I’ve not posted since the 30th of June. What did I miss?
You’ve probably guessed this but I’ve been busy.
Busy writing, working and generally trying to distract myself from the apocalypse but now I’m back. I’ve some news later about a short story that’s due to be published but for now I just want to tell you about a little thing I was involved with as part of the Birmingham Literature Festival.
Hear Buddy Here is an online writers meet up and one of the meetings was recorded as part of the festival and is now available online. You can view it here on the Festival site, or here on YouTube, or it’s there, below, just click on it. This snippet features five writers: Michael Toolan, Kate Innes, me, Santoshi Mann and Dan Shooter. For those of you who need to know such things, I appear around the 20 minute mark reading an extract from Weekenders and go on to talk about writing and the life of stories. Enjoy.
I don’t tend to post a lot of reviews here, but I’ve made an exception for Lisa Blower’s Pond Weed and here’s why….
I read this very quickly much quicker than Selwyn and Ginny’s journey from Stoke to Wales. This is the third book of Lisa’s that I’ve read, and they continue to grow in richness and depth, much like the contents of one of Selwyn’s pond experiments. If you haven’t read Sitting Ducks or It’s All Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s House, you really should.
Pondweed concerns itself with Ginny and Selwyn an unusual couple who were neighbours in their teens and have met again in their late 60’s and early 70’s with Selwyn being the slightly older and supposedly wiser of the two. Ginny is our unreliable narrator who steers us through the present via the past and who has a larder full of secrets that are gradually revealed along their journey.
Pondweed starts when Selwyn arrives home early from work and instructs Ginny to pack her bags as they’re going on holiday to Wales. Try as she might she cannot get the reason for this impromptu break or their final destination. This book is all about language, the words the characters use and the economy and finesse with which Blower uses them to convey a situation or a character. At one-point Selwyn and Ginny stay in a grim room at a pub called The Swan with Two Necks,
“The room is dissatisfying and small. The door opens onto the double bed with its feeble white duvet, and there’s a window above the bed, with curtains that don’t meet in the middle.”
Brief, concise and crisp – much crisper than the sheets on the bed.
Throughout the book, we are treated to quotes from Selwyn Robby’s The Great Necessity of Ponds. I found these quotes interesting for several reasons. Firstly, I’d just dug, lined and filled a pond in my garden so any tips are greatly received but more importantly it was a glimpse at Selwyn’s inner life and his lifelong passion, and they often reflected what was going on in the book. This quote from the beginning of The Tenth Day chapter could equally relate to Ginny and Selwyn’s journey and relationship,
“Water beetles can fly, and they readily leave the pond, usually at night, to indulge in long flights in search of possibility. During the course, they occasionally mistake the wet road for a stretch of water and come to grief.”
At the beginning, I found myself siding with Ginny dragged away from home with no real explanation, chance encounter after chance encounter leading her to correctly assume there’s a method in Selwyn’s madness, but as their journey progressed it was Selwyn I started to side with as Ginny projected her distrust upon Selwyn’s actions.
There’s lots to love in this book. The two main characters are expertly realised with depth and humour as is Ginny’s mother, Meg and the mysterious Bluebird as well as the caravan with its optics and fish in the glass pedestal of a washbasin which, with its shedding of letters and weird plumping is almost another character in its own right. The convoluted car journey mirrors Ginny and Selwyn’s romance, of sorts, and is realised with craft and precision. I loved losing myself in this book with its attention to character and place, real characters and real places, and I’m sure you will do too.
Are you self-isolating, contemplating the viral apocalypse, or just keen to help others through this difficult time? Then, if you’re a writer, poet, scriptwriter, storyteller, filmmaker, or just a keen amateur this could be right up your street.
I’m gathering together a wild creative bunch of the above people to produce a viral story – don’t worry, it’s not infectious. No, it’s viral in the sense that you have the story and then pass it onto somebody else who passes it onto somebody else who…you get the idea.
How will it work? I or somebody else will start the story off by speaking to camera, most computers/phones have this facility these days, for between two to three minutes, that’s around 260-390 words. That video will then be uploaded and shared across social media with the next contributor tagged in. They will continue the story for another 2-3mins and then tag another writer in. Obviously, I don’t want to be tagging writers in who are unable to take part so I will put a call out on twitter etc. to see who’s interested first. If you’ve ever played the drawing game consequences or used till-roll poetry in a writing workshop, it’s the same idea.
Let me know if you’re interested ASAP as I’d like to try and get this up and running today or tomorrow at the latest.
My last post was concerning the huge boost to arts funding that would become a reality after Labour won the 2019 general election – well, that never happened. A bit of a shock if I’m honest. I’m a bit of an optimist, and I was convinced that Labour’s argument couldn’t fail, but it did, so what does the future hold? Well, not a lot if you’re going to sit around waiting for someone to do things for you. It seems that the right-wing have public opinion sown up, thanks to their super-rich media-moguls, but that doesn’t mean we can’ bring about change in our own lives – just look at the huge impact Greta Thunberg has had upon the world simply by going on strike!
We need to make things happen ourselves – don’t worry, this isn’t the part where I hurl internet platitudes at you, ‘Be the lobster you want to be!’ So what am I doing, apart from displaying my fondness for the word lobster? A few things. Me and a talented friend are putting together a book. We’re both fed up of being at the mercy of literary gatekeepers and decided we’d do it ourselves, but this isn’t some self-publishing vanity project – to be fair, much of the self-publishing world isn’t. This will be a labour of love to a part of our city that means a lot to both of us. We’ll be documenting in words, both factual and fictional, and images, a part of this glorious place we live in that could soon be no more. Some of you may even buy it – now there’s a thought.
I continue to scratch away with my own writing. I will have a short story out this year in a Birmingham themed collection from Dostoyevsky Wannabe, and I continue to send words out to potential publishers – chin up, no man’s put me down yet…
There are opportunities out there for creative types like me and I shall be doing my best to snag a few of them. I enjoy working with others, and unlocking other people’s potential, so I’ll be looking out for more stuff like that as well as stand alone projects. A few are already on my radar – it must be this 2020 vision.
I’ve also agreed to climb Snowden in the dark – climbing it in daylight is too easy! That last statement is something I’d never say. I’ll post some more info regarding this soon.
January has nearly gone and I’ve not done half as much as I intended to. I will do more in February. See you there.
Don’t switch off. This blog is about education and arts funding – something that enriches all our lives. Please, read on.
I went to a political rally last night. There, it’s out the bag. Shush, I hear you hiss. This blog is meant for writing and creativity, don’t sully it with the dirty world of politics! I understand that some people feel that way. Hell, I even have friends that, after years of arguing, have decided that we should avoid that distasteful area altogether. However, here in the UK, we are on the cusp of something truly horrific, the handing over of absolute power to serial liar, racist and adulterer, Boris Johnson, or the implementation of a radical new state that will nurture and develop creativity, culture and ultimately happiness through placing a Labour government in power. This, of course, is an oversimplification, but not by much.
It was a bitter-cold, blustery night in Digbeth, in what used to be Birmingham’s industrial heart. Digbeth, in recent years, has been transformed into a creative oasis of small digital companies, arts organisations, entrepreneurs and entertainment that has been embraced by Brummies, Midlanders and beyond – Stephen Spielburg has shot a film here has have many other established filmmakers. My son and I queued with many others to hear Jeremy Corbyn speak. What! Corbyn, chief antisemite and all-round devil’s spawn? Yes, and no. I’ve seen Corbyn speak on several occasions and he’s always struck me as a caring, vibrant man who is genuinely interested in others, and someone who wants to change the UK for the better. The way he’s been presented in the media is wholly at odds with the man you meet in person, but that’s a whole blog post in itself, probably a series of blogs. However, just to touch on that briefly, this summer I was walking around a museum in Prague and I heard some Americans talking to a European about how biased the media is in the States. They said, for impartiality, they got their news from the BBC. I failed to fight back a laugh and received a strange look or two. I didn’t attempt to ‘correct’ their view, I was on holiday, but it wasn’t that long ago that I also felt that the BBC were impartial. Not any more. In this election campaign, we have seen the Tory bias of the BBC cranked up to previously unimagined heights with edited interviews and news footage that show Boris Johnson in a positive light being passed off as mistakes. With that toxic atmosphere in mind, it was wonderful to see so many young people, and people from diverse backgrounds last night.
We got in early, too bloody early as a friend had told me he’d been turned away from events before, so best to get there early – my legs were killing me by the end. However, our punctuality meant that we got a very good spot down the front. Angela Rayner, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, compared the evening with aplomb and passion. We were treated to first hand accounts of years of Tory cuts from union reps and support staff in education as well as the music from Kioko, an up and coming local band, poetry from three local poets, and the general secretaries of the NEU teachers union – the largest in the UK, and Brum’s very own Jamelia.
Jamelia wasn’t there to talk about her impressive pop career, but about the support, she’d received from the state when she was growing up in Birmingham. She wanted others to take note that she had been supported, and her mother, by our incredible NHS and state education, and that she wants others to have the same opportunities that she has had. It was a very passionate and honest speech where she admitted that she’d never voted before and that it would be her and her eighteen year old daughter’s first time on December the 12th.
Finally, Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage and laid out clearly how a Labour government will transform education by increasing funding levels to above 2010 rates, creating a National Education Service, rebuilding Ofsted to support teaching rather than condemn it, funding a pupil arts passport that ring-fences arts spending, creating fully funded nursery places for all, promoting a love of learning via whichever route best suits, and much, much more.
The reason I felt the need to write this here was because of Labour’s stance regarding the arts. Corbyn came on after the poets and he was genuinely moved by their performance and spoke of the power of all the arts to transform lives. This is something he is passionate about, not something, like Johnson, that he believes is there for those who can afford it. Up until three years ago, I was an art teacher in a busy special needs school. I started in education when funding for the arts was in place and I saw the positive effect it had upon the challenging children that I worked with. That has now gone. The arts have been cut from many school’s curriculums with some schools even dropping to four and a half days a week because they can not afford to pay staff. Labour will not only reverse cuts to school funding, but they will also increase funding. If it hadn’t have been for arts lessons in school I would have dropped out of education, no doubt about it. For some pupils, creativity in lessons like art, music, dance etc. is the only thing that keeps them going. Our current Tory government does not care one jot about this – they can afford to pay for the arts.
I took a lot of hope away from last night. Hope, because we have an opposition that is fighting for the things that are important to me and so many other. Hope, because Digbeth was full of young people ready to fight for what is theirs, and hope because, despite what the mainstream media are telling us, people want change. Talk to people who are out there knocking on doors. People want change and it’s up to all of us to ensure that on December 12th that’s what they get.
I went to see Billy Bragg on Tuesday, also in Digbeth, and he spoke about the power of talking to people. He told us about his activism to halt the fascists taking over Barking and Dagenham Council. A handful of BNP candidates had been elected to the council and there was a real fear that at the upcoming local elections in 2010 that they could take control of the council. Labour members took to the streets and campaigned. They knocked on doors and spoke to people. They waited for the result and hoped that they’d pegged them back. They hoped that the BNP majority would not increase. The result came in. Every single member of the BNP lost their seat. Change can come, but we have to get out there and make it happen. Don’t sentence the UK to another five years of Tory lies and cuts. Save our education, fund our arts, vote Labour.
Following on from my visit to the University of Leicester last week here are some pics of me in action and a link to the podcast that came from the day. Scroll down for the link.
Click here for the Golden Room podcast featuring me interviewed by Dr Kevan Manwaring.
I’m pleased with the podcast because I don’t sound like an arse and you can hear that we genuinely get on and enjoy talking about writing – there’s quite a bit of laughing, which can’t be bad. There’s also a couple of old songs from me, not too cringeworthy, as well as some recordings of the work I read on the day.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Leicester answering questions from the students and sharing my limited insights into the world of writing and publication. I hope you enjoy the podcast and pictures, well, the podcast more than the pictures.
Well, the real East Midlands, but I’ll be talking about fiction.
Today, I’m off to the University of Leicester to talk to creative writing students about writing and all that jazz. I’m looking forward to it, but what do you say to someone just starting out as a writer? I’m not sure. Thinking back to when I first started reminds me of how impossible it can feel, and still does even though I’ve a few publications under my belt – yeah, it’s books, not middle-age-spread.
But what would I have helped me way back then? Well, a peek behind the curtain wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know where they hung out, or even what trousers they wore – was there a special hat? I did meet one writer when I first moved to Birmingham, he’d placed an ad in the local paper, it was pre internet, asking to meet other writers, but I, rightly or wrongly decided he was mad and gave him a wide berth.
Nowadays, there’s tons of stuff on the internet about writing, you can even watch videos of writers talking about writing! Some of this is useful and some of it is watered down cut n paste gibberish from the click-bait crew.
The things that would’ve helped me were talking about the craft and the industry. You need to get your head around the craft before you can think about publication. I initially put ‘master the craft’ in the previous sentence, but this is something you work towards your entire writing life. I have not mastered the craft, but I continue to try.
I’m getting closer to Leicester, so I better wrap this up.
Write. I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many people are in love with the imagined life of the writer that never write.
Re-write. Hard to do unless you’ve cracked the first one. Editing your work is when the real work begins, but if you’ve no work to edit…Years ago, I thought writers say down in front of a typewriter and bashed out their masterpieces…
Hone your craft. Look at the writers you admire. How to they construct their stories? What makes their sentences alive and engaging? When I first joined a writers’ group, one of the members said my work reminded them of David Peace. They were right. I’d become so obsessed with his writing that I’d started to write like him – I don’t now, but I learnt a lot from copying his style. There’s nothing wrong with copying someone else’s style as long as your own style develops along the way.
The mechanics. This is what they teach in schools to the exclusion of everything else; it’s the nuts and bolts that hold stories together: spelling and punctuation. I’ve always struggled with this. I recently discovered I’m mildly dyslexic which answered a lot of questions. Check your work thoroughly before sending it out.
Finally, because I’m already at Narborough, read, read, read. I’ve met some writers who say they don’t have time to read, or they don’t read fiction even though they write it. This baffles me. You’d be hard pressed to find a successful musician, artist etc. who didn’t follow the work of people they admired. Reading other people’s work is so, so important – just do it!
Bugger, I’m approaching Leicester. This is way too brief, but let me know what you think.
I’m walking and talking this Saturday the 19th of October, tomorrow. The wonderful people at Overhear Poetry commissioned me to create a walk that would be a writerly response to my home city of Birmingham, so that’s what I’ve done.
This is not a facts and figures tour. It’s a creative look at a city you think you know, an interpretation of space, environment and architecture. But it’s not all me. I’ll be asking you to respond to points on the walk with snippets of poetic text in the style of Ian McMillan’s daily tweets.
Join me tomorrow at 10:30 outside Birmingham’s Roundhouse and delve into the heart of the city. There are a few tickets still available and you can get them here.