Saturday, 24 October 2015

Southampton's spoken word Festival

Southampton is holding a writers and writing stuff festival - the  So: To Speak festival; from October 23 - November 1; and it looks amazing. Have a browse through the programme where  the mix of events is unique and imaginative and unexpected. Excellent writers like Philip Hoare and Ali Sparkes will be appearing (book tickets!!) I like the sound of the celebration of the Spitfire with performance poet Matt West and musical contribution from the Spitfire Sisters. And where else would you have the venue for that, but an aircraft museum with a Spitfire in it...
The Spitfire Sisters

Another first for Southampton which will be part of the action is a celebration of Persian poetry, film and music.

I shall definitely be going to hear acclaimed biographer Ray Monk's talk at October Books in Portswood High Street. It is at 7.00pm on Friday 30 October. Another not-to-be-missed author who is speaking at another Portswood High Street event (The Library this time) is Rebecca Smith. Rebecca's talk, which marks the centenary of Portswood Library, is called 'Writing Southampton' and is on Thursday 29 October at 7.00pm.

The Dancing Man Brewery at 1 Bugle Street (in the building formerly known as the Wool House), will host many of these events and Arts Organisation, Element Arts,  will be putting on  ‘Transported’, a collection of art installations and performances which will be inside a specially built village of shipping containers in Guildhall Square. Element Arts have collaborated  with Williams Shipping and the shipping container village will be there for people to explore for the whole week.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Talking about it - not doing it yet...

Writing that is. But at least I'm talking about it - with other writers. Things I have talked about doing are:

  1. Going on a writing course again. Arvon, I say, I'll check their catalogue of goodies. Then I don't.
  2. What about this one in Portugal, one of my writer friends suggests. It looks amazing , is rather expensive and I seize on that as an excuse not to look at it further. However I sense that I am just being an idiot and these are cold feet I am exhibiting, not valid reasons.
  3. Let's hire something cheap and cheerful on Air B&B and not too far away, says another writer friend, and we'll shut ourselves away from it all and just write for a couple of days. This one seems really do-able: not to long (has to fit in with the day job) not too costly (obvious reasons).
  4. I glance between the Portugal option (fabulous expert tutor, Jill Dawson and gorgeous location) and the Air B&B option (near and cheap and short but no tutor) and come up with a brainwave:
  5. Hey, I say to the writer friend - why don't we spend the AirB&B money on hiring ourselves a fabulous writing tutor to come and give us our own writing workshop in one of our front rooms? Oh dear. It seemed like a good idea as I said it.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Which is your favourite Asimov title?

The nice thing about this book is that it comes from the station. Our station is really sweet. It has its own bookcase and all us train users can borrow the books and then leave them on a train if we like...

Or we can bring them back again.

I thought no-one except me ever examined the shelves but last Friday when I was going to work I saw a girl kneeling on the floor and rummaging through their offerings.

The Asimov wasn't there the last time I looked at the titles. I was delighted to see it. I used to devour science fiction. The stories that stick in my mind most vividly are science fiction. I read one when I was about eighteen called The Ruum by Arthur Porges. I never ever forgot it. It's utterly perfect.

This has been my bedtime reading (and sometimes early morning tea in bed reading). But I am on the final story so very shortly it goes back to the station.

Monday, 4 May 2015

'Grave Misgivings & other stories' by Caroline Wood

These are robust, vivid stories crafted from startling ideas; in Growing Things buried animals are reborn as if they are plants. In Foothold, a woman has hands for feet. In Wings – the story is a well-written feast of gothic sumptuousness and in Shaggy Dog Story a son sends his mother telepathic pictures of what he wants.
There are memorable characters, like Ronnie, in The Cobbler who engage us and the skilful storytelling compels us to find out what happens to them – even though we also kind of know – because we are abetting a mischievous authorial voice that lurks out of sight providing us with sly jokes just as the hapless characters are reaching their dénouements – for example the doctor who finally comes to take Ronnie (the cobbler of the title) away is called Dr Last. ‘Be the Kipper you need to be – be the sort of Kipper you really are. Let your inner Kipper shine through…’ says the mentor to the unfortunate Norman (nicknamed Kipper), in Touchy Feely. Poor Norman:  ‘I enable them to own their feelings and then re-direct them towards me,' he says, 'That way, they don’t carry things back to the work place. It seems to be successful and I’ve had no trouble persuading them to focus their resentment on me.’

In Resident Power a woman accepts a house-sitting assignment in a village of perfect, pastel painted cottages, so that a frail old lady can have a holiday with her sister, a nun who is only allowed out into the world once a year. ‘I saw myself wandering down country lanes on sunny days, or cycling along riverbanks…’ the woman tells us, but somehow, once we've seen her bedroom; ‘…a room with a sloping ceiling, billowing white curtains and flowers from the garden on the dressing table…’ we just know that this isn't going to end well. The woman finds everyday reality: ‘… scraps of circling litter, a clattering, jingling milk-float that stopped as soon as it had started…’ coexisting with the surreal: a post office where a monstrous woman refuses to sell her anything; a petshop full of caged hedgehogs.
And, in Menu, the ghost of Sweeney Todd rises up as soon as the protagonist notices that there is a strange smell in the unfriendly pub she has to stay in.

Characters spring instantly to life, like Neville, the cat: ‘…with huge fluffy feet and
deliberate intentions. Had he been human, Neville would be the sort of person to stride up and shake hands very firmly. As it was, he threw his feline bulk at my calves and looked up at me with a cheerful face.’ The author is adept at scene setting: for example in Clean: ‘Then I saw the two paths and noticed curtains in the upstairs windows. That’s the only way you can tell, really. All the windows have mis-matched curtains upstairs and down. Sometimes there’s a real clash of tastes, with plain, neat nets on the lower floor, then frilly, flouncing ones above.’ Wood deftly achieves maximum information with minimum fuss while conveying something of the uneasy watchful caution of the protagonist. Or: ‘The neat little shed was opened for my inspection – a warm, dry
place holding trapped sunshine and stored apples.’ We are given precise, spatial and sensory information. Sharp eyed observation and succinct language is in evidence throughout the collection, not only to describe settings or characters (one memorable image evokes a shop assistant whose blue eyeshadow gave her the look of a 'chilled parrot') but also to make social comments; for example neighbours borrowing things from one another: ‘There was no particular kindness in this give and take arrangement, but rather the necessity of favours.’

Economy of language is a great thing in a writer and Caroline Wood's economy extends to titles too – like the excellent Foothold, a beguiling story which, like the other stories showcases the author’s impressive power of description e.g. this, about the inside of the body: ‘Strands as fine as hair weaving in between his pulsing, beating organs – visible like underwater rocks, dark vibrating shapes. And his bones – ivory segments of spine like a line of church candles, the ribs a sculptured cage.’ Or: this, of a dwelling, in The Cobbler: ‘Surrounded by rambling, tilted outbuildings and a shed made entirely of old doors, the house looked abandoned.’

This collection has affinities with Grimms fairy tales in the length and pace of each story and the short titles. It bears kinship to legend, magic and myth; such things keep shifting into view and disappearing – silkies, vampires, Alice in WonderlandStepford WivesMidwich cuckoosThe Prisoner, these are its cousins. It has grotesques like the Savage twins with their purple Punch profiles; it has hostile taxidermy and a Fellini-esque dwarf barber. Its protagonists often have a sense of unreality. Their dreams reflect their predicament or they are haunted by illusory memories that they can’t quite bring into focus. The stories are unsettling in the way that all the best spooky stories are. And, in my head at least, the ghost of Sweeney Todd rises up as soon as, in Menu, the protagonist notices that there is a strange smell in the unfriendly pub where she has to stay. 

This collection would make a good TV series - it reminds me of Tales of the Unexpected.
Download it as an ebook from Smashwords.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Blurred birds - focused readers

It's invigorating  to be confronted by your readers. I should explain that I was invited, as an author,  to speak to a reading group in Hertfordshire. What a group this is! I saw the list of books they have 'done' since the group started and it is a very long list indeed. This group has been going for years and the evening was well attended.

It is isolated being a writer. You plot and scheme and aside from the things you make the characters say and do, you weave themes and recurring images into your text when you are writing but you never know if anyone, apart from you, notices any of it.

Well, they do. Reading groups are, if you like, professional readers. Each of those readers I faced had read my book and was an expert on its contents. Nothing had escaped their attention - they 'got' everything and had noticed all kinds of things that had been put there deliberately.

As a writer, the activity of reading is something I do a lot of. But I only read some books more than once. Not so these guys. I do believe that these readers in Hertfordshire read all their books more than once.  They talked about it saying things like '... I only noticed it the second time round...' as if that was just their normal way of reading. I was deeply impressed. The time flew by. As I finished answering one question another took its place and each of these answers was more like a conversation anyway as the group all joined in with observations and supplementary points as we went along. They effortlessly asked me astute questions about the characters and about how I had structured the book. They knocked spots off any literature event audience I have ever been part of. (I myself have never been able to think of a question at such events,)

So if you're a writer; any chance you get to visit a reading group, take it. It obviously helps you to sell books so is a great opportunity for a writer anyway but the most wonderful thing is the rapport that you'll find you have just because they understand so well what you were getting at . You can't put a price on that. It just feels like the most inspiring kind of support you could possibly have so thank you, Hertfordshire Reading Group, I salute you.

Postscript: I have always wanted to see a kingfisher. While in Hertfordshire I went for a walk and saw three of them as we strolled alongside the river, Three! I practically leapt into the river with excitement and managed to take a picture of one of them with my phone. I also saw a great crested grebe and three herons and took blurred pictures of them too. I've seen herons before but the grebe and the kingfishers were a first for me which made the whole trip even more amazing.

Saturday, 7 March 2015


I just ate a whole mango to myself.
'Was there no-one around you could have shared it with?' I hear you cry.
Do I hear that? I remember once confessing that at times I ate almost to the bottom of  a big pot of yogurt in a frenzy of greed - attacking it as I was putting the shopping away - unable to get it into the fridge without ripping its top off and 'sampling' it.... and then Carol and Helena (for it was indeed they) just looked at each other and said: 'So?'
Maybe everyone else has a mango each so this is no big deal, but any fruit that costs more than 50p for one fruit brings out in me a kind of (did I have SUCH a Presbyterian upbringing?) puritan dismay that such a costly food has made it into the house. Mind you; ours might be a house where we are  used to scrimping and making-do, but actually we are by no means... oh, what is the opposite of self indulgent? That, anyway. We're not. But we do share our mangoes. And now I've just eaten the whole thing. There was no-one else here. They were all out. I was on my own.
Ah well - in the words of  Roy Orbison Only the lonely..... know the heartache, of peeled fruit....

Or as Helena and Carol might say - 'So?'

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Anne Stevenson and John Lucas on the same bill - best poetry night ever

That the great Anne Stevenson was reading felt, to me, like an extraordinary piece of good fortune. I had spotted that John Lucas was reading a month earlier and I went for that reason - his name leapt out and I didn't look to see who else was on. Thanks, Universe! The event was one in the Lumen series organised by the poet Ruth O'Callaghan. Among the poems Anne read were some from Astonishment which I managed to bag the last copy of. She hadn't brought many  copies and they went like hot cakes.In a rush of maternal affection I lent mine to Only Daughter who had also come to the gig. She lives in London so I will have to wait a bit until she comes home to visit for my turn to read it. Unless she posts it. 

The wonderful John Lucas read from his new collection Things To Say, which is published by that most admirable of organisations, Five Leaves Publications.
Astonishment 2012I was a bit slow once I got home with my precious signed copy (John and I go back a long way) and I have yet to wrench it out of the hands of Son 3, who took an immediate fancy to it. He is a poet himself - of the songwriting persuasion and you can hear him here if you like folk (there's even a small contribution from the seagulls of Brighton). I recommend him. (Yes, I am biased).