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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.