Two titles from Chaffinch Press

Two publications from Chaffinch Press (a Blue Nib imprint), a short story collection from a prize-winning author and an novel that was shortlisted in the Cinnamon Press Novel Award.

“Trouble Crossing the Bridge” Diana Powell

Trouble Crossing the Bridge Diana Powell front coverThe characters in these fifteen stories, while separated by time, place, age and gender, are brought together in this collection, making it a melting-pot of personality, voice, setting and plot. All the characters have been damaged by life in some way – whether by their own psychological problems or by external circumstances such as possessive mothers or abusive fathers. The various ways in which they rise up to meet their particular challenges lies at the heart of all their stories. And they are as diverse as the individuals themselves.

Diana Powell was born and brought up in Llanelli, South Wales. She is the winner of the ChipLit Festival prize, the Allen Raine award, and the 2014, PENfro prize.





“Girl” Maria Straw-Çinar

Girl Maria Straw-Cinar front cover‘Girl’ was shortlisted in the Cinnamon Press Novel Award and concerns Mannis, who is a girl; an amnesiac, an anti-hero, a revelatory, who experiences a warped fairy-tale world in which she becomes the vigilante Queen. Girl takes us on a journey through surreal landscapes in a series of dreamlike flashbacks to Ireland, France, Spain, Oman, Morocco and The Empty Quarter. Mannis kills three men in revenge attacks and cuts out their hearts. She travels South and buys three jewelled caskets in Fez. One for each heart. She lives in isolation as a voluntary mute in the Sahara. It is from here that she begins to recall events that ultimately lead to her transformation. Finally, she finds the sacred ground where she can bury her hearts, perform her alchemy and build a shrine to the future. Managing to change her identity and avoid capture, she wanders for years, searching for her lost child. Celtic mythology, alchemy and poetry collide in this tale of lost innocence and a girl’s struggle for freedom from violent desires and bloody colonialism.

‘I think this is an amazing piece of work. The language is voluptuous, sinuous, rich in colour and delicious play of and on words… an astonishing virtuoso symphonic stream. The passion of it is head-on and the pain and sensuality in startling measure and degree. I revelled.’ Graeme Fife, Writer

‘Mythic, magical and poetic, Girl takes us on an extraordinary journey through loss and transformation. At once an oneiric coming of age novel and an exploration of the violence of sexism and colonialism, Girl is an intense and unique read.’ Jan Fortune, Author and Editor at Cinnamon Press.

Available from

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection.

book table at 14 March launch



The Significance of a Dress Launch

Emma Lee the Significance of a Dress launch 7pm 11 March 2020 Leicester Central Library LE1 6AAThe launch for “The Significance of a Dress” is at the Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm on Wednesday 11 March 2020. Free entry. Refreshments provided.

The Significance of a Dress is collection of “poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart.”

A book trailer for the collection with a recording of the title poem is here.

“Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where next year is not the future but a question. Each refugee, suffragette or shushed voice and narrative encompassed by the poems is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. In ‘Dismantling The Jungle’, flames form “an echo of a former life”. This vivid collection is full of such flames and echoes. Whether it’s “Each dress hangs from a noose” (‘Bridal Dresses in Beirut’) or “Everything Abdel sees is smeared, despite his glasses” (Stories from The Jungle), Emma Lee’s focus is precise, poised and packs emotional punch. Her evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful, powerful and haunting collection.” S A Leavesley

“From the title page of ‘The Significance of a Dress’, Emma Lee cleverly fashions a feminist metaphor for #MeToo into uncompromising forms. These include the terrible symbol of bridal dresses hung from nooses in Beirut, signifying rapists absolved of their crimes through marrying their victims, a figure walking home in the UK uncertain whether she is safe from rape after a recent attack in the area, and further victims of rape and domestic abuse. The reader is never let go, with head dunked into the murky waters of domestic life until forced to accept Lee’s compelling argument of a grossly unequal world. The poet does this with immense skill in versification, giving her audience no option but to pay attention.

“This is daring, well-imagined poetry with global scope, giving voice to women from myriad backgrounds and cultures. It goes far beyond the boundaries of #MeToo, arguing the world has become one of disturbing realm of sexual inequality, in an atmosphere of constant threat. Lee’s collection addresses unfairness, advocating for those who have been denied the ability to speak for themselves.” Dr James Fountain.

The Significance of a Dress is published by Arachne Press.

The Significance of a Dress

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover imageThe title poem is set in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, loosely based on a media interview with the owner of a wedding dress hire shop. I think it’s frequently forgotten how long people end up living in these camps, which were only designed to be temporary. Women often take in sewing to earn some money to buy food and electricity to support children. Those living similar camps are expected to pay for food and energy but not permitted to take on permanent jobs. Why would a wedding dress hire shop be successful?

Some matches will be love matches and I’ve no wish to suggest otherwise. Some, though, are arranged. Parents wish to protect their daughters in a camp where young men outnumber other residents (generally because they can travel alone unencumbered by children or older relatives), and see marriage as a way of achieving this in places that are not policed and where sexual assaults are common. In a camp of people who had fled war are still suffering trauma and feel they are still living in limbo: not accepted in the place they have sought refuge but unable to return to their original country, marriage is an act of hope.

There is a danger of child brides. The particular wedding dress hire shop I wrote about has a mural outside showing a young girl in a white dress clutching a teddy bear. However, no one asks how old the brides-to-be are, and it’s not always easy to tell the age of a heavily made-up teenager. For young people who have seen their homelands bombed or escaped conscription, either into the military or guerrilla groups, romance and marriage feels like a future, albeit one lit by cheap diamante.

In 2015, I joined Kathleen Bell and Siobhan Logan in editing “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge”. One of the criteria for choosing poems for inclusion was that poems shouldn’t focus solely on doom and gloom. The book would be a difficult, but not a harrowing read. I carried that criterion into “The Significance of a Dress”; there are notes of hope, rescue and small but significance acts of kindness.

“Poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart.”

“Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where each poem’s narrative is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. Emma Lee’s evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details that pack emotional punch. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful haunting collection.” S A Leavesley

The Significance of a Dress is published by Arachne Press on 27 February 2020. There will be a launch at the Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm on Wednesday 11 March 2020.

Emma Lee the Significance of a Dress launch 7pm 11 March 2020 Leicester Central Library LE1 6AA

“Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife” Anne Walsh Donnelly (The Blue Nib)

Anne Walsh Donnelly Demise of the Undertakers Wife cover“Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife” is Anne Walsh Donnelly’s debut short story collection due from The Blue Nib in September 2019. Some of the stories previously appeared in Cránnog, Henshaw Two Anthology, Ireland’s Own Anthology, Creative Writing Ink Journal, Writers’ Forum and The Blue Nib.

Each story features characters facing an issue, such as loss of their home or a long term partner, that, in some cases, leads to a desperate solution. The stories explore themes of anger, betrayal, death and loneliness. Some characters reach redemption when they reach out to others for support to conquer their demons. A secondary theme that runs throughout is sexuality and the appalling effects of societal and religious pressure to conform and repress in favour of maintaining the status quo. The characters put their stories in their own words.

The title story starts with a father about to bury his adult son and a request for a larger coffin so the son’s dogs, poisoned by bullies, can be buried with him. The undertaker has his own problems: a spendthrift wife and his own son had left to live and work aboard, plus he’s haunted by an image of his wife in a black Audi with another man. The undertaker has gone as far as getting solicitor’s advice as to where he’d stand should his wife leave him but he doesn’t know whether she’s actually planning to leave. So far, the undertaker has turned a blind eye but when he remembers his son telling him about the black Audi just before he goes abroad, he resolves to do something to shock his wife into realising she can’t take him for granted anymore.

Anne Walsh Donnelly describes writing as “it is my playground. I experiment, take risks, run wild on the page, always hoping my work will resonate with the reader. I write my emotional truth and bring my whole self to my writing.”

Kevin Higgins describes Anne Walsh Donnelly as “by far the most daring poet to emerge in Ireland of late. The starkly honest and overt sexuality which pervades Anne’s poetry make the work of pretty much all her contemporaries appear repressed and backward looking in comparison. This publication would certainly have been banned in the Ireland of the past. Indeed, she is one of the few poets around whose work has the glorious ability to get moralistic, supposedly liberal eyebrows twitching. Anne’s poems are pretty perfectly formed hand grenades which she tosses about the place with abandon while maintaining a deadpan face. I think this publication is the beginning of something great.”

Anne Walsh Donnelly’s poetry chapbook “The Woman With The Owl Tattoo” (Fly On The Wall) was published in June 2019.

“Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife” is available for pre-order from The Blue Nib.

How to approach a Reviewer

I’ve had a few review requests over the past few months. Most, but not all, followed my review guidelines so I thought I’d give a few tips on how to approach a reviewer or editor to request a review.

  • Read at least one copy of the magazine or a couple of blog articles to get a feel for what the magazine/blogger reviews and whether they’re the right target audience for your book – sending a book of traditionally written verse isn’t going to get a great reception at a blog that only focuses on contemporary poetry. A woman reviewer is unlikely to be interested in reviewing an anthology that features only male writers and vice versa.
  • Don’t just focus on one blog or magazine, make a list of several. Ideally, you want more than one review and your first choice may not be able to give you a review.
    Think about your timing. Do you want the review to appear on or around publication date or are you looking for a review to keep your book on the radar after the initial launch publicity and sales?
  • If you’re looking to link a review to a specific date or few days, mention this in your approach and give plenty of notice. Good reviewers don’t have to sit around and wait for requests, they often have reviews scheduled in advance.
  • Give the reviewer chance to respond to your request before following-up. I try to respond within 24 hours, but sometimes life gets in the way. If you chase a response before a reviewer’s had chance to read your original request, the answer will be no.
  • Give the reviewer time to actually read the book. Reviewers often have other commitments, may be writers themselves and already have a ‘to be reviewed’ queue. Asking a reviewer to review a novel within a working week simply isn’t practical. Tight deadlines will encourage a reviewer to refuse your review request.
  • Don’t dictate when the review should appear. By all means ask if the review could be published to coincide with a launch, but keep in mind a blog or a magazine publishes to a schedule so be ready to compromise by the reviewer saying that they will post on the scheduled date closest to your launch.
  • Check the magazine or blog’s Review Guidelines (if any) and follow them.
  • If a magazine editor or reviewer asks for a request first, send a request. I ask for a request first so I can check my schedule and commitments and give the requester a time frame for publication of my review. It also gives the reviewer chance to request their preferred format. Some reviewers don’t like electronic copies. I’ve not met a review who likes NetGalley or similar platforms which use DRM software to limit the reviewer to one download to one device. This places restrictions on when/where the reviewer can read the download and can mean a reviewer has to alter their regular schedule to fit in the review. A review copy that can be saved to a flash drive or a print copy offers more flexibility.
  • Don’t send an unsolicited manuscript. If someone just sends a book with the hope I’ll review it, I’m more likely to say no. Some magazines send a list of titles for review to their reviewers and then will ask you to send the review copy direct to the reviewer which cuts down on postage, minimises the risk of review copies going astray and you have the reassurance your book will get reviewed.
  • When requesting a review, request the review, give the reviewer a bit of background about the book, e.g. the blurb or publicity sheet, and then a brief writer’s biography. It’s polite to mention you read the blog/subscribe to the magazine or say you enjoy the reviewer’s reviews. Don’t just send a link to a website that features your book and expect the reviewer to do the leg work. It’s easier just to say no.
  • Expect to send a review copy and mention that you will in your request. Reviewers do not expect to buy a copy of your book to review it since a copy of the book is often the only payment for a review. One request I had was along the lines of ‘Please find attached details for my book for you to review’ with a link to a sales platform. I declined because the implication was that I had to purchase a copy to review.
  • If there are practical reasons for not sending a printed copy, e.g. postal rates from one country to where the blogger is based, then mention in your request. I’ll accept electronic or hard copies and a review who prefers hard copies may accept an electronic copy if there are practical reasons for doing so.
  • Do not tell the reviewer how long their review should be. Magazines usually have word count limits (even online magazines) and blogger-reviewers tend to keep reviews to similar lengths. Asking a reviewer who usually writes 500 word reviews for a detailed 1500 word review is likely to result in refusal. If you want a 1500 word detailed review, find a blog that offers one.
  • Remember you are making a request and the reviewer has every right to say ‘no’. Reviewers are not obliged to explain their decision. Although most will give a brief explanation and it’s likely to be ‘I’m over-committed already’.
  • Think carefully before you respond to a reviewer’s refusal. You could end up on their blacklist and all future requests will be automatically rejected. A busy reviewer simply doesn’t have time to enter into a lengthy correspondence about why they’re too busy to review your current publication in the next month.
  • Don’t post on social media about a review’s refusal either. Instead of one reviewer blacklisting you, you’ve now given several reviewers reason to blacklist you. You don’t have the right to be reviewed and harassing a reviewer into giving you a review won’t end well.
  • Accept that a reviewer has the right to an opinion and that includes disliking your book. However, a good reviewer will still give a flavour of the book in their review so, although they didn’t like it, readers of the review may still want to buy a copy.
  • Do ask a reviewer to correct inaccuracies and typos, e.g. if they said a book was set in the 1920s when it was actually set in the 1940s or got the publisher’s website wrong or spelt your name incorrectly.
  • Do not ask a reviewer to alter their review to one you’d prefer. It’s your book but their review. One negative review will be drowned out by five good ones.
  • If you like the review, please share on social media. More of your potential readers will see the review which might encourage them to buy your book.
  • Do not complain about a review on social media. Reviewers are avid readers: it’s why they review.

How do you Rehearse for this?

Poems for Grenfell TowerSadly one minute silences are becoming increasingly common. What marked the one minute vigil for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire was how unnecessary it was. On 24 June 2017, fire broke out in the 24 storey block of 129 flats. The cladding used on the building helped the fire spread and occupants of 23 of the flats lost their lives. The death toll reached over 70. A criminal investigation is still ongoing and not all those who were made homeless have been re-homed. The current Home Secretary has admitted that it is unlikely that all those made homeless will be re-homed by the anniversary of the fire. The one minute vigil was a mark of shame but also vital to keep the victims in the public eye and to help remind authorities of their responsibilities, particularly in one of the wealthiest London boroughs.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, what can poetry do?

“Poems for Grenfell Tower” has enabled victims, fire fighters and poets to tell their stories. Poems linger long after headlines have faded and enable the compassionate narratives that fill out the stark statistics in news reports. Proceeds from “Poems for Grenfell Tower” will go to a charity nominated by victims’ support groups to ensure that as far as possible the money goes directly to the victims themselves. Even for those who have been re-homed, ongoing support is needed with practical items, such as food, clothing and household furniture and goods, and access to support services.

I felt a huge sense of shame seeing the aftermath of the fire and it was an honour for my poem to be included in “Poems for Grenfell Tower.” A extract is below:

How do you rehearse for this?

Someone switches the warehouse radio off,
a signal for another one minute vigil
and the noisy office falls silent like an audience
sensing a show’s about to begin.
The ash and black tower block skeleton
could belong to a flickering war movie.
Critics shout who the murderer is before
a blaze of detectives secure the scene,
even before the victims are known.
In the interval, the audience donate
to crowdfunders and open homes…..

“Poems for Grenfell Tower” can be bought from Onslaught Press.

Please Hear What I’m Not Saying

Please hear what I'm not saying poetry anthology to raise funds for MINDThe “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying” poetry anthology will be released on 8 February 2018 and includes 116 poets from around the world exploring a range of mental health issues. Editor Isabelle Kenyon said “I knew I wanted to work collaboratively with other poets and it was actually the theme of mental health for a collection, which came to me before the idea of donating the profits to charity MIND. This was because I knew how strongly people felt about the subject and that it is often through writing that the most difficult of feelings can be expressed. I think that is why the project received the sheer number of submissions that it did.”

She discussed how she selected the poems, “In some cases of course personal taste came into my selection, but I tried to be as objective as I could and consider the collection as whole. I wanted the book to have as many different personal experiences and perspectives as I could find. Because of this, I have not been afraid to shy away from the ugly or the abstract, but I hope that the end of the book reflects the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for mental health and that the outcome of these last sections express positivity and hope.”

Every poetry acceptance is a delight, but, on occasion, some strike a deeper chord than others. Editor Isabelle Kenyon’s acceptance of my poem, “The Gift of Sadness”, was one such occasion. I had a friend who edited a music magazine that also took short stories (and very occasionally poems because my friend wasn’t a fan of poetry). Our tastes overlapped and we shared news and gossip about bands, commiserated each other on rejections, I wrote reviews for her magazine and occasionally she’d take a poem. Her story stories were published by magazines and she’d been working on a novel. We were geographically 100 miles apart so contact was online, by letter or by phone. It seems ironic she is commemorated in a poem, but I have also written a published short story inspired by her. Even now, I have to catch myself as I reach for a phone to tell her about some new song that I know she’d have loved if she were still here to hear it.

An extract from my poem appears below:

Your parents’ words were a hollow
you’d retreat into until I could tug you out
with a ribbon of cassette tape,
wrap it into a vinyl spiral,
a stylus needle to stitch words
with music, wishing I could
get you to spiral out instead of in.

More information on MIND here. More on “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying” here.

How Not to Organise a Book Launch

Close and Lock the Venue

Nothing says “Go Away!” more than a venue that’s not only closed (lights off, no signs of movement inside) but locked shut, unless you also:

Fail to Display Posters

Not only is the venue closed and locked shut but there’s no poster or sign on the door that the event is going ahead. In fact, the whole set-up screams “Cancelled!”

Even if warm and dry, it’s not a good idea to leave your audience hanging around outside, especially if there’s nowhere to sit because some people can’t stand for long.

Don’t tell the Audience which Entrance will be Open

For security or logistics, it might be that only one entrance will be used for the event. However, if the audience is used to all entrances being open or regularly use one of the entrances which will be shut on the night, a poster/sign would help.

It shouldn’t be left to audience members to suggest/tell event coordinators to check that no one’s been left standing outside a closed entrance either.

Don’t let the Audience know the Event’s Format

Will there be a reading? A speech? Or is the audience just supposed to stand around, mingle and hopefully buy a few books? Most of us don’t do telepathy and no one likes to be made to feel stupid and have to ask.

Assume the Audience are Alcoholic

Some of them will be designated drivers, some don’t like wine, may be recovering alcoholics or simply not feel like drinking. When alcohol drinkers have choice, but the non-drinkers are offered that one jug of warm water that only fills four wine glasses, it’s a good way of making them feel alien.

Only Allow the Audience to Buy Copies of One Book

Book launch audiences tend to be avid readers and book buyers. Why would anyone want to limit their choice to only buying copies of the book being launched, particularly when the launch is happening in a book store? A click or two on a smartphone app, they’ve bought those books from an online retailer, most likely while standing in the store (so they don’t forget which books caught their eye when they get home), and those sales are lost.

The actual book launch was brilliant. The venue… well I won’t be encouraged to hold a launch there.

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Adrian Mole’s 50th Birthday celebrated at Leicester University

Goody bag for Adrian Mole 50th birthday celebrationsLeicester’s famous fictional son turned 50 on 2 April and Leicester University held a party for him.

I didn’t get to the morning and early afternoon sessions – an illustration workshop and a discussion of Sue Townsend’s work as a playwright. I did get there for the later sessions which were billed as talks from John Tydeman, Geoffrey Strachan and Caroline Holden Hotopf plus Simon Schatzberger and the premiere of three new monologues commissioned by Leicester University’s Centre for New Writing and selected by Sue Townsend’s husband, Colin Broadway.

Bridget Blair of BBC Radio Leicester introduced the first session, remarking that it was also BBC Radio Leicester’s 50th birthday. John Tydeman wasn’t able to attend so Leicester University’s Simon Dixon introduced the Sue Townsend archive and explored how Adrian Mole came about. One boring afternoon in the 1970s, so boring “you’d fill in the ‘o’s’ in the News of the World” one of Sue Townsend’s sons asked “Why don’t we go to Safari parks like other families?” It’s not recorded what Sue Townsend answered, but his whiny voice was about to become Adrian Mole’s. She’d been mostly bored at school until a Mr Mole introduced her to reading, even so she was still to leave aged 15. She worked, got married and found herself a divorced mother of three at the age of twenty-three. She met her second husband, Colin Broadway, who discovered her manuscripts and persuaded her to join Phoenix Writers at what was then the Phoenix Theatre (now the Sue Townsend Theatre). She would write on whatever was to hand, even beer mats and shopping lists. When she was losing her sight, her husband and children typed from her dictation. On one occasion, Colin Broadway got a panicked call from their daughter. There’d been a power cut and had lost some work because the power cut kicked in before it could be backed up. Colin’s advice was to give Sue “a vodka and tonic, a fag and ten minutes.” Sure enough, after those three, she recalled everything and the dictation began again. She began writing plays and put together the original script for Nigel Mole aged 14 and three quarters which she sent to the BBC in March 1981. John Tydeman was worried about the name being too similar to Nigel Molesworth and thought 14 and three quarters was too old. Nigel became Adrian and lost a year. The BBC broadcast the script and got five agents phoning them interested in the work.

Geoffrey Strachan of Methuen publishers then took up the story. He was looking for comic novels suitable for illustrations and Adrian Mole seemed a good fit, “splendid, funny, touching and wonderfully evocative… with a playwright’s ear for dialogue and timing”. Sue Townsend felt it important that Adrian grew in real time and the first book stayed with him until his 15th birthday. The contract was signed in December 1981. Methuen felt that it was a tricky sell: a comic novel by an unknown novelist and so kept the cover price below £5. The BBC commissioned five more episodes in January 1982 for broadcast in the autumn. The book was due to be published as they were broadcast. Initially sales reps found it hard to get booksellers to take the book but after the broadcast, they couldn’t get stocks in quick enough. It’s since been translated into 40 languages and became the bestseller of the decade.

Caroline Holden Hotopf took up the story at this point. Geoffrey Strachan introduced her to Sue Townsend at the Royal Court Theatre without telling Sue that he was thinking of commissioning Caroline to design the book cover. He wasn’t aware that Caroline had also grown up in Leicester and, once Leicester was mentioned the two hit it off. Caroline shared Geoffrey’s view that there should not be any images of the main characters themselves – it was down to the reader to imagine them. “The tops of buses are a big place to think of ideas” and this time hit on idea of a bathroom mirror because it gave room for the book’s title and author’s name whilst still being able to capture Adrian at that awkward stage between leaving childhood and not quite being an adult. The bathroom taps on the cover of “The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole” were in her bedsit in Stepney where she was living at the time. She went on to do the illustrations for the deluxe editions and the record cover for the musical. Caroline remembered a long conversation with Sue Townsend about possible locations to use as representing locations in the books. In the question and answer session, Bridget Blair offered to try and locate that list, which is in the Sue Townsend archives, and take BBC Radio Leicester listeners of a tour of the locations later in the year. When Caroline received her copy of the record of the musical, she was baffled because one side played a Rolling Stones album although the other was Adrian Mole. She rang the record company who hurried her a correct pressing. She wondered how much the miss-pressed version would be worth.

Bali Rai brought some students from Moat and Madani Colleges in Leicester on stage. He had introduced them to Adrian Mole and tasked them with writing about their city in a Mole-like fashion. Four of the resulting pieces were read in turn, three by their authors. The first was a typical school diary written at the point of moving to secondary school and discovering that not only did the author have to tolerate her brother hogging the TV remote and glasses but also the indignity of braces. The second was about observations in the school library where the library became a metaphor for Leicester. The third was about the gatehouses on Victoria Park, seemingly an innocent consideration of what the gatehouses might have been for until a final twist where we learn the over-curious writer managed to climb in and now can’t get out and is hoping to throw her letter outside in the hope of being rescued. The final piece was read by Bali Rai, after confessing to being teased for being a Liverpool fan, as it started with a boy doing algebra with one eye on the football, thinking school next day would be full of post match analysis, is dismayed when the classroom is silent. The writer didn’t catch the news that there had been a bomber who called himself a Muslim. The silence was drawn from the classmates struggling to comprehend how someone could use the name of their religion to justify a horrendous act and how they could defend themselves from the anticipated backlash.

For reviewing purposes it makes more sense to bring Simon Schatzberger in now although, having to combine travel with other commitments, he arrived after the first monologue. Simon had done some children’s TV work in Nottingham so already had a Children’s Equity Card when he saw the advert for Adrian Mole at the Phoenix (now Sue Townsend) Theatre. It was purely happenstance that he’d rehearsed the section in the diaries about the Royal Wedding and that turned out to be the section he was asked to do in audition and few days later he heard he got the part. His experience so far had been in TV so he didn’t think it unusual to have Sue Townsend sitting in on rehearsals, doing required rewrites on the spot in her Berol Handwriting pen. Initially there was a canoeing scene and the actor playing Adrian’s mother wanted to go canoeing to prepare. Simon wasn’t a good enough swimmer then to join in and, after the scene got dropped, decided method acting wasn’t for him. Sue Townsend was hugely pleased to hear that some of the audience had come along because they knew the book and it was their first trip to a theatre. The play moved to London. Sue Townsend insisted on bringing the same actors to the West End rather than changing to more famous names. This was to her detriment because some critics snobbishly queried why she wouldn’t use “names”. Simon remembered breaking his arm in an accident on set and Sue Townsend make sure he’d phoned his own mother to reassure her and ensured he’d been able to eat dinner. On another occasion, they’d been given use of the producer’s chauffeured car, only to discover later that the use of the car had been charged to expenses, which meant the pot available to pay actors’ wages was reduced. Sue repaid the cost of the car so the actors wouldn’t lose out. One night she showed the cast a leather jacket she’d bought that day, dithered over whether to return it. She’d felt guilty about spending “so much” money on herself. The cast persuaded her it was really OK to keep the jacket. Later, at the end of the 1980s, Simon was asked to do an Adrian Mole monologue at Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre. He phoned Sue Townsend to ask her to write it. She told him that he knew Adrian so well, he should write it. He wrote a draft and phoned her again to read it to her and was surprised when she OK’d it. She said he shouldn’t be surprised, “I chose you to be Adrian Mole.”

From the reminsciences, Sue Townsend came across as very down to earth, motherly and committed. Once her husband, Colin Broadway, had shown support for her writing, there was no stopping her. However, she remembered her roots, as the guilt over the leather jacket showed, loved a good gossip, loved listening to people and getting involved in new experiences. Exactly the sort of person you’d love to meet in a theatre bar, knowing instantly you’d lucked out and hadn’t been lumbered with the pub bore.

The first of the three commissioned monologues was Maria Taylor’s “The Age of Convenience,” where Adrian Mole asks his mum what its’ like to have a son turn 50. “Her face fell the way Theresa May’s does whenever someone on the news mentions Nicola Sturgeon.” Later he notes, “Mum is a great-grandma now, but she has taken up social protest as a hobby. Other seventy-two year old women would’ve taken up crochet.” He rails against Giles, Pandora’s current squeeze, “who went to Oxford and drives a Porsche. What’s a wealthy, hunky, twenty-seven year old gym enthusiast got that I haven’t?” However, she is first to wish him a happy birthday.

Marilyn Ricci’s “Rocking On” sees Adrian the successful ghost writer, although still anxious about selling-out, on a birthday weekend in Skegness, potting to stop his mother making a birthday speech, still sighing over Pandora but able, after an incident involving a coastguard rescue to wonder if someone else’s salty, passionate kiss might lead him astray after all.

The final monologue from Heide Goody and Iain Grant, “Let Them Eat Custard Creams” is a letter from Adrian to the Arts Council who have turned the application for funds for his reading group down on the grounds “the amount we requested for refreshments was unrealistically high.” Who knew that the selection of biscuits for a book group would be an exact indication of the types of books under discussion? Adrian does and has graphs to back him up.

At this point it was time to collect our goody bags and break for tea. A buffet was laid on, decorated with moon-shaped balloons (the moon might have missed Adrian’s 4th birthday but it was represented at his 50th), with sandwiches, canapes, cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks stuck in a foiled dome to look like hedgehogs, fairy cakes, mini-doughnuts and the cake, made by Frances Quinn, a winner of Great British Bake Off, and accompanied by a mix of disco music included Rick Astley, Scissor Sisters and Andre 3000, the sort that’s easy to dance too but you feel slightly embarrassed to admit to knowing the tunes: a perfect choice.

Adrian Mole birthday cake

The importance of beginnings

I love that the opening line of the first poem in “Welcome to Leicester” starts “Leicester is alive”.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read each poem in “Welcome to Leicester” prior to publication. Each poem submitted was read at least three times – once on receipt and twice (once silently, once aloud) at editorial meetings. Those that we thought were maybes where spread out on my table and arranged near poems they seemed to fit best with. This involved several re-readings as new poems were added to the maybe pile and poems were rearranged. All maybe poems were read again at our final editorial meeting as we decided which poems were actually going to be accepted. The accepted poems underwent several more re-readings as the typesetting was done. Some of these readings were detailed, checking spelling, grammar, whether commas were justified. Some readings were of the overall shape of a poem or how it sounded when read aloud. Since the anthology has been published, one thing I’ve not done is read it from cover to cover.

At the launch, I’d asked which contributors were available to come and read their poem. If everyone who said they were had turned up, the poetry readings would have taken 1 hour and forty-two minutes. Naturally on the day, some weren’t able to be at the launch so the readings part took an hour and twenty minutes. It was wonderful to hear the poems read in the poets’ voices and to hear audience feedback that they appreciated the range of subjects, styles, approaches and stories about Leicester arising from the poems.

The invitation to hold a “Welcome to Leicester” event to start the “Write On, a Leicester Writers’ Showcase” series which take place in Leicester’s Central Library on the third Wednesday of each month was a great opportunity. It was an informal, relaxed evening with a good turn out. Around 10 poets read their poems and, to keep to the agreed time slot, I read a poem from the anthology in between readings. This gave audience members time to absorb each poet’s reading and allowed some of the themes explored in the anthology to be teased out.

What was most intriguing was seeing the audience react, sometimes with nods of recognition, but mostlly with that stillness that suggests people are absorbed in listening. I had to remember that some were hearing the poems for the first time and those who were contributors hadn’t necessarily read all the poems so were hearing some poems for the first time too. My job was to introduce poets but, more crucially, also to allow a space between each poem, rather like the space around a poem on a page or that pause when pages are turned, so give each poem a fair hearing and not to rush the audience into the next poem. It was a privilege to do so.

The very last word of the final poem in “Welcome to Leicester” is “home.” That was not a happy accident.

“Welcome to Leicester” is available from Dahlia Publishing.

The next “Welcome to Leicester” event is at De Montfort University’s Clephan Building from 6pm on Monday 27 February as part of the Cultural Exchanges Festival.

The next two “Write On, a Leicester Writers’ Showcase” events are:

15 February “Lost and Found: stories from home” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) featuring readings from writers whose short stories are in the anthology.

15 March Carol Leeming will be reading from “The Declamations of Cool Eye”. I reviewed “The Declamations of Cool Eye” here.

Both events start promptly at 7pm. Doors open at 6.30pm.
Welcome to Leicester poetry anthology book cover