I’m very much looking forward to this event. Here you will get to meet the editors of Digbeth Stories, hear their thoughts on the state of publishing in the UK, why they’ve chosen Digbeth and what makes a good piece of writing as well as hear from Kit de Waal who will be submitting a brand new story to the anthology. As well as all the above it’s an ideal opportunity to meet other writers and to pitch your story ideas to the editors. See you there.
It’s the season of giving, so here are a few snippets of Fletcher Christmas life from over the years – enjoy.
Dad liberated twelve turkeys. It was mid-December, and he was out of work. He borrowed Jez Bailey’s Bedford van, and Jez, and drove to a farm just past Harlestone Firs early one morning. Armed with bolt cutters, sacks and torches they broke in, helped themselves. Terrified poultry blocked out the noise of the farmer waking up, thudding down his stairs and retrieving his shotgun. The van was parked, side doors slid back, and rear doors flung wide, next to the large barn. The sacks forgotten, they grabbed the birds’ legs and flung them into the van. Fifteen were inside when the farm lights went on. Dad and Jez froze. The turkeys gobbling and gabbling intensified; eyes like black pearls set in alien grey-blue skin, focused solely upon them. Jez ran to the driver’s door as Dad slammed shut the rear doors. A shotgun blast tore over the van and the remaining turkeys bolted for freedom; the silent night broken with petrified squawking. Grey and black feathers snowed down. Jez scraped through the gearbox as Dad leapt head-first into the van. Half-way back to town hey slid the doors shut and stopped laughing.
Dad never divulged his initial plan, just said it was Christmas. Jez took five and Dad took seven as it was his idea. Three escaped. I imagine them living out their days in the forest, however unlikely that is. The biggest bird was for us. The others given to the pensioners on the estate.
Mum woke to a very confused and angry turkey strutting around the yard and said, if you think I’m killing that you’ve got another think coming. Pap, who’d worked for years as a butcher, was too busy to come round but offered to talk Dad through the process of killing and draining over the phone. Mum needed some fresh air and left him to it. When she returned, the yard was covered in feathers and Dad was washing out a bloody bucket in the sink. The bird hung in the small brick shed for just under two weeks. I wasn’t born when this happened, but I’ve absorbed more and more of the story at every telling. This story has changed over the years, as stories do, but the thing that hasn’t is that it was the best turkey they ever had.
All Wrapped Up for Christmas
There were chocolates on the tree in the shape of reindeer, snowmen, Christmas trees, presents, all wrapped in festive reds, greens and golds. There were chocolates on the Christmas tree, and we coveted them, touched them, imagined them melting in our mouths. There were chocolates on the Christmas tree, and we were not allowed to touch them, not until Christmas Day. Not until Mum gave the word. There were chocolates on the Christmas tree and then, the low hanging ones, the ones we could reach, were gone. Have you eaten the chocolates off the tree? Not a question, more a statement of fact. I protested my innocence as did my brother, but he breathed lies. Punishment was swift, a hand raised a smack delivered once, twice, three times. The pain faded but the injustice didn’t. Sam, the boxer dog, looked on, eyes wide.
A shadow hung over the next two days that was swiftly diffused by the glare of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I knew Lee had done it. That’s what he did. He lied and cheated, but food, presents, food, TV, food, family, games and food smothered the nagging in my stomach.
Boxing Day was bright and fresh, and yesterday’s presents were waiting to be played with. Sam was in the yard to stop him begging at the oven. I got washed and dressed and took some cold turkey out to him. He’d pooed on the slabs; Mum would not be pleased. He turned his doleful eyes towards me and sniffed at the air. I placed the meat at his feet and as he was eating it, I played with his velvet brown ears rubbing them between my thumb and forefinger. I looked over at his dark poo. Flecked within it were red, green and gold pieces of chocolate wrappers.
Where I Belong
Christmas Dinner is a big deal in our house. The bird has to be ordered, collected, prepped and cooked along with enough vegetables to feed the street, not just the four of us. We never have people around for Christmas Dinner, but family and friends pop in and out before, during and after. Booze fuels the day. Food needs to be consumed in large quantities to stave off an early alcoholic peak which is a real threat considering Mum and Dad start drinking at breakfast. Mum favours wine, white wine predominantly, sometimes sparkling, but red and even the odd spirit can make an appearance. Dad sticks to bitter, or if he’s feeling daring, stout. I will join in, later, but not to their Olympic standards – I’m strictly amateur. Dinner time is announced, adjusted and announced again to incorporate guests and dashes to uncle Loz’s in the next street. The food is always incredible. Turkey roasted and glazed to moist perfection, the potatoes’ fluffy contents sealed within a crispy shell, carrots firm and sweet, fresh bread and onion stuffing, chipolatas wrapped in bacon, even the cabbage is edible.
At some point, there will be a moment between me and Dad. He’ll place his large hand on my shoulder, struggle to find the words, squeeze until I fear my collar bone will crack and then he’ll say, he’s a good lad. Isn’t he, Shug? Mum will call him daft, but later on, when the plates are just bones and gravy, she’ll corner me, bleary-eyed, and tell me how she loves me.
There’s never an argument in our house on Christmas Day. There are wild claims, exaltations of friendship, debts highlighted, claims of tenderness and love, when the alcohol has marinated the heart, gratitude for gifts and favours given, all sprinkled with sworn warm affection.
In the lounge, the TV will mumble in the background, a disjointed rhythm track to Dad’s snoring, and Mum will disappear upstairs for ‘five minutes kip.’ Hours later she’ll busy herself in the kitchen cutting cold meats, bread, cheese, setting out jars of pickles and chutney, crackers and cake. Mum will feel bad for missing the Queen’s speech and Dad will tell me for the hundredth time that Steve McQueen did his own stunts in The Great Escape. Outside, it will be black as coal with the smudge of mist and the hope of snow. Inside the heating will be up full, damn the expense, Mum will be on the phone to Pap going over the Christmas meal in minute detail, successes and failures, and I will know exactly where I am and where I belong.
I’m very pleased to announce that my short story, Every Little Bit Hurts, is now available in issue 31 of Prole.
“Prole is a literary print journal that publishes high quality, accessible poetry and prose. We aim to entertain, challenge, but never excude. At Prole, the reader comes first but we work actively with our contributors and pay a small royalty for anything we publish. Prole is published twice a year in June and December.
Prole is edited by Brett Evans and Phil Robertson from North Wales and the North West of England.”
Every Little Bit Hurts is a bitter sweet tale of one man’s inflammatory response to his wife’s untimely death. You can order the latest issue of Prole by simply clicking on this link.
2020 is a year many of us would gladly forget. A year of upheaval, confusion and loss. People have lost their livelihood, their education, way of life, and far too many have lost their lives. I, like countless others, feel tempted to scrub this from my memory and start afresh in 2021. The pessimist in me needs little encouragement, and he’s had a wealth of stuff to feed on this year, but I’ve left him watching the BBC News Channel so that I can focus on the things that reminded me of who I was and why I do what I do. In short, this post is about the things that made me smile in 2020.
Getting stuff out there. I had three stories published this year. My mediocre average is around two a year, and I have another due out in January next year! Having said that, writing has been difficult under Covid. I’ve been working a lot from home – that’s the work I have to do to pay the bills, not the work I want to do, writing – and using the same space to do both has been difficult. But I’m lucky, many writers have nowhere to write.
One of my biggest pleasures of 2020 was discovering Junoire and playing their Une Deux Trois LP to death. It’s such a gorgeous album full of infectious choruses, subtle hooks, sublime vocals, cool French style and a clever nod to the pop of the 60’s – the great stuff, not the shite. Live music took a hell of a hammering this year, but when it’s safe to do so, I’ll be off to see these guys.
Galileo 7’s Decayed LP was a joyous surprise. I have some of their stuff which I enjoyed, but not to the extent that I’d rant on to others about how great it was – it was okay, and I liked it. That all changed with this album. An album of covers.
Covering other people’s work can be hit and miss. For every All Along the Watchtower, there’s a hundred reality TV morons and manufactured pop stars murdering Leonard Cohen etc. This was different. Very different. Their version of X-Ray Specs’ The Day the World Turned Dayglow aside, every track is an energetic revelation of how much you can cram your soul with joy using only guitars, drums and keyboards. The only reason I’ve excluded Dayglow from that is that it sounds so much like the original, but, between you and me, I prefer it. If you buy one album recommended by someone you don’t really know then it should be this one if only for their version of Julian Cope’s Reynard The Fox which is an invigorating crash of energy and conviction that surpasses the original.
Kevin Barry’s That Old Country Music was a delight to read. Barry is one of the writers that I hugely admire, and this collection sees him at the top of his game. His use of language, form and his ability to tell a tale is unsurpassed. I attended the online book launch for this, and Mr Barry is just as rich and giving in real life. I’m not going to review the book – I think I’ve done that elsewhere – just buy the bloody thing.
Kevin Barry’s The Night Boat to Tangiers. I’m not sure when this was published but I read it this year and loved it from the first page till the last. For all the reasons above, you need to buy this too.
Digging a pond. Yep, iron bar, spade, buckets, skip and lots of sweat – from me, not to fill it. We’d talked about having a pond for the wildlife it attracts and when there was nothing else to do there were no other reasons not to. This was hard physical work, something I’ve not done since working briefly with my dad as a builder, but immensely satisfying. The pond is well established now. I spent the summer watching frogs go bonkers in the heat while reading Lisa Blower’s Pond Weed which was a pleasurable coincidence.
Wendy Erskine was a new voice to me, and I can’t remember who recommended her, but her short story collection, Sweet Home, is a real treasure. Why is it that most of my favourite writers are Irish?
Creating a podcast was something I fell into by mistake. My short story, Raven, was selected for the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Birmingham anthology, but due to Covid, we were unable to physically launch it. Emails went back and forth regarding what we could do and before I knew it, I was producing a series of seven podcasts to promote the book. This was slightly daunting and very exciting. Everything was recorded remotely then edited together by me – I even wrote a short piece of music for the introduction and end. Talking to the other writers about their stories and methods was enlightening and inspiring, and I’m always up for acquiring new skills.
I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but this is another one that stands out. Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky is science fiction/fantasy and takes place at the end of the world. Tchaikovsky’s world-building is second to none. The world he creates is compelling and completely immersive. The level of detail coupled with his succinct descriptions creates a believable and gripping setting that his finely drawn characters must traverse. The writing throughout is very literary and not at all trashy. At 602 pages this isn’t a quick read, but I was reluctant to finish it as I didn’t want it to end. You either like genre stuff or you don’t. I do, and if you do too…
Gigs of the live variety were rarer than rocking-horse dung this year. There were a plethora of acts doing special online events. I only attended two. The first was an intimate performance from Billy Bragg’s lounge and the second the huge world-wide, live-stream, bonanza that was the Gorillaz Song Book tour, two very different events.
Bragg’s gig was very much like the man, honest, low-key and positive. It was him against a blank wall in his house playing to an iPhone and I loved it. The Gorillaz’s gig couldn’t have been more different. A scary Robert Smith in the flesh, holograms, Peter Hook with his knee-cap bass and an animated Elton John along with a kick-ass band and retina-burning light show. Between the gaps in songs, you could faintly hear the crew cheering like the ghosts of gigs past. I enjoyed both of these, but both left me hankering to be there for real – although I’m in no rush to get Covid.
Sticking with music I need to mention the massive grin that was on my face the first time I heard Valleys by Working Men’s Club – the best New Order song I’ve heard in years.
2020 has ended with me hosting meetings on Skype, running training from Teams, catching up with friends on Zoom and delivering lessons on Blackboard, things I wouldn’t have had a clue about this time last year.
Friends have been really important throughout this. I’m not the most touchy-feely of people. Maybe that’s because I’m a working-class male or just the way I am, but it’s something I need to work on. An old friend of mine died this year from a heroin overdose. He was a year younger than me, a funny, cheeky bastard, an amazing bass player, and a father. I think the last thing I said to him was how ridiculous contemplating buying a six-string bass was – they’re for wankers. I wish it had been something positive. A friend who lives in the States told me about his death and said that it had brought home the fact we need to tell people that we love them before it’s too late and signed off by saying I love you, man. Due to Covid we never got to say goodbye to Daryl, I’m not even sure if his family did, but I love you man – keep slapping that bass.
My son bought me an LP for Christmas and it wasn’t shit! My kids are bonkers and have helped keep me sane through all of this madness. I was genuinely surprised when my son handed me an LP-sized gift. 7 by Beach House is rather wonderful especially as it was so unexpected.
And if you haven’t heard Must I Evolve? from Jarvis Cocker’s Jarvis is…Beyond the Pale, you really should. You won’t hear a finer summing up of Darwin’s theory in under four minutes with such an infectious refrain.
Obviously, 2020 was a lot more than just these snapshots, but these are the moments I want to remember. It could’ve been a hell of a lot better, but here in the UK, we decided to vote in the worst government in living memory and play Russian roulette with people’s lives. Stay healthy, stay positive and never vote Tory. Here’s to a better one in 2021
As part of City Voices December get together, all virtual of course, I shall be reading some Christmas themed stuff. The work I’ll be sharing is brand-spanking-new, some of it isn’t even finished yet, but it will be on the night. If you like turkey theft, too much alcohol and dogs that drop you in it then you really should tune in this Tuesday the 8th of December at 19:30.
The night is open to all free of charge, but if you can and would like to leave a contribution you are more than welcome. Pay as you feel via http://offaspress.co.uk/shop I’ll also give out some info as to how you can get your hands on copies of Night Swimming, and Submerged in time for Christmas.
There are some other great writers reading too: Colin Wells, Gracey Bee, @KraziKuli & David Bingham.
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.
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.