthday. (!) He was wearing not only his own WW11 medals, but those of his father who served in WW1.

        On 19th August 1942 he was nineteen years old and serving with the Royal Marine Commandos. Caught on a French beach amid shellfire and bullets, he and three chums decided to swim for it rather than stay and be killed. They made it five miles out into the channel before being picked up by one of our destroyers.
        At the wreath laying, he was just about able to stand out of his chair, make his way with the help of two colleagues across the grass to the memorial, and lay a wreath.

Then he stood alone, snapped to attention, and saluted.


Sunday 17 August 2014

Adlestrop poetry competition

Earlier this year, I was delighted to discover that a poem written after seeing a call for poems inspired by Adlestrop by Edward Thomas, had been commended in the competition - run to raise funds for Adlestrop church.  Details of the winning poem, which is rather terrific, can be found here: 

The organisers are now going to publish a collection of the winning, commended and the best of the entries, later this summer. Nice to see, and also nice that my poetry buddy Caroline Davies will have her Adlestrop poem included.

Friday 8 August 2014

For the Children of Gaza -

It's a privilege to join many other writers and artists in this collection of poems, prose and visual art, 
For the Children Of Gaza. 

Writers include the writer Michael Rosen,  who sent this poem
The artwork is poignant, strong, thought-provoking. 

The book is the brainchild of Mathew D Staunton and Rethabile Masilo and is published by

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Jonathan Pinnock talks about his latest book, Take it Cool

Jon Pinnock is one of those writers for whom I have a sneaky and enduring respect - he won't be pigeonholed, and I love that. I was not a little giggly when I kept reading  episodes of Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens -  and delighted when it was published as a whole by Proxima. I wasn't surprised when his collection Dot Dash won the Scott Prize for short fiction collections, and was published by Salt. He's a well published poet, as well as a novelist and short story writer. And now, he is adding a bio-historico-memoirish-musicological-thing to his repertoire... he is here to introduce it, talk about its genesis, and an amazing story it is too. 

Over to you, Jon:

TAKE IT COOL had its genesis back in the early 1980s, when I came across a secondhand reggae single with that name by a chap called Dennis Pinnock. It was pretty good, too, and I especially liked the dub B side, ‘Pinnock’s Paranormal Payback’. It intrigued me to think of a man of apparently West Indian heritage being saddled with the same daft two-consonants-away-from-disaster surname as me, but I didn’t take it any further until around ten years ago, when it suddenly struck me that I could Google him to see if he’d come up with anything else.

It turned out that he had. In fact, his discography ran to over twenty records, although he’d never got as far as making an album of his own, despite working with some of the biggest names in black British music. I began to wonder. What if I were to try and track him down? Might we be related somehow? There might be a story there, although at that point it seemed a bit thin to stretch out to an entire book.

But I wrote up a first draft of a chapter anyway and read it out to my local writers group, the Verulam Writers Circle. It went down very well, and during the discussion, one of the members of the group wondered if there might be a slavery angle behind our shared name. And that was the point at which the project suddenly became a whole load more interesting, because very soon afterwards I tracked down a Pinnock who – among other things – was a big deal plantation owner in Jamaica in the 18th century.

I now had several strands to work with. First of all, who was Dennis Pinnock? Was he still alive? Could I track him down? Secondly, what about all these other records? Were they any good? Maybe I could collect them all! (Sad, I know) Thirdly, what about the Jamaican connection? Was it even possible that – horror of horrors – I could be descended from a slave owner? So perhaps I needed to dig around in my past as well…

It took me almost a decade to pull all this together, partly because of all the research I had to do and also partly because I had no idea if it was ever going to be publishable. The one thing I did have in my favour was that no-one else was likely to come along and beat me to it. I’m still smarting from the way that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies waltzed in and stole all the glory while I was still writing Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens. But this one was always going to be a Pinnock project.

But finish it I did, and I did find a publisher in the end, in the shape of the wonderful Two Ravens Press. The finished book looks lovely – it’s even got colour pictures in the middle! – and everyone who’s read it so far seems to love it. As my publisher says, it’s unlike anything else on the market – which is both a problem and an opportunity. It’s a problem because there isn’t anything I can point to and say “It’s like that.” And it’s an opportunity for exactly the same reason.

Here’s where you can hear me reading the first chapter, which will give you an idea of what it’s all about: The text below it has details of where you can order the book, which of course you’ll want to be doing once you’ve had a listen.

Many thanks indeed to the lovely Vanessa for having me!

Monday 28 July 2014

Lane Ashfeldt and 'Saltwater'

Lane Ashfeldt
I am very pleased to welcome the terrific writer Lane Ashfeldt to the blog today - and her first collection of short stories, 'Saltwater'.  We had a rather lovely event in Brighton a while back to celebrate this collection - a launch at Waterstones during which we discussed things like writing comps, and why...and she kindly agreed to answer some similar questions here. But first - let me say how much I enjoyed this collection. It sings - great characters, great writing - what's not to like?

Me:  Tell me a little about the book - did you consciously write stories in SaltWater with the sea as a character - or did you look back and see what you’d created?

Lane: Not consciously, no. But I grew up on the north Dublin coast, wanting to run away to sea, and while still a teenager I worked aboard a boat on the Rhine. Later, a two-week holiday to a Greek island stretched to a couple of years... Both my parents are from the south west of Ireland and I spent time there growing up, so the sea was kind of “there” in lots of my stories before I ever thought how they’d fit together. When I got to that point there were stories I wrote in for balance. Airside, about people whose islands are taken from them and how that loss filters down generations. And a piece that touches on sea level rise, something we or our children and grandchildren will be living with in the coming decades. I suppose I felt a sea-themed collection that left stuff like this out of the picture would be wrong — yes there are calm blue days in July and August, but what about the rest of the year? These were demanding stories to work on, and I’m aware that in writing them I’ve barely dipped a toe into topics on an oceanic scale. 

Me: Two stories here have won competitions. When in your career did you start entering comps, and why? What prompted that first entry?

Lane: About ten years back, I sent off a few hasty pieces to online lit-spaces and was surprised when they went up as I’d barely finished writing. I’m not good at going to the post office, I like the immediacy of pressing Send instead. It was Save or Send, almost. Why? To see what happened. I heard of short story comps through one of the places that published my work. It was somewhere else to press Send to, though usually with a small entry fee, maybe a fiver. It didn’t seem real until the Fish Prize put a story on their shortlist – then all of a sudden it was really real. I wasn’t rigorous about it though. Never kept a spreadsheet or sent out everything I wrote. There are stories in SaltWater that were never entered into competitions. There’s also a story withdrawn ahead of judging — at shortlist stage they sent a publication contract I could not sign, because by then first publication rights were needed for the collection.

Me: I believe you gave up entering comps for a while - can you expand on that? 

Lane:  thought I’d give up for a year (2012-13) but once the year was over, it’s not something I’ve felt much urge to do. There are of course one or two awards I’d enter if my work met their rules, and if I happened to spot their deadline, and if I happened to have a good unpublished story of the right length. So a lot of ifs, really. Maybe it is the word limit thing that is not suiting me right now. Or maybe it’s just time to move over and let others have a go — people writing for the first time who will get a lot out of it.

Me: What about judging other people's work, either in a comp, or as an editor? How did that work for you - how did you approach the process?

Lane: You have me there. A set word length isn’t right for me at present, but I can see the point of limits when judging or selecting work – without them, you cannot compare like with like... It’s such a responsibility, to judge other people’s writing. And because it is a relatively small world, after a while you may know some writers or entrants. This can be distracting. Are you voting for the writer, their past work that you and others admired, or the actual story they’ve sent in? Comps that are judged blind minimise these issues, and if invited to edit or judge short stories again this is how I’d like to work. 

Me:. What are you working on now?

Lane: Today, this interview, another interview and some admin and ‘day job’ stuff. Tomorrow I’ll have a little walk to think, and have a proper fiction day. I’ll be working on a project that I’ve had on the go for a while. I’ve a couple of things on the go in fact, at different stages of progress. One of them I really ought to send out sometime soon...

Me: If you could choose a scene from one of your stories and have it painted, who would you choose to paint it, and which scene might it be?

Lane: So there’s this tiny audio piece I recorded for 4’33”, called Wild in the Country. A few young people from the city find themselves near a farm one weekend, and on impulse become animal welfare activists for the night. New Zealand painter Sarah Jane Moon has done some fantastic oil portraits of subcultural groups, and might do a good job. Tricky though. As she mainly works with posed subjects she might demand a reenactment! Failing this, a seascape artist might like to paint (from imagination) a battle scene set on the Irish Sea from the title story in SaltWater. Offers welcome.
metaphorical battle at sea...
Me: Thanks Lane - great to have this conversation here. All very best with the collection! 

Wednesday 23 July 2014

13th International Conference on the Short Story - Vienna - July 15 - 19 2014

Well, what a fantastic week on so many levels. A potent mix of academe and practice, with panel events discussing and debating the myriad facets of short story writers and their writings. There were many participants who straddle the divide very successfully -  wonderful writers, wonderful teachers as well - and some, like me, who just do the practical stuff and non-academic teaching.
It was such a privilege to be there. I;d heard of the conference, had tried to get grants to attend in previous years, with no success - this year I was invited to lead a workshop, to read twice and to be part of a panel discussion "how to read the short story". Too much detail to list it all. Instead, here are a few quick pics taken with the mobile when I thought of it - so apologies that they are not beautiful - but they do illustrate a wonderful week in the company of friends old and new.
Cakes at the legendary Cafe Central

Preparing for an unforgettable reading at the Americahaus - from left: Tomas E Kennedy,  Sandra Cisneros, Robert Olen Butler,  Kelly Cherry - introducing: Dr Maurice E Lee. 

Finally, I own a real panama hat!

Dr Adnan Mahmutovic trying to look dangerous in my hat, unsuccessfully...

Tania Hershman, self, Zoe Gilbert

Jarred McGinnis told this joke, and we all fell about...with Stef Pixner, Alison Lock,  Adnan, Catherine McNamara, Zoe G and Jarred. 

Sandra Jensen, Thomas E Kennedy,  Tania, Elizabeth Baines,  Adnan, David Crean
Cate Kennedy (l) Paul McVeigh (r)

Dr Maurice Lee addresses the multitude at the final al fresco dinner 

Dr Sylvia Petter, organiser of the whole thing, and her husband, Gunter
Robert Olen Butler and friend, after his reading at the Americahaus

Moi with same friend...

seen in a shop window

Valerie Sirr reads at the Irish Embassy

Nuala O'Connor at Irish Embassy

Billy O'Callaghan at the Irish Embassy

Nancy Freund reading at the Juridicum

Jose Vargese reads at the Juridicum