Wednesday, 29 April 2015


Always fascinated by our creativity and how it can be encouraged and so easily closed down,  and because I have a growing collection of books exploring the writing process, a while ago I bought a copy of a book about Proprioceptive Writing: Writing the Mind Alive by  Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. I dipped into the theories of a process in which a writer slows down, focuses, has music playing in the background (baroque music works best, it said), lights a candle and listens to their thoughts. The book made great claims for the process - I am quoting here:

Here's what you can expect:

  • opening the floodgates of expression
  • unburdening the mind
  • resolving emotional conflict
  • liberating the imagination
  • increased capacity to focus
  • increased awareness, confidence and self-trust
  • growing sense of intelligence
  • burgeoning creativity
  • following thought flow to its source in story and emotion
and this reader, being a sceptic, leaped in, scanned, cherry-picked like crazy. "I have never been able to write with music on," I said to myself, so ditched the musical element immediately, never tried it. I lit a candle on my desk, and waited for inspiration to hit. A few minutes later I blew the candle out, felt utterly silly, and the book slipped into its place on the shelf, to be revisited in due course. As and when. Or rather, forgotten about. 

Fast forward a few years. I arrive at my lovely writers' retreat, Anam Cara, in Ireland (where I am writing this). Staying there too is a lovely woman called Ginny Keegan who has just been leading a week-long workshop on guess what... Proprioceptive Writing. You can find a description of the workshop that had just finished here, together with a link to Ginny's website:

Ginny had agreed to run an afternoon workshop for some local writers and kindly invited me to join in - so, with some trepidation, and not completely convinced but trying to keep an open mind, I did so. What follows is a description of my first experience of doing a proprioceptive 'write', together with  a snippet of the result. I ought to start by saying I'd been feeling creatively wrung out, finding it hard to fight through (as I always have to) the negative voices all writers experience, I'm sure, at one point or another - no one wants this - forget it - this is rubbish. 

Also - importantly, I don't like to write at a table with other writers - just a 'thing' of mine. I am hugely aware of the other writers, their writing/not writing movements. And I don't write to music -see above. I have always found it very intrusive. 


After a brief introduction and explanation, we all moved, in silence, to the dining table. Plain, unlined paper awaited us, and small candles were set by every place. We followed our instructions and lit the candles. No speaking, no interacting - just slowing down, calming down.
Ginny had told us she would start the music, and we should listen to our thoughts, and write them down. Every so often, she said, if a word seemed resonant, holding deeper possibilities, we should question it as we wrote: 'What do I mean by 'deeper'...' for example. And let that question take you where it would. Not to censor. Not to write for feedback, for publication, for anything other than an exploration.

The music began. Baroque music which apparently works alongside the brain's own rhythms, echoes the heartbeat, calms you.
Whatever it does, my own thoughts and connections started flowing and I duly wrote them down, with no real expectations of this being useful but still. I'd give it a good go. At no time was the music anything other than a gentle accompaniment. I was aware of it running alongside me, but that is all - no intrusion.
The process of slowing down and questioning one's choice of words was a rather potent one, utterly surprising, occasionally emotional. I was completely but completely unaware of time passing, and the 25 minutes were gone in a flash. I hadn't noticed the other writers round the table.
During the process, I found myself revisiting a scene from my early childhood that I hadn't thought about consciously for decades - and this is that snippet.

I am remembering being in our kitchen, at the table, aged three or four, with two friends, and my mother has got us drawing a house - she will tell us which house is the best house.
Mine is multi-layered, and I use ALL my crayons - there are hundreds of windows, five chimneys because I can 'do' five, and smoke rising into the sky. It covers the paper and I have to turn over to finish the house on the other side.
My friends have drawn careful houses, two chimneys, two windows for bedrooms, two windows downstairs and one front door - just like we are shown at school when they say 'Shall we draw a house?'
I see my mother looking at the drawings. I see her struggle with herself. I see her say the other houses are lovely, and what was I doing? I know how to draw proper houses, don't I?
And the others get a biscuit. 

I had revisited for the first time a formative moment when my creativity was 'not good enough', judged wanting by someone important. I had been working round a table, on 'safe' ground which turned out to be the opposite. It was absolutely astounding. 

Later, we shared our writes in a session during which there is no feedback, during which our words were listened to, acknowledged. But no comment, no critique, no feedback apart from the session leader (Ginny) who would only reflect on the process as evidenced by the write. Not a word about the content. The content, our thoughts, are ours.

It's certainly not an end in itself. But now, thanks to one session of Proprioceptive Writing, I have learned a new way of opening up - I can begin to unearth where my struggles with creativity come from, the hard work it always is to get through.  Isn't it through looking at where we've come from that we can understand where we are, and go on ahead on more solid ground?

More importantly, maybe I can point other writers towards a process that will do good things for them too. And, less importantly perhaps, I know the foundations of my dislike of working round a table...

Thank you Ginny!

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Paul McVeigh's 'The Good Son' launches in London

Author, signing books!

Hmm. The moral of the story seems to be don't have a rather nice carafe of Sancerre rose before attending a book launch, so you end up arriving late, as an Eminent Poet support act is about to begin reading. But that's what happened, so Nancy and I stumbled in quietly as possible, to find the cafe at Waterstone's Piccadilly packed, and we had to stumble through the audience, and to the back to find seats! Ah well. We got there, to celebrate the launch of a smashing book, one that has already garnered great reviews, so don't go by what I say - just read it before everyone asks if you have.

It's funny, it's poignant, clever, grabs you from page one and won't let you go until the end, when believe me, you won't forget the story, or the central character, young Mickey Donnelley. What more can you ask of a book? Mr McVeigh kindly agreed to answer a few odd questions for the blog  in celebration of the launch - so here you go.

VG: If you could choose a scene from The Good Son and have it painted, which scene would you pick, who would you choose as the artist, and why on both counts.

Paul: Most of the novel takes place in a couple of streets in a housing estate in Belfast during the Troubles, so one of the scenes that stands out for me visually is the first time the main character Mickey leaves Ardoyne. He stands on Napoleon's Nose (a high point on Cave Hill, Belfast) and from this view he sees Belfast Lough and a ship leaving, heading out of Northern Ireland and away from the Troubles. Quite pivotal for him. I would chose Turner to paint it because he is one of my favourite artists and his paintings of the sea are incredible. 

VG: When The Good Son is made into a film, who would you like to play in particular Ma, Da and  Paddy? 

Paul: Ha! I wish. It's hard to be obvious. And not just chose your favourite actors and make them fit. I loved Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake and I think she would play Ma to perfection.
That stoic quality she captured so well, the no nonsense working class mother and the understated compassion. She would be brilliant.

For Da, Daniel Day Lewis is one of my favourite actors. So intense. I think he would bring out the hopelessness and despair of the man, behind the simplicity of how Mickey sees him. He could also play the darker, violent side.
He'd make a deep impression of a character who isn't in the novel for a long time but has a huge effect on the family.

Paddy. I don't know many young actors. Do you have any suggestions?

VG: Erm, nope, come to think of it. Sorry! Next question, she said, sidestepping neatly. Is Mickey Donnelly a heroic character in the classical sense? (Wikipedia - "a hero is a character who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage or self-sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good. Historically, the first heros displayed courage or excellence as warriors. The word's meaning was later extended to include moral excellence."

(I think he is... but over to the creator...)

Paul McVeigh
Paul: Yes, I think he is. That's been on my mind recently. As writers we can show someone's true character by putting them under extreme pressure. How they react reveals who they are, or are to become. When you have a character like Mickey, who refuses to give in to the despair of poverty and war, fights to maintain his dignity when all around them are losing theirs, in a society where everything he stands for is mocked or brutally destroyed and yet stands in front of them all and says 'I don't care what you think. I know who I am,' then I think you have a hero. He is only a small boy, fighting on all fronts and living in fear, but he is fearless when it comes to protecting the ones he loves. He will take on his older brother, his father, the boys in the street and even the IRA if he has to. He protects, without them even knowing, never wanting to embarrass or trouble them (with Ma), or for them to the evil exists (with his little sister Maggie). Mickey sacrifices his own moral integrity to allow the ones he loves to keep theirs. But he's not a Saint either. He has flaws and a wicked sense of humour, and that keeps him from being too perfect or overly sentimental.

VG: I wish the book so much success, Paul - but suspect it doesn't need my good wishes. Here is just one review, from the eminent Booktrust:
Whatever your age, gender or nationality, so compelling is this narrative that while you read it you're eleven or twelve, on the cusp of puberty: a boy discovering your identity one summer holiday in Catholic Belfast at the height of The Troubles.
To grown-ups, Mickey Donnelly's the archetypal good boy. Polite and amenable, he'll do anything to help his mammy. It's just as well. Mickey's da is oppressed and floundering. He's an alcoholic, free with his fists, and prone to slipping his hand into Mickey's ma's purse to buy his next drink. That's why she keeps checking it's in her pocket. Mickey was heading for grammar school till lack of money ruined his chances. His brother tells him he's so soft he'll never survive the rough local school. If Mickey can't escape via grammar school, he'll escape to America through acting.
Paul McVeigh's Belfast is emotionally raw and brutal. The streets are barricaded, Brit soldiers drag children from their beds in the middle of the night, and their play parks are bomb sites. This is Troubles-era Belfast, though it could equally represent children's experience of warzones anywhere.  The Good Son is a triumph of empathy and the understanding of human dynamics, yet to say that is to vastly understate the range of McVeigh's writing. Mickey is the funniest, most endearing human being for whom we feel huge compassion as he faces each adversity. This novel envelops the reader with its humanity and its down-to-earth humour leaves you laughing.

The Good Son is published by Salt, and is available from all good bookshops. Support the indies!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Rap, by Danny

Danny isn't an author, and the rap isn't a book - he is a young man I met today at the National Crimebeat Awards in London. He is a member of the Respond Academy team from St Leonard's on Sea, East Sussex, who won third place - and we are hugely proud of them all. Chris had put this brilliant initiative forward for the awards - and we are delighted they were not only finalists but prizewinners!

Danny was going to perform a rap as part of the group's presentation - but for one reason or another, he was not able to.  He was kind enough to give me a copy of the words, which tell how important  music has been in helping him turn his life around when 'home' is not the place of safety we like to think it is. 


The minute people realised I was a big kid who could throw a mean slug
people would stop turning round and labelling me as a thug.
After that day I would go home and never receive a kiss or hug
and never receive a single ounce of love
‘til I turned round and said that’s it. 
Enough is enough.
Because I turned round and walked away,
that’s the reason I can talk the way I talk today.
See, I was taught to be a criminal and commit crimes every day,
until one day I woke up and realised crime isn’t the way.

Back then I was a confused little kid, so I focused on my music.
Music is like therapy helping me and that’s why I use it,
so now I been given this opportunity I’m not going to abuse it.
Music is my life, and that’s why I choose it. 

Brilliant. Thanks to Danny and the whole team. 

All the winners were taken off for a fab trip to the London Eye - a lovely day for it! 

Read on for more about Respond Academy, which helps young people who for one reason or another aren't fitting into the education system...

Pablo & Jc McFee  2006 devised a specialist education programme using the  Arts, Music & Media that  gave  young people a thirst for learning and helping them to find  new ways of working within the creative fields to create employment or work along side other Artists and professionals on incredible high profile or local  events or projects. Jc realized that the  Arts Award in 2007 was the way forward  to obtain qualifications for our Community members as well as some of the most excluded challenging Students from  EBD schools giving them 2 Gcse’s to enable them to go towards their further education.
Respond Academy has a proven track record from 2004 that has given numerous life changing  opportunities  to young people in our community to learn art, dance, photography,   writing lyrics, learn how to use apple iMacs  inc ;Numerous software for Film, Production,  Vocal Booth, Sound Desk, Live instruments Music Music, IT,ART mixed media ,Painting or Drawing
Here is a short-list of just some of the achievements some of the young people who attend either as part of the  alternative education project or the community project.
    • At university to study; law, Film,multi-media, drama, art, & business studies
    • Returning to mainstream school and maintaining behaviour to continue at college. .
    • 100+ young people starting at college and completing their courses.
    • 50+ young person going to college at 18 years of age – after no formal education since  they were 13/14  years old
    • 50+   employment in their chosen fields  various jobs including , Teaching assistants, Legal secretary, Admin / Welfare officers, Manager of print/graphic design company, WebDesigner, Global Dj  & Mc , Film maker, Web designer, Graphic designer,
    • 12 gained training and employment on film’s  working with a mainstream film producers and commercial film company
    • 59 students gaining GCSE level qualifications (Silver Arts Awards)
    • 2 students gaining AS level qualifications (Gold Arts Awards)
    • 12 Bronze Arts  Award
    • 11 BTECs in 1st Certificate Music Production.  1 student obtained a Double Distinction after having been excluded from EBD unit  School and dispite not  able to read or write but having a natural ability  for iMac  programmes and software .
    • 100+ Learning to understand their behaviour and consequences
    • 30+people attending various training courses
    • 15 Peer trainers gaining paid employment for workshops they had devised and delivered
    • 2 young people sought their own funding for music/art projects they had devised. Both these projects exceeded all expectations
    • A core group of 4 successfully co-event managed Parklive 2007 a youth music festival linked to The Annual Beer Festival in Hastings
    • A group of 10/12 facilitated various music/dance/mc-DJ events throughout 2007 through 2012 in East Sussex
    • A group of 4 devised & delivered short reels, an innovative film project in conjunction with Children’s Services, Youth Development Services, and local schools in 2009 .
    • 2 members  sought funding from Youth Bank  and started an incredible  successful youth monthly Disco event called VIBES in 2007-2009 VIBES   founder   Lauren  was so innovative that she Booked Tynchy Stryder the WEEK before he went into NO1 & then she booked  Tinie Tempah  & the next week  he was  A Star   and a few other  exciting Artists  .Everything was run  and managed by a an amazing team of young people aged from 14-21 years old.
    • we have a selection of  Respond Academy  LIVE Up & Coming Artists
    • Devonerri  &  Sully won   MAKING TRACKS  with a tune called {I like Hastings } Southern Railway in 2011
    •  we have a in house  z1 Film Crew
    • JUNE 2012  our Youth Ambassador went to Sierra Leone  to make new Links with other Youth Groups  Watch this Space.
    • Members are commissioned to  run multi/ mixed art /live music workshops with CAMHS  young people  in-house at The academy & then Eastbourne in 2012
    • Members are commissioned to run  Dance workshops at Specialist schools   in Bexhill on Sea
    • Members  are commissioned to event manage and host  community events.
    • Members are commissioned to make flyers  for Companies  and Artists.
    • Members are offered film extra roles .
    • Members have been commissioned to make  live soundtracks for Films 2012 .
    • Members have been asked to sit on numerous  forums to give their opinions  as young people .
    • Members have been asked to perform  live at numerous community events since 2007 -2012
    • Artists Rebecca Youssefi hosted numerous art exhibitions and events  on her own and members work whilst in house Curator for The Academy   and Coastal Currents in Hastings 2011
    • Numerous innovative In – house video shorts including dancing, singing

You can read more about the National Crimebeat Awards here:

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Two books...two indie publishers

Contracts flew backwards and forwards a couple of weeks ago, between two lovely indie publishers and meself.

First, then, Ed's Wife and Other Creatures, the illustrated flash collection, my collaboration with the terrific Lynn Roberts, will be published by a new imprint of Cinnamon called Liquorice Fish Books, and with a fair wind will appear in early October. 
       I loved the name when I heard it, love liquorice as anyone knows who has read The Coward's Tale! I looked at the website to see what they were going to publish...and it said this: they were here to:
"promote the innovative and idiosyncratic in contemporary writing: writers who are passionate and committed to finding an individual voice and approach to their writing; who are restless and want to explore the many possibilities inherent in language and the written word; or who wish to celebrate and extend the vibrant and varied traditions — and anti-traditions — that emerged during the 20th Century but which have been too often marginalised and belittled by the world of corporate authorship."
Would they like this strange collection which didn't seem to fit anywhere?
     Suffice it to say they did, am enjoying working with editor Adam Craig on the final manuscript, and can't wait to see ED in print!

This is what they say about ED's Wife:
"Described by Tania Hershman as “funny and poignant”, this exquisite collection by well-known poet and writer, Vanessa Gebbie, and illustrator, Lynn Roberts, explores the ever-shifting face of relationships and what it means to allow another person into your life. Delicate and disturbing by turns, gently surreal yet anchored in the everyday, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures is a book not to be missed."

Next, a full poetry collection has been accepted for publication by the lovely Cultured Llama.
Based in Kent, this great publisher is very local to me, and I have briefly worked with Maria McCarthy and Bob Carling, the owners. I am so delighted to be working with them on 'Memorandum' - a collection of poems inspired by war memorials of the Great War. The book should be out in the Spring 2016.

My calculations make that books number seven and eight since 2008. That'll do for now, although there is another on the chocks with Cultured Llama - number nine, due out in 2017. I'm still working on that one, details later on.

So here's to the independents. Support them, readers. Buy their books, keep the guardians of originality afloat. And writers - get your work out there!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Reading, working with friends

Thursday evening last week, and a chance to read poetry with poetry buddy Caroline Davies at a rather terrific event in Bedford, called Ouse Muse. Organised by poet Ian McEwen, this friendly, well-supported event also is a chance for local poets to take one of the open mike slots available - and it was great to hear such a range of work. Poetry really is alive and kicking in Bedford!
Staying overnight with Caroline, in Wing, about an hour away - such an historic place - and spent a couple of hours the next morning running a creative workshop for members of her writing group who meet in the village library.
     I love this side of the writing life - sharing readings, sharing tips, giving permission to other writers to open up and enjoy their gifts.

The next event planned is this:

Niyati Keni is a terrific writer - her debut novel Esperanza Street (Andotherstories) is a beautiful, poignant exploration of a community in danger, in the Philippines. I know, I endorsed it! It is being launched in Brighton at a triple writer event also celebrating those works of art that inspired three novels - Esperanza Street,  my Coward's Tale, and Suzanne Joinson's 'A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar'. Look forward to this one very much!
It is free entry, with a cash bar - so if you are in Brighton - come along and say hello.

Friday, 2 January 2015

2014 round up, with special mentions.

From March onwards, 2014 was always going to be on the slow side writing-wise thanks to The Other Half becoming a High Sheriff - a great honour, but something which was going to impinge on our lives for a twelvemonth.  

Poetry seems to have taken a front seat, no matter how much I tried to ask it to move the back of the room.  Here then, a month by month look at the "quiet" year that was 2014...


  • Poem ‘Cenotaph’ up on Matter Press Journal of Compressed Arts:
  • Gladstone’s Library: my own writing for a whole ten days!
    I managed to 'finish' the second novel in a final blast of creative energy. It was great fun to research and write, and a brilliant challenge, while it lasted. However, ‘Kit’ is staying put for the moment - it’s not quite there.  
  • Oxted Book Festival, reading with Dan Powell, Alison Macleod and Tom Vowler. Nattering over tea.

  • Winner, Sussex Poetry competition
  • A commission, together with a group of poets, to use a Royal Academy exhibition as inspiration, write and then perform a poem at The RA. The exhibition, Sensing Spaces, was a collection of monumental installations in all the exhibition spaces, created by eminent architects from all over the world. The challenge was to respond to one, some or all of these in whatever way we wished.  The brainchild of novelist, poet, actor and academic Emer Gillespie, and poets Catherine Smith and Abegail Morley - a team called Ekphrasis. This was a marvellous opportunity, one that came to life on the performance night - as we all interacted with the visitors, performing our poems in situ. The event was filmed, and a booklet was published - it really was the most extraordinary thing to do for a first poetry commission. Follow that, as they say. See here for the Royal Academy blog writeup:
  • Interviewed by Bath Short Story Award :

Don't know what happened in April...

  • London Short Story Festival, a terrific series of events organised on behalf of London’s Spread the Word by Paul McVeigh.
    I ran a series of fun freebie writing thingummies in the basement of Waterstones Piccadilly and chairing a panel discussion: getting secrets out of publishers and agents...
  • Runner up in Adlestrop Poetry comp
  • Poems accepted by Onslaught Press for ‘Poems for Gaza’ publication
  • Gave a masterclass on character at Waterstones Piccadilly, and read ‘Dodie’s Gift’ for The Word Factory, alongside Carys Bray and Val McDiarmid. 

  • The Thirteenth International Conference on the Short Story in English, held for the first time in Vienna. I attended thanks to marvellous invitations to teach, to read, and to participate in a panel discussion.  To go to writerly receptions and readings hosted by the US Cultural centre, the Irish ambassador, the Canadian Australian and Austrian embassies.
    And what a joy it was to be with friends, to meet many new ones, and to spend the best part of the week immersed in talks, readings and discussions about one of the best forms of fiction.
    There was also a stonking great anthology!
    Thank you, thank you for an unforgettable week to Sylvia Petter.

  • Adlestrop poetry comp organisers to publish an anthology.
  • ‘Poems for Gaza’ poetry book published by Onslaught Press

  • Gladfest! Ran a workshop on running a writing group, and interviewed the marvellous Sarah Perry (above)  about her debut novel “After me comes the flood”. 
  • Judged Cinnamon Press’s short story competition
  • ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’ accepted for publication by Liquorice Fish, a new imprint  from Cinnamon. 
  • Joined the Board of Trustees of New Writing South 

  • 2-6 - Writers’ Pals trip to the Somme and Ypres, guided by the redoubtable Jeremy Banning. Two days on the Somme, one day visiting Loos and the Boar’s Head among others, and two days in and around Ypres. 
  • 9-17 - Poetry Masterclass week with Bernard O’Donoghue at Anam Cara. 

  • A prose poem ‘Ocean to Drop’ is published on Visual Verse
  • A poem “Stages of Remembrance” is published in the lovely print magazine Confingo, and read at their launch.
  • 11th: a great salon event at Brighton University, invited by writer-in-residence Clare Best, debating and mulling on the subject of Remembrance, Resistance and Writing, together with Neil Bartlett, followed by a smashing supper with all the creative writing staff - so good to catch up. 
  • 15th- a visit to Bristol for a special WW1 event, and the launch of  a very special project, a series of beautifully produced postcards - the culmination of a collaboration between two friends, battlefield guide and military historian Jeremy Banning and writer Tania Hershman.
  • 19th” a lovely poetry event - a very impromptu last-minute arrangement, thanks to Sasha Dugdale, a poets’ walk from various points to the Chattri, the Indian memorial on the Downs above Brighton.
    Modern Poetry in Translation was focussing on the poetry of WW1 - and Punjabi Poet Amarjit Chandan was the guest of honour. He read a eulogy to the departed, and his translations of Punjabi songs written by those women whose men left to fight for us in the Great War.  Readings and soup!
  • 19th: Dinner at Nat Liberal Club to celebrate the winners of the 2015 Gladstone’s Library Residencies.
  • 20th: the launch of ‘Letters to the Unknown Soldier at the RCA, edited by Kate Pullinger and Neil Bartlett- such a good event - as many of the 120 writers as could make it - including several youngsters and their parents. My highlight was hearing a letter read out by Andrew Motion - to discover the writer was a besuited young lad aged about 10, knee high to the proverbial, parents proud as anything.  
  • 20th: The biggest surprise - The Half-life of Fathers was  reviewed, and included ‘among  ‘the best pamphlets of 2014’ by the TLS. 
  • 22: Fab workshop from The Word Factory at Waterstones’ Piccadilly by the unparalleled David Vann

  • Poem ‘Timeline’ accepted for publication by the print publication Acumen, in January.
  • Two poems accepted for Poems for a Liminal Age anthology (Sentinel, 2015).

One of the joys of this writing stuff is being in the company of others on the same but different journey. (They will know what I mean!)

2014 special mentions:

Andrew Marshall, hugely valued writing buddy, whose career spans so many facets. And Gail Louw, playwright extraordinaire and member of the same writing group - whose plays are now hitting the stage all over the place - UK, South Africa, USA. Amazing people both. 

Poetry buddy Caroline Davies, whose steady incisive feedback has been so valuable too, and with whom I’ve had such fun and interesting times this year, tracking down war memorials, among other things.

Sarah Hilary, the hardest working, most tenacious writer, whose debut thriller, “Someone Else’s Skin” has just been an amazing star, and it’s going to be on telly and everything! Sarah visited the blog here:

Sarah Perry, whose debut “After me comes the Flood” from Serpent's Tail is simply wonderful, storywise and writingwise. I was so glad to endorse it with a cover quote and then to interview her at Gladfest this year.  (see above)

Sylvia Petter, the whizziest person I know,  and a fantastic writer, who organised the Thirteenth Conference on the Short Story (see July) with such aplomb, and whose company is absolutely magical, a stream of endless interest. 

Tania Hershman and her co-writer Courttia Newland,  whose terrific text book on writing the short story has just been published by Bloomsbury -

Sue Guiney, whose writing has led her down very inspirational paths. Her work among the young people of Cambodia is seriously changing lives : . Sue is the founder of Writing Through Cambodia, a program which uses the creative writing of poetry and short stories to develop English fluency, conceptual thinking and self-esteem for Cambodian students and teachers.

Lane Ashfeldt, whose short story collection Saltwater was published this year by Liberties Press. The collection contains  a few prizewinners among its twelve stories and a novella.  Lane runs a rather lovely bookish B and B in Knighton, if anyone enjoys walking, writing, mulling.

Sarah Salway, who not only makes me giggle, but who (via Cultured Llama) published the most beautiful book I’ve read this year: Digging up Paradise

Clare Best and Catherine Smith, who, with the above-mentioned, made up the best company for a nutty foursome weekend writing retreat - and I do hope we do it again! 

That’ll do. 

Here's to a Happy New Year! 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Remembrance, resistance, writing

A new kind of war memorial, the brainchild of Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger, went live earlier in the year. Focussing on the statue by Charles Sargeant Jagger on The Great Western War Memorial at Platform 1, Paddington Station, this was an initiative which, like the ceramic poppies at The Tower of London, burgeoned into something bigger than at first envisaged. The statue represents a Tommy in a hand-knitted scarf reading a letter. The public were invited to write that letter...
       The initiative, pump-primed by 50 well known writers, attracted a huge response.  Almost 22,000 letters came in, up to the closing date of 4 August 2014.  Some direct into the website. Some handwritten and posted 'To the statue, Paddington Station.' The posties got to know where to send them. Letters from all over the world. 
       Letters from children, from adults of all ages, the very old,  letters from veterans and serving soldiers, from politicians and teachers. From writers too. 
      Initially, that was it - the website where all the letters are available to read, and subsequently archived by the British Library - a clever war memorial for today. But then along came publisher William Collins,  and the anthology was born. 120 of the letters were selected for multifarious reasons, and bound in a rather great hardback. 
       Unindexed, you have to read wherever the book opens. You might stumble across a letter from Ed Milliband or Dawn French, Stephen Fry or a ten year old schoolboy. From 1914 Sikhs or a schoolgirl, Benjamin Zephaniah, Daljit Nagra or Andy McNab. Mark Haddon. Or David Cameron. And a mass of others, including 10 Anons, and one by me.
Here it is on the Book Depository:

And here is the start of my letter:

Things you do not know:
      When you leave, you will leave a child, growing. When night falls on the day you die, your officer will write two letters to two families, your and his own. He will say to his mother that he has never had to write a letter like that. He has never knowingly lied before. He helped three of his men bury what was left. He will ask does his mother think, under the circumstances, he did the right thing when he said 'it was quick'?

You can read all the letters here:


A few weeks ago, I went to see another memorial - Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red - the ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London. Because each poppy was intended to represent one death of a British soldier in WW1, I waited to go on the penultimate day when all but one or  two were in situ. It was an extraordinary sight, and one I won't forget.

It is a brilliant work of art. It looked extraordinary  from ground level, and even more extraordinary from The Shard - the day was so sparklingly clear on Monday 10th November that it was worth spending the cash to travel up in a lift to grab the views. But for me, something was missing. 
    The way they'd allowed the installation to be used for political purposes by the Prime Minister for example, and Ed Milliband - who happened to plant poppies surrounded by a battalion of the world's press -  cheapened it for this viewer. A shame. That overshadowed the day.  But a brilliant work of art, still. 

On 11th 11th, we spent most of the day at Seaford, starting with a service at a windswept cemetery which contains the graves of men who died at the training camp in WW1. They include the graves of soldiers from the West Indian Regiment who died of the flu. You can read a somewhat disturbing account of how we used the West Indian Regiment here:

   There are also the graves of two Irish soldiers who drowned off the beach a matter of a few weeks after arriving: one got into trouble, his friend tried to save him and they both drowned. And another - the grave of a man who was known to be a dreadful bully, and who made the lives of the new soldiers hell. He was shot by one of those young soldiers, who gave himself up immediately. And oddly, he was only given a three year prison sentence...

We then joined the members of the Seaford branch, Royal British Legion in their club for lunch. 
     I was particularly moved to meet an Irish veteran. For the last twenty years, he told me, the Irish Veterans  had marched at the Cenotaph on Remembrance day, and laid a wreath. This year, they had not been allocated any places in the line-up, or on the march. Thinking it was an oversight, he had repeatedly tried to contact the organisers to rectify the situation, to no avail. 
    Watching the ceremony on the television, they saw the Irish Prime Minister laying a wreath, for the first time. 

Again, a political move, this time sidelining veterans in order that someone might make a political statement. A shame.


The evening was spent in Brighton University, invited with Neil Bartlett of Letters to the Unknown Soldier fame, and many other fames,  to a literary salon called Remembrance, Resistance and Writing. The invitation came from writer-in-residence Clare Best. 
     The event opened out the resistance I'd been feeling to how these things can be manipulated. Neil was very impassioned about Remembrance - very keen to show that without action it becomes questionable - "yes, he said, you are moved by these things. And?"

       He pointed out how poor it was that the organisers had not protected the Tower art installation from exploitation.  How easy it is to manipulate a an example,  he cited an image that I'd found disturbing since Remembrance Sunday - a child in uniform placing the final poppy at the Tower. 
    I asked the student audience to place that image alongside the recent 'Passing Bells' - a series on the BBC aired in the evening, aimed at young people. The reconstruction of battles was so pretty, so bloodless, literally - lots of smoke, lots of men lying in artistic poses on the ground afterwards - with not so much as a cut. No shattered limbs. No split skulls. No blood. No bone. 
       And according to the BBC, there was utter silence after the first day of the Somme, apparently. Maybe not utter - a few slight groans from a few perfectly whole men in shell-holes - as if they had hangovers.

   Not good enough. Bringing up a generation of kids to think that war is not as terrible as it actually is. And patronising in the extreme - most of the viewers of that programme have far more violent and bloody games on their phones.