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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.