Lost and Found at Write On, a Leicester Writers’ Showcase 15 February 2017

9780956696793Write On, a Leicester Writers’ Showcase featured the anthology “Lost and Found: Stories from Leicestershire Writers” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) at Leicester’s Central Library. The evening had eight writers reading extracts from their stories and question and answer sessions with the writers and Farhana Shaikh, publisher.

Farhana Shaikh welcomed everyone and introduced the first four readers. I was first to read with an extract from my story “Someone Else’s Wallpaper”. It’s about a young couple, Mark and Charlotte, who move into a new house with their baby, Bethany. The house had been refurbished before they moved in with the exception of the master bedroom which had a chintzy rose-covered wallpaper. Charlotte’s been haunted by the scent of roses and suspects the roses have been multiplying. When Bethany takes ill with suspected pneumonia, a well-intentioned neighbour reveals a secret about the previous owner to Charlotte. Next up was Drew Gummerson reading from “Adrian” told from a viewpoint of a fifteen-year-old boy whose parents have (separately) left home so he falls under the influence of Adrian. Grace Haddon followed with “Zenith”, a story about a community on a space station where it’s announced they will be returning “home” (i.e. back to earth) but one girl, who was born on the space station, wonders where exactly her home is. Tony R Cox finished the readings for the first half with “Under a Savage Sky” about a man trying to make a home in an isolated house when storm forces him to confront the reason he’d been force to leave his previous home, a reason he’d buried in denial.

The question and answer session started with a discussion on inspiration. Grace said she’s brainstormed and took the idea to an extreme – what does home mean if you were born in space? Tony placed his main character in a place where he has to make a home. Drew’s story had elements of biography. Mine was inspired by a house viewing where a house had been refurbished but it looked as if the builders had thought “let’s give the main bedroom a feminine touch” and gone for garish pink-rosed wallpaper which got me thinking about who might have chosen such a wallpaper to live with and why. There was a question on how writers felt about being edited. Being edited is part of the job. Drew mentioned one agent liked his novel on the basis of the first ten thousand words he’d sent her but then, seeing the completed book, she asked that the ten thousand words be cut. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those ten thousand words were wasted: the ideas, characters or themes might recur in other work. The “what are you working on now” question was replied with editing, finishing or thinking about novels, drafting poems, about to write a review and writing blog articles. A question about whether writers consider sounds when they write prompted a discussion about how useful it was to read work aloud – whether poetry or prose – because the writer not only heard how it sounded but it highlighted repetitions, tongue-twisting sentences and odd words that were out of keeping with the others. I discussed how sounds leant meaning to the story as well: long vowels create smooth sounds or short, clipped vowels give a staccato rhythm which could be employed to support or counter the narrative strand either reassuring or discomforting the reader. There were thoughts on the differences between poetry and prose, the former being more concentrated and distilled, the latter giving writers more space to explore themes. When asked if I preferred prose or poetry, I said I had a preference for poetry but someone else might answer differently.

The second half followed the same format with readings from Jamie Mollart, whose “Home Game” looks at domestic violence through the lens of a crucial home game for Leicester City Football Club. Amy Ball with “Buzz’s Fury” about discrimination faced by a couple travelling with a circus. Rebecca Burns read from “Moving the Furniture” where a homesick woman yearns to return to England after circumstances push her to emigrate to New Zealand. Siobhan Logan’s “Whitby Jet” starts as a final holiday before an elderly lady surrenders to being packed off into a care home, which uncovers hidden memories.

When questioned about the differences between a novel and short story, the four seemed in agreement that short stories were more succinct, focused and offer more opportunity to experiment with form or structure. The writers felt their best short stories came when they could see how it was going to end before beginning to write. Farhana mentioned that in selecting stories for the anthology, all editors were clear that they wanted stories with a strong ending, not necessarily one that tied up all loose ends, but one that stayed in the reader’s mind and rewarded re-reading. Jamie pointed out that weak stories were those set up to end on a punchline that was interesting once but didn’t sustain re-reading. Some of the panel confessed to using music to set a mood. Jamie’s novels had soundtracks, music he’d played whilst writing, as it helped with a consistency of tone. Amy said she found music distracting while she actually wrote because she’d get caught up in the song and lose sight of the page. All four said they would read sections aloud while writing.

Leicester Writes is running a short story competition with shortlisted and prize-winning stories included in an anthology to be published by Dahlia Publishing. Full Leicester Writes Short Story Competition details here.

Copies of “Lost and Found: stories of home by Leicestershire writers” are available from Dahlia Publishing.

Welcome to Leicester event at DeMontfort University 27 February 2017

Shindig Live Poetry Leicester 30 January 2017

Poster for Shindig poetry readingsShindig is organised by Nine Arches Press and Crystal Clear Creators and the former usually lead the first half while the latter take over after the interval. Tonight Nine Arches Press was launching Under the Radar #18 and Crystal Clear Creators featured readings from Deborah Tyler-Bennett and Andrew Button.

Each half starts with open mic slots. Will Coles took the first slot with a sonnet from a series of ‘delinquent sonnets’ looking at rubber-neckers gathered after an accident, “he’s moving so he’s not dead” ending on the line “We’ll feed on him another day.”. Thomas Irvine gave us another sonnet about Icarus. It was third poet Richard Byrt who hit on the novel idea of giving the audience the title of the poem about to be read, here “Motivating Millie”, a darkly humorous list of suggestions of things Millie could do, gradually revealing that elderly Millie’s relatives are thinking of a care home for her and these ideas are to “Stop them deciding they have to put you away.” Ambrose Musiyiwa rounded off the open mic slots with a topical poem about Martians (and the aliening of refugees) of which I know the title because I saw it published in “The Journal.”

Jane Commane of Nine Arches kicked off the Under the Radar launch by reading two poems, “Hail” by John Challis and “The Way Queenie Smokes” by Edward Long, confessing that the latter poem gave her cravings for a cigarette,

“The way Queenie smokes is why they call him Queenie,
ballet-poise along his whole arm out to his held fingers.
Long sensuous drawing up of the smoke into his lungs,
a gentle letting forth of smoke from his mouth.

The rasp to his laugh rattles his belly
squashed tight into his stained t-shirt.”

Reviews editor, Maria Taylor, picked Catherine Ayres’ “Solistice”

“Perhaps I’ll find you in the valley’s bruise,
the jolt of your eyes in a seam of light;
I have my plans these winter nights
when the spent candle stumbles, gone,”

This was read before Joe Caldwell’s “Transmigration.” Deborah Tyler-Bennett picked both of Josephine Shaw’s poems “On the Banks of the Aude” and “Mum and Dad enjoy a Cocktail.” Cathy Whittaker read “St Jerome” where she wonders if his wife viewed him in quite the same way as those who laud him, and “Message to My Grandfather” (not featured in the magazine). Reviewer D A Prince selected Ramona Herdman’s “Wake Up: Time to Die” which takes a quote from “Bladerunner” as its source inspiration, explaining “It grabbed me and I went straight back to the beginning to see how she did it.” Her second selection was a short extract from Martin Figura’s “Shed” which she had reviewed. Fiona Theokritoff read her poem “Cartographer” and another, “Wrong Turning.” Although availability played a big part in selections, in a issue which includes poems from Sarah Barnsley, Giles Goodland, Josh Ekroy, Fran Lock, Jessica Mookherjee and Rory Waterman amongst others, a mere two poems would have been a tough choice.

Maria Taylor was back, this time in her Crystal Clear Creators role, to get the second half underway. She read her own poem, “Don and the Age of Aquarius”, imagining someone like Donald Trump meeting a hippy angel in 1967’s Summer of Love. Jim Kersey had three short poems, “Inheritance,” “Inspiration” and “Dawn” forming part of an “Autumn Verses” sequence. The first two had a serious tone, exploring rich autumnal shades and colours. The third was light-hearted, starting “Shall I compare thee to a maple tree/ though thou are more temperamental.” More humour from John Lloyd’s “I Believe” based on the foundation that if he’d signed up to the university of life, “it enrolled me on the wrong course.” Most open mic slots were taken by Shindig regulars, but both Johns were reading at Shindig for the first time and got a warm welcome. Dave Tunnley kept up the autumnal theme in “Imagine Travel.” I read “The Shoemaker’s Walk” from “Welcome to Leicester“. Angela Bailey read “Rania’s Story”, a woman fleeing Syria with her children but leaving her elderly mother behind and the guilt, “as close as a sapling to its roots.” Rob Jones wrapped up the open mic session with a poem about a house shared by three humanities students living in “nostalgic tribute to ‘Black Books’ or ‘Withail and I’,” a poem apparently without title.

Featured poet, Deborah Tyler-Bennett started with three poems, “Ways Home,” “North’s Street” and “Sutton-in-Ashfield” from “Napoleon Solo Biscuits” which I reviewed for London Grip here. She then read new poems from her forthcoming collection “Mr Bowlly Regrets”, “Overheard on the Threes”, eavesdropping a conversation on a long bus journey. “No Relation” inspired by the discovery that some soldiers who served in the First World War had put down employers as their next of kin because they had no family to return to. “Then” inspired by a grandmother, looking at “Superstitutions” shared by her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister who saw “sleek magpies not as thieves but portents.” “Upstairs at the Trading Post” where a down-to-earth woman is wary of a ghost “lurking upstairs while she did the cleaning.” A star of the silent film era is recalled in “Popping By” where a “soldier hubby’s specs matching those of Harold Lloyd hanging on to that clock face.”

Second featured poet was Andrew Button whose “Dry Days in Wet Towns” has just been published by erbacce press. He introduced us to a selection of dryly observed humour. “Glasgow Hotel” could have been drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s imagination. “The Only Clue” ends “roving extraterrestrials will still find a shopping trolley in a canal.” “after the drive-thru refusal (no fence involved)”, a woman takes her horse into McDonalds in “We’re Lovin’ It”. “Two Dickies” is about a statue to the cricket umpire Dicky Bird. “Turner in his Grave” muses on a Turner Prize entry. “Light of Wonder” was a tribute to Ray Bradbury who “coaxed my fledging pen to write on” and ending “your books will never burn.” Andrew Button is a collector of news stories, not unlike Marcel Proust, and the quirkier the better. “Navel Pursuit” takes inspiration from a story about a man who collected navel fluff. “Microphone” was a nod to childhood where he and friends would past the time recording made-up jingles. The final poem “After the Rain”, the name of a bubble bath, a tender tribute to his wife.

“Under the Radar” magazine is available from Nine Arches Press.

Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s collections are published by Kings England Press.

Andrew Button’s “Dry Days in Wet Towns in available from erbacce press.



Leicester Poetry News

I’ve been caught up in typesetting “Welcome to Leicester” so I’m listing poetry related events taking place in Leicester during September and the beginning of October.

9 September 6 – 8pm Sanctuary Radio

Co-editor Ambrose Musiyiwa and I were interviewed by Marilyn Ricci for Sanctuary Radio’s book club programme and this will be broadcast on Friday 9 September between 6 – 8pm at www.sanctuaryradio.co.uk. We talk about “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) and “Welcome to Leicester” (Dahlia Publishing, October 2016).

17 September 2pm South Leicestershire Poetry Stanza

Meet at Leicester Language Academy on New Walk. Friendly workshop.

19 September 7.30pm Shindig

Western Pub, Western Road, Leicester. Featuring readings from Alison Brakenbury, Shruti Chauhan and Lydia Towsey.

25 September 2.30pm Enchanter

Film poem with live music accompliment at Phoenix Arts. Seating is limited.

1 October Journeys Poems Pop-up Library at Leicester Railway Station

October sees the Everybody’s Reading Festival in Leicester which runs from 1 – 9 October. During the Festival there will be a pop-up library at Leicester Railway Station featuring poems from “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” available as postcards for communters to take away.

3 October 7pm You Are Here Poetry Workshop led by Maria Taylor

Friends Meeting House, Queens Road, Leicester. Booking essential – see brochure. Workshop will look at generating new poems based on memory, places and how abstract emotions can be turned into raw material for poetry along with opportunities to read and learn from poets who write on these themes. Maria has a new pamphlet forthcoming from Happenstance and is Under the Radar’s Reviews Editor.

4 October 2pm Central Library Deborah Tyler-Bennett

Bishop Street, Leicester. Deborah Tyler-Bennett reads from her recent collection, “Napoleon Solo Biscuits,” a volume full of icons from popular culture, from the “Man from UNCLE” to Private Walker in “Dad’s Army” … The reading will be followed by Q and A about writing using popular figures.

4 October 8pm Word! with Malika Booker

Y Theatre, East Street, Leicester £7/£4. Open mic sessions available (arrive at 7pm to book).

5 October 7.30pm Gobsmacked

Upstairs at The Western, Western Road, Leicester £8/£6 booking recommended. Brand new show from performance poet and psychiatric nurse Rob Gee. From the bus driver who gets kidnapped by his own alter ego to the hazards of goalkeeping on tranquillisers, Gobsmacked explores the world of chaos and adventure that lurks behind the veneer of everyday life.

6 October 7pm Leicester Writers’ Club presents Writers breaking out of the Box

At Phoenix Arts, Midland Street, Leicester. £5 for non-members. Finding the words to tell our own stories is always a feat. It can be a game we enjoy playing. Authors from Leicester Writers’ Club discuss how they work creatively with various challenges such as dyslexia, English as a second language or visual impairment. Hear how their stories turn out and join in a Q & A. Guests are most welcome. Light refreshments will be available.

7 October 10am Poetry for Beginners with Karen Powell

Hamilton Library, Maidenwell Avenue, Hamilton, Leicester. Free but booking required – see brochure. No experience necessary, this workshop will show beginners short writing exercises to turn ideas into poems-in-progress and will explore poetic techniques and forms.

7 October 7pm Launch of “Welcome to Leicester”

At the African Caribbean Centre, Maidstone Road, Leicester. Event for the Welcome to
Leicester anthology to be published by Dahlia Publishing featuring readings from the anthology. Poems have been submitted by writers who want to share stories about Leicester to tie in with National Poetry Day’s theme of messages. We will be encouraging you to read the poems alongside the performances so sharing stories about a familiar area and encouraging you to discover more about your neighbourhood.

8 October New Walk Museum

Day of writing-related events at New Walk Museum, including ‘Walls’ and poetry and rap.

8 October 7.30pm Burning Eye Books

Upstairs at the Western, Western Road, Leicester. £8/£6. Burning Eye Books Presents: Ash Dickinson, Lydia Towsey and Andrew ‘Mulletproof’ Graves join us for a scintillating evening of high quality spoken word, comedy and entertainment.

8 October 7.30pm Under Milk Wood

The Guildhall, Guildhall Lane, Leicester. Free, booking essential – see brochure. Performed by Stage Left Theatre Workshop.

9 October John Hegley

at the Guildhall for two events, one child-friendly starting at 4pm and one evening event starting at 7pm.

Throughout the Festival, the Exchange Bar is offering a free cup of tea for a handwritten poem.

The full Everybody’s Reading Festival brochure is available at: http://www.everybodysreading.co.uk/

Posted in culture. Tags: , . 1 Comment »

Why I wrote “A Silver Tabby Called Tiger”

See “A Silver Tabby Called Tiger” at Peony Moon.

The photo used in the Guardian newpaper’s obituary of Emma Humphreys (1967 – 1998) haunted me. It showed Emma in the window of her flat with a silver tabby cat she’d called Tiger. The flat was significant: finally a home of her own, but Emma looked too fragile to carry the clothes she was wearing.

Emma Humphreys grew up with a mother and stepfather who were alcoholics. She’d witnessed many violent assaults and frequency ran away, spending periods in care and homeless. At the age of 16 she ended up in Nottingham. Scared of approaching the authorities for fear of being returned to her parents, she ended up in prostitution. One of her clients offered her a home. He was not only her pimp but also subjected her to physical and sexual abuse, including rape. Her movements were constantly monitored and windows were nailed shut to stop her running away. This man was twice her age (she was still only 16). On night, he boasted that he, a couple of friends and his son would gang rape her. Fearing he was speaking the truth and she would be raped again, she stabbed him once with a knife. He died a short time later.

When arrested, Emma was in a state of extreme shock and could not explain that she’d suffered violence and abuse. In the photos following her sentencing, she looks dazed and incapable of understanding the court’s processes. She was 17, not yet
an adult, but given an indefinite sentence.

It took 10 years of campaigning for her conviction of murder to be overturned. She’d never denied she’d killed her abuser, but argued she should be charged with manslaughter rather than murder. Her case changed the law to recognise cumulative provocation, establishing that the defence of provocation didn’t have to be an immediate reaction to one incident.

Emma died in 1998 after an accidental overdose of prescription medication. She’d also fought a life-long battle against anorexia.


A Movie Anniversary worth Celebrating


I’m not normally one to mark anniversaries or watch a movie more than once, so blame the hayfever medication for the current outbreak of sentimentality (promise it won’t last more than one blog post).  This year marks the 10th anniversary of The Matrix. 

[Warning: Spoiler!  But you should have seen the movie by now.]  The movie that started with the perception that the everyday world was real, until Neo, a software engineer by day and computer hacker at night who takes his landlady’s trash out, discovers the world is actually an elaborate deception and he has to help save humans from their enslavement by machines.  A cyber thriller with bullet time and CGI-effects that made geeks look cool.  Total Film called it “The Action Movie of the Millennium”.

The Matrix spawned discussion, had scenes referenced in other movies, paved the way for more spectacular special effects (how credible would Crouching Tiger, Sleeping Dragon have been otherwise?) and proved philosophers make lousy film critics – check out The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, which I’ll review if a notable number of comments request it.

Aside from special effects, superb soundtrack and plot, The Matrix was also remarkable for Trinity.  Trinity is a believable female character who is intelligent, just as good a soldier as any man and careful about who she falls in love with.

But it’s not really down to the hayfever medication.  I will be reading at the Polyverse Poetry Festival in July and was thinking about what to read.  The time I’ll be reading for it just right to fit in my “Fanfare” sequence, based on The Matrix and fanfiction.  I’ve also been reading Not a Muse international poetry anthology which features my poem “Still Life with a Static Matrix Screensaver”.  Happy 10th anniversary and one worth celebrating.

ACE Funding: the Small Print

The Bishop of Leicester’s plea for artists to run Leicester’s new Performing Arts Centre was timely in view of the recent Arts Council of England’s funding report. Reactions to ACE’s recent decisions, the vote of no-confidence from actors and on-line petition to support Dedalus books highlight the usual weaknesses of arts funding in the UK, namely that it’s bureaucratic, arbitrary and, if ACE decides to stop funding, it stops suddenly and finally. There’s no gradual decline and no time to find alternative sources of funding so ACE funding was never reliable.For all its social inclusiveness targets and promotions, ACE always treated arts practitioners (ie artists and arts organisations) with a one size fits all approach. Whichever grant you were applying for, everyone had to complete the same form. Sounds fair until you consider a small poetry society run solely by volunteers in their free time squashed around day jobs, family and their own artistic endeavours, were completing the same forms as regional or national touring companies with full-time administrators who were completing the same forms in their working day.

One form ran to 13 pages. In the middle of a working day I had a phone call from ACE’s then regional literature officer suggesting that the literature group merely sat round talking to each other. I pointed out that 3% of our audience were asylum seekers, that 22% of our membership lived in areas identified by the city council as being “priority areas of need” and spent twenty minutes giving the officer reasons for justifying us having a grant. That call finished ten minutes before the officer was due to go into the meeting to discuss whether or not the literature group would get the grant. If I didn’t have a good memory or didn’t have the literature group’s paperwork with me, the group would have never have received the grant.

But why was it so significant that 3% of the audience were asylum seekers, that 22% lived in areas of “priority need”? Why was it not enough that the group was bringing established, award-winning, contemporary poets to read in Leicester and promoting those readings to as wide an audience as possible? Because ACE insisted the arts were a vehicle for social inclusion. Though how inclusive it is to fund an arts organisation targeting a specifically focused, socially excluded group without any plans to integrate the group within the mainstream (eventually) completely eludes me. All I could see were ghettos where it was more important to label the artist by their socially-exclusive group than it was to focus on the art being produced.

Hence the very welcome small print stating that ACE should focus on funding excellence in arts. Finally! OK it’s going to raise even more debate about how excellence is defined and who does the defining. But if it enables the Bishop of Leicester to request that Leicester’s Performing Arts Centre includes artists on its board, then maybe ACE have finally realised they’re there to fund the arts. Now, if only it would also reconsider some of its funding cuts…


Director Mikael Håfström, John Cusack (Mike Enslin), Mary McCormack (Lily Enslin), Samuel L Jackson (Gerald Olin, hotel manager).  Rating: US PG-13 / UK 15

Mike Enslin told his wife he was “goin’ out for some cigarettes”. He didn’t come back. Instead he gave up smoking and embarked on a book, “Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Hotel Rooms”, beginning each night by placing an unlit cigarette in the ashtray before rendering another dull night in sparklingly cynical prose. So a hotel room that’s seen 56 paranormally-induced deaths since 1912 – excluding deaths from natural causes, ie strokes and heart attacks – sounds like an ideal final chapter.

So far John Cusack plays to type, selfish, wisecracking loser, but then the alarm clock radio bursts into The Carpenters’ “We’ve only just begun” and starts counting down from 60 minutes. “No guest lasts more than an hour,” Mike Enslin helpfully repeats the hotel manager’s warning. The tension racks up as escape routes are closed off and we’re left with the claustrophobic room of Mike Enslin’s headspace. If you prefer blood and gore, wait for Rob Zombie’s remake of “Hallowe’en”. If you like being scared, check into room 1408. John Cusack makes it watchable as he moves from cynicism, being startled, scared, grief-stricken to almost relief as the hour counts down towards its close (of course there’s a twist, but I’m giving it away). The horrors aren’t random. Mike Enslin thoughtfully packs a night-vision Luma-lite which reveals blood-splatters from previous guests and we get to see how some of them used the “express check out service”. But we also learn why he left his wife. Anyone familiar with Stephen King’s work may guess the ending, but John Cusack makes you root for him as 1408 imposes its final choice.

The tension does dissipate as Mikael Håfström takes us out of the room on a red herring, conveniently signalled by the colour red. But John Cusack, who once commented that a good film stays with him “like a fever dream for a long time afterwards”, would be justified in feeling that fever dream. A welcome addition to the horror oeuvre.