Waiting For The Great Leap Forward.

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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.

Have you guessed which way I’m voting yet?

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.

Jamelia

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.

Yakking About Writing.

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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.

Definitive book-pointing pose.
Reading to 3rd year creative writing students.

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.

The Fictional East Midlands

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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.

My tips:

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.

Four Towers Walk

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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.

Overhear

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It’s the perfect supplement to the Barry Flanagan exhibition that is currently on at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. Yes, you’ve guessed, it’s my short story, Ikon. Simply get the Overhear App, visit the Ikon Gallery, and download an audio file of me reading the story at the Ikon. Sorted.

October!?

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I’m pretty shattered at the moment. I’m busy with the day job and I’ve lots of writing stuff to get done too. I’m not complaining, I like to be busy, but it would be nice to just stretch out and switch off for a bit. Anyway, what have I been up to? Well, writing, obviously, but not in the way I’m used to. Let me clarify that. I’ve been writing for two Apps, something I’ve never done before. Both are very interesting applications that I think a lot of people are going to love. The first I want to talk about is the Overhear App.

Overhear Birmingham.

Overhear is an innovative way of sharing poetry and prose and bringing greater exposure to some of the beautiful spaces and places that Birmingham has. It works like this: you download the App, select your city, and then go hunting for literature. For example, my story, Ikon, unsurprisingly, is linked to the Ikon Gallery. You have to physically be in the Ikon Gallery to then unlock my story. When the story is unlocked, you will then be able to play an audio file of me reading the story. There are a whole host of files to collect as part of this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival, and you can also collect poems that were released at this year’s Verve Poetry Festival. The App is free, as is the downloading of the files. The only thing you have to do is be in the correct location to download the file. The really terrible thing is that lots of the venues serve fantastic coffee, cake, beer, food etc. It’d be just awful if you happened to eat or drink in one of them.

The actual writing work for this was fairly straight forward. I had a couple of constraints, most commissions only had one. All of the commissions had to link their story to the site where it was to be unlocked. They didn’t necessarily have to take place there, but the site must have some link to the story. The extra constraint I had was to link my story to the current Barry Flanagan exhibition that is on at the Ikon. This may sound like a bit of a bind, but I found it liberating and challenging all in one – and I like a good challenge.

I’m pleased with the story I’ve produced. It speaks about the nature of art, loneliness, and friendship between males – something we’re not very good at expressing. Do check this out next time you’re in Birmingham, and please let me know what you think.

The Overhear App is available from the App Store and Google Play.

The other App I’ve been writing for has been a very different kind of challenge altogether. Questo is a location-based App. It’s like a cross between a puzzle and a story. You have a physical starting point in Birmingham, and you have to solve clues before you can move onto the next stage of your’ quest.’ It’s a great, fun way to explore a city, to enjoy a story, and to learn a bit about the place you’re in. The challenge for me was to not only have an idea for a story, but to also plan a route through the city, and create clues that need to be solved.

I had to do a fair bit of research for this commission. There needed to be the right proportion of historical facts interwoven throughout the quest, and it had to link in with the given theme. I won’t say what the theme is, but the fact that it launches on October the 31st should give you a clue.

To be honest, the second App, Questo, has been the more significant challenge. I’ve learnt a lot about collaboration and communicating with others, but there have been moments where I’ve felt like chucking it all in. Thankfully, the Questo team have been very supportive and have guided me through the whole process.

Questo is also available from the App Store and Google Play. There is a fee for unlocking each quest. If you do try this quest, I’d love to hear how you got on.

That’s it for now. I’m going to lie down in a dark room for a bit.

Marvellous.

It’s Out! Songs For The Elephant Man in shops now.

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I received my copy of Songs For The Elephant Man the other day and its a beauty. This great collection of short stories is yours for mere pounds – £8.99 for eighteen stories!

You can order this from any good bookshop or buy it direct from the publisher’s website by clicking here.

As always, let me know what you think.

Songs for the Elephant Man

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My story, Electricity, will be published shortly as part of this wonderful anthology from Mantle Lane Press.

It’s a excellent title for the collection as all the stories are about or misfits. However, thanks to Matt Berry’s Year of the Rabbit on Channel 4 I can now only ever see the Elephant Man as a camp thespian on the make.