Writing is Not Lonely unless you make it so

There are two myths in writing that are not true. The first is “write what you know” which is limiting, restrictive and should be “know what you write about”, i.e. do your research. The second is that writing is a lonely business.

It isn’t. Sure, you have to actually have to put the words on the page yourself and that’s generally done when you’re alone. But “alone” is not necessarily “lonely”. Even when alone you write with the knowledge of what you’ve read, you turn to other writers for inspiration, suggestions and advice. You join writers’ groups, either online or IRL. You don’t have to be alone when you write either. You can write surrounded by people (providing they don’t become a distraction), e.g. in a cafe.

Once you’ve got the words on the page, formed them into a poem and edited it as far as you can, you start thinking about beta readers, workshops, editors. You might take your work in progress to a writers’ group or post it in an online forum for comments. When you’re ready to submit, you read magazines and try and find the right place to place your poems.

Writers now are expected to get involved in promoting their work, particularly poets. Most poetry books are sold at readings rather than in bookshops. That means getting out and giving readings. A local open mic slot is a great way of meeting other poets and getting feedback on your work. But if you just turn up, read your work and leave afterwards, you might find that slots become unavailable because no one wants to listen to your performances if you won’t stop and listen to others. If you turn up unprepared, either mumble or shout into the microphone and make your audience uncomfortable, you’ll also find you’re not invited back. By all means, tackle uncomfortable subjects but poor presentation can ruin the best of poems.

But what if you want to set up your own events? You book the venue, do your own publicity, figure out your own set list and turn up hoping for an audience. But you don’t do that in isolation from others. If you want your event to be a success, you check local listings to ensure you don’t clash with a similar event. After all, giving an audience a choice of two events on the same date and time usually means they won’t go to either. You liaise with the venue to get the booking that suits you and to get the equipment you need. Obviously having the venue staff on your side by being polite and clearly communicating what you want gives you a better chance of a successful event. Being bullish and making unreasonable demands risks loss of cooperation and assistance, which will negatively impact on your event. When you do your own publicity, you rely on others to use your press releases, display your leaflets, share your event on social media and tell others about it. They will only do this if you have written your press release professionally, your leaflets are attractive, you have made it easy to share on social media (and not guilt-tripped people into sharing) and your reputation is such that people are willing to tell their friends and contacts about your event. The audience will only turn up if they’ve enjoyed previous readings by you or they trust the venue or they trust the person who shared your event. If you’re unrehearsed or show your audience contempt, they won’t be back.

What if you decide you want to do a reading with other poets, e.g. a festival event, a reading with a group with the same publisher or a themed event, e.g. to raise funds for a cause or to draw attention to a campaign? You can’t do it alone. You need to see who is available to read with you (reputation will take you a long way here), check availability of venues, check what other events are taking place, be sure who is doing what to avoid duplication or worse that some key task is not undertaken because everyone thought someone else was doing it, be clear about who is doing what publicity and whether there are any restraints on publicity (some venues will insist they do the publicity for certain channels, if you use a venue owned by a local authority you may need to do publicity through their press office). When deciding on a reading order, it’s best done collaboratively. A reader might need to leave early, another reader might prefer to read later in the order. If one person dictates the reading order without reference to others and hasn’t taken into account readers’ needs, upset and friction occur. A good team works towards a consensus with sensitivity towards the needs and approaches of individual members. If one team member assembles publicity material, they should check with other team members that the material is agreed by all and be prepared to make amendments. If two team members simultaneously produce material, a positive team will work to merge the best ideas from both. If a team is already discussing material produced by one member and, during the discussion, another member produces new material, suggests this new material is an alternative and is not talking about merging ideas, this member is not working collaboratively. When team members are asked to choose between material A and material B, they should refuse because they are actually being asked to choose sides, which divides a team.

For the event itself, everyone needs to be clear about the part they play. Someone running late without notifying or apologising (or having a good reason to be late) or someone failing do to what they’d agreed to do (without good reason; emergencies occur) puts stress and pressure on the remaining team members who may still be able to put on a smooth event or may find it impossible to put on the planned event. The disruptive team member(s) will find themselves isolated.

That isolation will come about through lack of invitations to join readings, other poets declining to join events organised by someone with a reputation for being disruptive or showing a lack of respect for others, audiences staying away and people no longer making recommendations and shares on social media. That’s when a writer becomes lonely.


Repercussions and #metoo

Poem originally published in “Your One Phone Call”. TW: sexual assault.


Please, it’s not you,
it’s me.

She curls, turns away.
He slips his shirt around her shoulders.

It’s not really me.
It’s him.

He pulls the bedcovers over.
There’s more to tenderness than touch.

It’s him.
It’s wrong it’s like this

He waits for her to turn and let him in,
let him help her move from victim into survivor.

Please, it’s not you.


Someone, browsing through photos of bands playing live, asked me if I felt safe when I’d gone to review live bands.

I hesitated. The expected answer was “Yes.” But my answer wasn’t going to be “Yes.” In fact, the question itself struck me as strange. Giving an unexpected answer would mean having to give an explanation and giving the explanation meant delving into compartments I keep shut. Opening those compartments gets messy. As various songs suggest, anger is an energy and energy doesn’t die. The smart way to deal with anger is to turn it into something positive, a campaign or a poem, which takes effort. Right then, I didn’t feel like making that effort. I knew if I said, “No,” the unexpected answer, the next question would be “Why?”

Why wouldn’t you feel safe amongst a community of music fans?

I reviewed bands playing smaller venues with audiences from 50 to 500. It wasn’t about being the only woman (which wasn’t unusual), it was knowing I was the only one in the venue who deliberately picked a spot to stand which gave a view of all potential exit points. Of the zines I reviewed for, I was the only one who’d turn up to a venue, tell the band’s personnel I was reviewing and be accused of wanting to sleep with the band. The other reviewers on the team didn’t get that. The other reviewers were male. I’d be the only one at the venue who watched the band during the encore, alert to signals that would mean they would be another encore or this was absolutely the last song, so, while the final chord was still reverberating, I could duck out of the venue and get clear of the crowds. I’m not particularly tall so being in a crowd limits my vision. It was a mistake I made once. Once.

Don’t you feel safe amongst other music fans?

I used to walk home. Home was 20 minutes away and not only does a taxi fare feel like a tax on going out, anyone who suggests I should have got a taxi has clearly never heard of John Worboys, the “Black Cab Rapist” and the way his first victims were brushed off and disbelieved. That’s the problem: there was no safe route home. How many of you have learnt not to alter your speed when passing cat-callers and wolf-whistlers? How many of you have learnt to counter your instincts and not run? The problem isn’t the first cat-call, the wolf-whistle or the proposition; the problem is you can’t predict what will happen next: will a cat-call become a grab by someone bigger and heavier than you, will a cat-call become a grab and then a grope and then what?

Don’t you feel safe?

I stuck to the better-lit streets, always alert. Even once you’ve moved past the cat-callers, wolf-whistlers and those who think it’s OK to proposition any woman they see on her own after dark “because she’s up for it, right?” Never mind that it gets dark at 3pm in the winter and women have bills to pay too. There have been times where I’ve had to walk past my home and round the block to be certain that I’ve got rid of one pest before I can return to my home so I can reassure myself the jerk doesn’t know where I live.

Every journey took me past a certain street. A street where the body of a woman was found. She’d been garroted by electrical wire, stuffed in the boot of her own car which her husband had driven and abandoned on this street because he wanted to be with his lover but didn’t want the stigma of a divorce. The car’s long since gone, he’s in jail. But the memory lingers: a woman wasn’t safe in her own home with the person she should have been able to trust.

Was I supposed to feel safe?


David Olusoga Literary Leicester 18 November 2017

David OlusogaDavid Olusoga has fond memories of Leicester after studying for his masters degree at the university, but, to start his talk, he went further back to studying history at school. He remembered history being chopped up and divided commonly into British History or European History, so history felt incomplete and Black history fell between the gaps. Both common divisions ignored non-white people. Yet history is full of non-white people and Britain’s history is interwoven with Africa. This is shown by relics in street and place names plus financial history. The history of slavery became a specialist subject so was dropped from mainstream syllabi and was given euphemisms like ‘West India trade’ or, the one I remember from school days, ‘the Spice Trade’. It is easy for historians and teachers of history to play down or skip over what was happening outside Britain.

Yet Black British History is often hidden in plain sight. For example, Nelson’s Column in London has four bas-reliefs near its base and one of them, by John Edward Carew is called ‘The Death of Nelson’ and features an African, one of 18 men enlisted from Africa. Of course the Victorians who build the column didn’t care for tokenism or political correctness. The man is there because he was there.

The current trend for tracing family trees, which David Olusoga supports because it keeps records open for access, has seen some discover that there were Africans or slave owners in their history too.

David Olusoga asked the audience to consider the origins of the word ‘guinea’. The common association is with the 1000 and 2000 guinea stakes at Newmarket race course. At one point, business and services, such as legal, often used guineas on their price lists to confer a higher status on their goods and services. The guinea coin was produced from the Guinea coast and minted by the Royal African Company. The Royal African Company were also the largest slave trader, up to 150000 slaves, who were branded with ‘RAC’ or ‘DY’ on their chests. ‘DY’ was representative of James, Duke of York, whom New York is named after. The Royal African Company had a Royal Charter so could call on the British Royal Navy to protect its ships and fortresses. Without that context, guinea has just become a word or the name of a horse race.

Another example of how origins have been obscured is in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. In 1738 Britain was at war with Spain. The excuse for going to war with Spain took place in Cuba where the British ship Rebecca was intercepted by the Spanish ship La Isabela. The captain of the latter assumed British captain wasn’t taking the situation seriously enough so the Spaniard cut the British Captain’s ear off. Spaniards know the war as The Guerra del Asiento, a war over the treaty where Britain had a right to supply an unlimited number of slaves to Spanish colonies. But refering to this as the War of Jenkins’ Ear means the origins are obscured.

The UCL’s Legacy of Slave Ownership project has revealed that slavery contributed 9-10% to Britain’s ecomony at its height, roughly equivalent to the contribution made by the City of London today. The South Sea Bubble is often told as an economic story that overlooks the part that the slave trade played in the bursting of that bubble.

When growing up, David Olusoga felt he wasn’t being told his own history. Lessons focused on the Industrial Revolution and he was taken on visits to cotton mills, mines and factories but never told where the cotton came from. The roots of current management culture are actually in Caribbean plantations, not the cotton mills of Lancashire. His comment, “There’s a point at which omission begins to look a lot like a lie.”

In a recent You Gov poll, 59% thought the British Empire was something to be proud of. In the 1920s, 1 in 4 people were British subjects. Britain was the first superpower. Yet the British are good at overlooking the sources of what are consider national products. For example, tea: grown in India, taken with milk from Dutch cows and sugar from the Caribbean. There was much media fuss when it was claimed that chicken tikka masla had overtaken fish ‘n’ chips as the national dish. But Walter Raleigh introduced the potato from South America and battered fish is a recipe from Portuguese Jewish refugees.

With some laughter and a lot of applause, David Olusoga prepared to take questions. The first asked his thoughts on Germans making learning about the Holocaust compulsory. David Olusoga responded that Holocaust teachings overlooked the holocaust in Northern Africa but teaching history has always been political. His priority is not to have special classes on Black History but integrate Black History into mainstream classes. David Olusoga supports the Black Cultural Archives and hopes this will provide a model for others. However, the Black Cultural Archives have to suceed because, if it fails, it provides an excuse not to bother creating others.

He said he was surprised when others bristled at discovering there were blacks in Britain before slavery – the Romans had used North African slaves to build Hadrian’s Walls and paintings of Georgian country houses sometimes showed blacks. He couldn’t understand why this could be seen as a threat to national identity. But he suspected the answer lay in the way history was taught and that its current insular, islanded approach enabled people to ignore the bits they found uncomfortable.

The final question was about Banjo TV, his production company. David Olusoga explained that teenagers can spot hypocrisy a mile off and when he visited a school and quoted the statistic about British Blacks being less likely to set up their own businesses, he felt he ought to lead by example. At this point, he had to leave to catch a train.

David Olusoga entertained and informed without being accusatory or making people uncomfortable. He made an excellent case for expanding history to include where cotton came from, how sugar got to the UK and Britain’s economic history without omission.

Literary Events Leicester November and December 2017

A list of forthcoming literary events in Leicester up to the festive season:

Margaret Penfold at Leicester Writers' Showcase15 November 2017 6.45pm Leicester Writers’ Showcase features Margaret Penfold
Central Library, Bishop Street Leicester LE1 6AA.

15 – 18 November 2017 Literary Leicester
Leicester University – see Leicester University for full details. Most events are free but require advance booking which can be done through the website.

23 November 2017 The Venus Papers Lydia Towsey
Attenborough Arts Lancaster Road Leicester

25 November 2017 5.20pm Launch Peacebuilders Anthology
Waterstones, Nottingham – not in Leicester but worth mentioning this poetry anthology as it includes work from Leicester poets.

27 November 2017 7.30pm Shindig
The Western, western Road Leicester LE3 0GA

5 December 2017 10.30am Leicester WritersShindig Leicester  Bru Cafe and Gelato, Granby Street, Leicester LE1

5 December 2017 8pm Word! with John Hegley
Y Theatre, East Street Leicester

12 December 2017 6.30pm Novel Exchanges with Rod Duncan
Exchange Bar Leicester details: https://www.facebook.com/events/368271763613505/

13 December 2017 6.45pm Leicester Writers’ Showcase Literary Activity in Leicester
Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA.

16 December 2017 2pm South Leicestershire Poetry Stanza
Leicester Language Academy, New Walk Leicester.




I’ve been very busy with preparations for the opening of Scraptoft’s New Community Hub and got knocked out by a bout of sinusitis so hopefully normal service will be resumed by next week. The new Community Hub will be a suitable venue for poetry readings, book launches, workshops, book groups, author talks and similar literary events.

Scraptoft Community Hub

Scraptoft Community Hub rear view






Leicester Writers’ Showcase: Literary Activity in Leicester

Leicester Writers' Showcase logo

Wednesday 13 December 2017 from 6.45pm at Leicester’s Central Library, Bishop Street, LE1 6AA, free entry, Leicester Writers’ Showcase is hosting an event focusing on literary activity in the Leicester and Leicestershire and what can be done to raise its profile locally, nationally and internationally.

Speakers include:

  • Councillor Sarah Russell, Assistant City Mayor for Children, Young People and Schools
  • Henderson Mullin, CEO, Writing East Midlands
  • James Urquhart, Relationship Manager for Literature in the Midlands, Arts Council England
  • Emma Lee, President Leicester Writers’ Club, poet, reviewer, editor and event organiser
  • Farhana Shaikh, Dahlia Publishing who also organises Leicester Writes meetings and festival and publishes The Asian Writer
  • Bobba Cass, activist, performance poet and spoken word event organiser
  • Carol Leeming FRSA, of Dare to Diva Productions, poet, songwriter, playwright and performance artist.

The event will be chaired by Attenborough Arts Centre director, Michaela Butter MBE.

There will also be a display of books by local writers, and a discussion and question and answer session with those present.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase

The Leicester Writers’ Showcase started in January 2017 and hosts a literary event once a month. Featured writers and publications include “Welcome to Leicester”, “Lost & Found: stories of home by Leicestershire writers” (both Dahlia Publishing), Carol Leeming, Marianne Whiting, Andrew Bannister, Julia Herdman, Mahsuda Snaith, Siobhan Logan, Soundswrite Poetry Press, Ella@100 – an evening of jazz-inspired poetry and November’s event will feature Margaret Penfold (15 November from 6.45pm, Central Library). All events are free to attend.

For Readers

The Leicester Writers’ Showcase offers a chance for local readers to meet and hear from local writers and find out what books local writers publish. Readers can discover local authors who have won major book deals, been shortlisted for the Hugo Awards, Carnegie Awards, won short story competitions, have been published both in the UK and abroad and host live literature events and readings locally. It gives readers the chance to ask questions directly to authors about their journey to publication, what promotions and publications are forthcoming and be the first to hear about new work so it’s a great networking opportunity.

Local writers are those either living or working in Leicester or who have been published by a Leicester publisher or who regularly attend a writers’ or spoken word group in the city. Showcases so far have included Leicester-themed anthologies, short stories, contemporary poetry, historical fiction, science-fiction, contemporary fiction and spoken word.

For Writers

Leicester Writers’ Showcase offers local writers the opportunity to use Central Library free of charge to hold a launch-style event, combining a reading, talk and question and answer session to suit with the library providing light refreshments during the interval. It is possible to writers to team up with another writer or for a writers’ group to showcase the group’s work. Writers and spoken word artists can bring books, CDs, pamphlets, etc to sell at the event.

Writers also benefit from the Libraries producing leaflets for distribution throughout Leicester City Libraries and similar venues. In addition the Leicester Writers’ Showcase prepare press releases which are sent to the Leicester Mercury, Great Central, BBC Radio Leicester and Writing East Midlands. In addition each Leicester Writers’ Showcase event is videoed and photographed and featured writers are able to use these in other promotional materials.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase Projects

Projects that have arisen from Leicester Writers’ Showcase include the Local Writers’ Fair held during Everybody’s Reading and the Local Writers’ Corner, which will feature books by local writers and will be set up during 2018. Leicester has a great literary tradition which the Leicester Writers’ Showcase supports.


“The Five Petals of Elderflower” Angela Topping (Red Squirrel Press) – poetry review

The Five Petals of Elderflower Angela Topping book cover“Five Petals of Elderflower” uses the title poem, also the first poem, as a structure for the whole collection giving it a sense of unity. It’s important to note, though, that the collection does not have to be read in order, each poem can stand alone too. The title poem can be thought of as ‘five ways of looking at elderflower’, one for each petal. The first section zooms in for close examination, the second explores a different voice – here the poet’s father, the third focuses on memory, the fourth uses synaesthesia and the fifth a promise. In the fourth section,

“Elderflowers sing jazz, each petalled phrase
plays another variation on the last.
Its saxophone voice rises above twanged strings
of cello and double bass, holding the melody
as it flies high. Notes dance round our feet:
we wade in sound. It’s a five bar blues,
scrolls of baroque, rising like smoke, tasting champagne.
White is not white, is green and cream and ivory.
And it sings the blues.”

It has the exuberance of spring and, despite the last line, it feels celebratory. The enjambment used on most lines propels the rhythm forward. I not normally a fan of nature poems, but this is an exception. In contrast the rhythms in “They Pose Together” feel appropriately stiff where a mother and daughter have posed for a formal photograph,

“The mother’s in black: embroidered cross-over jacket
pinned with watch and brooch. At her throat
squats a cameo, knotted hands display a wedding ring.
Her skirt is stiff as buckram. Practical black lace-ups,
polished like lumps of coal, show under her dress.
Whitening hair is gathered back, unsmiling mouth
gives nothing away. Her back is upright in the chair.

The daughter perches on the chair’s arm, balanced,
one foot tucked behind, waiting to launch into a waltz.
White shoes and stockings, lawn dress delicate as paper.
She has her mother’s cheeks, without the fold and crease;
matching dimples in their chins. Her smile opens
on pearl-white teeth, lips softly parting.
No clip can restrain her dark curls where they spring.
They are hinged together, one a negative of the other.”

The accumulation of images build a bigger picture. A mother is stiffened by experience and used to hiding her inner life, whether grief in widowhood or the need to conform to society’s expectations and restrictions. Whereas the daughter is ready to move and grow, not yet restrained by her place in society, not yet heeding her mother’s warnings. Warnings of a different kind surface in “New Year”

“Rime freezes mittens on the bridge rail.
We speak of things that do not matter,
emerge from trees into a clearing
where a sycamore spreads its shade.

When snow falls, it will change everything
make a page for you to write on.”

Cold weather forces the walkers to keep moving, just as talking about “things that do not matter” keeps a conversation going and allows a connection to be maintained even when an issue is being avoided. In a country where snow is not inevitable, it suggests it is a metaphor. The blank page suggests erosion of memory. The poet allows the readers to imagine what that will mean, trusting that images of nature in hibernation will guide what the reader thinks.

A squirrel takes on anthropomorphic qualities in “Red Squirrel”, where a thifty mother,

“She squirreled away sugar,
stacked bags in her wardrobe
behind Dad’s swinging braces
where it set like concrete,
a wall of sweetness;
poor replacement for him
who honeycombed her life.

These days, I think of her
with red pelt and feathery tail.
Scarce and always looked-for,
she leaps up perpendiculars,
on a quest for hazelnuts,
her neat claws clinging
to rough surfaces of trees.”

“Five Petals of Elderflower” is a coherent, crafted collection, rooted in the nature that looks at the wider world through a perceptive lens. The voices vary and the poems feel organic: allowed to grow and shape themselves instead of being constrained to a straitjacket of form.

Five Petals of Elderflower” by Angela Topping is available from Red Squirrel Press.

Angela Topping also has a blog.

Colonial Countryside Secular Hall Leicester 22 October 2017

Colonial Countryside PosterCorinne Fowler started by saying there had been something of a renaissance in British Black history with books from David Olusoga “Black and British: A Forgotten History”, Miranda Kaufmann’s “Black Tudors: African Lives in Renaissance England” and “Slavery and the British Country House” published by Historic England and the National Trust’s own project to investigate connections between their properties and sugar wealth. The UCL’s project “Legacies of British Slave-ownership” followed the compensation payments for loss of slaves and where the money was spent. A second project, “East India Company at Home” looks at influences in architecture, garden design and house decorations from connections with the East India Company.

It was important to note that Black History in Britain wasn’t just about slavery. North Africans had served in the Roman army and helped built Hadrian’s Wall. Henry VIII had a Black trumpeter, John Blanke, who played at Henry VII’s funeral. John Blanke had also successfully asked for a pay rise.

She mentioned the specific example of George Hibbert whose family wealth came from transporting raw materials to Africa, taking slaves to the Caribbean, the ownership of plantations and importing sugar. He also lobbied Parliament against Abolition. However, he also put a lot of his wealth into philanthropic projects and was seen as a generous benefactor. It was pointed out that Wordsworth’s “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey” may not have been possible without the infrastructure of roads paid for by sugar wealth. On the new £10 note is an image of Godmersham House, owned by Jane Austen’s brother who had benefited from slavery even though Jane was an Abolitionist.

The National Trust and English Heritage have commissioned research into their own properties, investigating connections to slavery, e.g. through previous owners investing in shipping, buying shares in companies trading in slaves, owning plantations and/or lobbying against abolition. “Colonial Countryside” aims to bring together those looking at South Asian connections and those looking at Afro Caribbean connections to produce a picture of shared history.

She has a personal connection to this. Her French ancestors had a chateau in Brittany built with sugar wealth.

Eventually the Colonial Countryside project aims to involve 100 children visiting any of 10 identified houses. A group of children will visit with a historian to look through the house’s archives and write about their experiences. Children are being selected by their school which is looking for children with good writing or speaking skills and a passion for history. Initial visits are focusing on Harewood House and Charlecote House. The National Trust is recommending properties for the children to visit where there are known to be relevant connections. There are plans to hold a conference during 2018’s Literary Leicester Festival featuring presentations by the children. There will also be links with the National Trust’s 2022 project Challenging Histories. The children involved so far have responded with enthusiasm – one girl was prompted to research into her family background and had been making contact with relatives via Skype, urging them to help with the fundraising campaign.

More about Colonial Countryside here

Colonial Countryside’s Crowdfunder here. The crowdfunder enables match funding from other sources.

The Institute of Physics Flash Fiction and Poetry Competitions

Open to any writer resident in the UK for a piece of flash fiction or poem of 500 words or fewer where the theme involves physics or a physicist. If you’re not sure if your idea qualifies, email writingcompetition2017 [at] iop.org. Entries restricted to one per person per competition so you can enter one poem, one flash fiction or one poem and one piece of flash fiction, but not two poems or two pieces of flash fiction. Full rules from the email address given.

Prizes in each competition: First Place ÂŁ100, Second Place ÂŁ75, Third Place ÂŁ50.

Closing Date 31 October 2017. Free entry – entries to be sent to the email address.


  • Aspect of a physicist’s life or work
  • Fictional physicist makes a discovery or invention
  • Group of scientists working at a facility such as CERN or an Antarctic base or the International Space Station
  • A real-life physics-related event
  • A technological utopia or dystopia
  • Environments such as space, the deep sea, etc
  • Change a law of physics – what happens?

Judging Panel includes a physicist and fiction judge. I will be the poetry judge.