writing

Rediscovering Maigret

The only Maigret paperback I have ever owned

This year after not reading any of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels for years I’ve read three as ebooks from the library: Maigret and the Man on the Bench, Maigret Takes a Room, and Maigret’s Mistake. I’d forgotten how gently melancholy they could be, as Maigret sits and ponders in cafes or his office, smoking his pipe. Rather than running around chasing people he seems to potter around Paris asking questions, slotting pieces of the puzzle together, occasionally sending his assistant Janvier off to track someone down. When they do corner the villain, Maigret is usually more disappointed than angry, particularly if they are young. I hadn’t picked up on his underlying sadness at never having children, before, but it is mentioned in all three books I think.

I used to read Maigret as a child, probably even before I started on Agatha Christie at eleven or so. My dad borrowed them from the library and before I had my own adult borrower’s card I would read some of them too before he returned them. I dare say the racier themes passed me by but the atmosphere and the central characters stayed with me, and when Michael Gambon starred in the TV adaptation in the early 90s my dad and I watched them together. For years, it was Gambon who portrayed Jules Maigret in my head when I read the books, but this year he was replaced by Rowan Atkinson’s kind paternalism. That change made me realise how wonderfully Atkinson had portrayed Maigret in the ITV adaptations a few years ago. We watched them at the time with OneMonkey’s parents, as I recall, and now OneMonkey’s dad has started reading the novels on my recommendation.

I turned to Maigret as a literary comfort blanket, an easy throwback to childhood without going the full Paddington. It worked on that level but I also enjoyed the story on its own terms, hence returning for more. They’re not cosy crime, the three I’ve read this year date from the 1950s and have sordid and grubby elements, hunger and desperation. It’s Maigret’s attitude, his understanding, that makes them in any way comforting. In these days of paperback door-stoppers the Maigret novels are refreshingly short, a wet weekend read that I can immerse myself in. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered Simenon’s Maigret. Thankfully he wrote more than seventy novels in the series so there are plenty more for me to revisit.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite detective, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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G is for Golden Guernsey Goats

“Don’t tell people we let the goats come in the house!”

This was a familiar wail from my mother during a short section of my childhood. Along with not telling people how much money I had in my purse or the building society, or had received for Christmas, there were a host of other obscure rules that I never quite grasped about what we couldn’t reveal to all and sundry. Particularly the one about not telling people that my sisters were my sisters – Big Brother never really mixed with people who hadn’t known him since childhood so he didn’t pose a problem. I was probably in my teens before I realised that this was because, being technically my cousins and born before my parents got married, it made my mum look like a teenage mother and she was mortified, but of course she never explained this and so I kept on telling everyone I met about my fabulous big sisters. It’s a good job social media wasn’t around when I was a child, is all I can say.

But, you may well be asking, why were there goats in the house in the first place? Well, obviously it’s because they didn’t want to be outside in all weathers, though I doubt it was much warmer in the house than it was in their shelter. We lived in Cornwall at the time in a big house with a small field, on a clifftop. It had two open fires and a range downstairs, and no heating at all upstairs. The wind – often gale-force – howled between the sections of the sash windows. For reasons known only to my late Nana, the kitchen door was often wide open. Hence the goats could wander in when they pleased, up the back stairs to curl up on the bath-mat for an afternoon nap.

Yes, I hear you say with waning patience, but why goats at all, and what are Golden Guernseys? Golden Guernseys are a rare breed of dairy goat: small, coarse-haired and ginger and full of personality. By which I mean, mischievous and destructive. As for why we had a nanny and kid for several months, I’m not sure. They belonged to a couple my parents knew, who I think had a farm or smallholding. We ended up with just over a dozen of their Jacob sheep for a while too. There will have been some practical reason like they were getting a cess pit replaced or having a barn repaired and we had just enough field to help them out, but at the age of six I wasn’t party to the boring grown-up stuff. All I knew was that for a while I almost didn’t mind that we couldn’t spend much time at Uncle Bob’s farm in Cumbria, because I had farm animals right outside my door. And on many a rainy afternoon, inside it as well.

Golden Guernsey nanny tethered near the open kitchen door

G could also have been for glockenspiel but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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I Love The Bones Of You by Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston is probably my favourite Doctor of the revived Doctor Who, but it’s his public anger about the lack of opportunity for working class actors and his willingness to admit to mental health problems that really made me respect him. I watched Lemn Sissay and Christopher Eccleston discuss their memoirs for the Bradford Literature Festival in 2020, just the pair of them in conversation about their vastly different upbringings a few miles apart in what is now Greater Manchester. I honestly can’t remember whether I’d just read My Name Is Why or if I was intending to, but I know that a couple of weeks after that event I was buying an ebook on Kobo and spotted that I Love The Bones Of You was the 99p daily deal so I decided to give it a go. It’s taken me a while to be brave enough to read it because I got the impression it was largely about the effects of his dad’s dementia and my mum’s been suffering for a few years now. Indeed I cried my way through the last couple of chapters which do focus on his dad’s plight but although it’s mentioned earlier – foreshadowed if you like – it’s by no means the core of the book.

Thankfully it’s not a celebrity memoir either, full of name-dropping and amusing anecdotes. The trouble is, I’m not sure what it is. He does have important things to say about many things such as the stigma attached to mental illness, the assumption that anorexia only happens to girls, and how damaging a traditional northern working class stoicism can be when actually the stronger thing to do would be to ask for help. He also highlights how the opportunities he was afforded as a drama student in the 80s don’t exist for young people starting out now, and how in a precarious job market (like acting, but not only acting) there’s a pressure to conform and to put up with discomfort or bad behaviour. Also, shockingly, that post-breakdown he was seen as an insurance risk which could (and certainly would in a less-established actor) restrict his ability to work, thus encouraging people to cover up problems. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do agree that sometimes ‘working class chip’ and ‘professional northerner’ are used to lazily dismiss genuine grievances.

There isn’t a simple chronological autobiography here, in fact I felt like I was floundering in a stream of consciousness in the early chapters, confused at times as to what era we were in and if that was before or after some particular event. On the other hand he does go off on short tangents now and then about making this TV series or that film. I appreciated his respect for writers who are trying to inform as they entertain, and I finished the book with a couple of TV series I wanted to watch. I often want to be that kind of writer but aside from Twelve Weeks’ Rest I’m not sure I’ve managed it. There’s an element of catharsis, writing-as-therapy, and I sincerely hope it helped him to explore for instance what masculinity means when you’re northern and working class, particularly in the 70s when he was hitting his teens. I recognised too much of that self-policing mindset that leads to internalised problems that erupt much later. It’s not my story to tell but someone close to me was also suicidally depressed in his fifties and to read Eccleston’s take on his own breakdown was painful.

Things being not your story to tell can hamper memoir, of course, and there’s some of that in I Love The Bones Of You. He has two older brothers and naturally they make the odd appearance but it would have been interesting to know how their getting married and having sons of their own informed his ideas of masculinity or his relationship with them or his dad. I sensed that he wanted to keep their tales private though, and their families are only mentioned in passing with reference to a funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep your living family out of the limelight – his dad had been dead for seven years I believe, by the time the book came out in 2019 – but it’s a shame that some interesting angles were therefore left unexplored.

I didn’t give up on it, partly I felt I owed it to him for being so brave as to pour all that onto a page and send it out for strangers to read and judge. There’s a raw openness to it that I admired even as it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s not so much a warts and all portrait as a tight close-up on the warts such that you’re left wondering about the wider view. In summary, I’m glad I read it but I felt scoured out by the end. And for the record, I would watch a BBC Who Do You Think You Are about his farm labourer and factory worker ancestors; I’m from long lines of agricultural labourers, miners and mill-hands myself.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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F is for family history

It was my Nana that instilled a sense of my family’s history in me. When I was about twelve my grandad gave me photocopies of his parents’ marriage and death certificates which helped me get started on proper family history research later, but I don’t remember him or my grandma talking about their childhoods. Nana, on the other hand… When I was little we were inseparable and she was a chatterbox. I spent my pre-school days and then my weekends, evenings and school holidays with her and assorted friends and relations of her generation. Man, could they talk. Sometimes they’d natter away and forget I was there, and I absorbed favourite reminiscences and old gossip. Often though, they’d deliberately tell stories to the wide-eyed child who hadn’t heard them a hundred times before.

Now and then they’d tell me what they remembered, or had been told, about older generations, in fact I mentioned a few years ago some of the family tales and phrases that had been passed down that way. Thus Nana’s cousin Jo Jo described the goalkeeping skills of my great-grandad for the Atherton Codders in the 1920s, eyes shining like he could still see the pitch in front of him. I heard about Nana and Jo Jo being taken on a seaside holiday by their grandparents, and about my great-grandad’s budgies in a walk-in cage in the back garden. Usually they related funny or memorable events from their own youth. Nana’s lifelong friend Alice in particular told hilarious tales absolutely deadpan and was a master of pacing and scene-setting. I can still picture her landing at the feet of a surprised old couple in 1930s Derbyshire when her husband applied the brakes too hard on the tandem after a handlebar mishap.

It had been long enough since the war (forty years or more) that I got the amusing anecdotes about misadventure and misunderstanding: “Bombing at random again?” said my great-grandma, listening to the radio. “There’ll be nobody left there. Where is Random, anyway?”. My Nana’s youngest sister using gravy browning and an eyebrow pencil to mock up seamed stockings on her bare legs. Filling the butter dish with lard to teach a small child not to filch rationed butter from the sideboard. My Royal Marine grandad getting drunk, losing his ship and having to hitch a lift on another one. Nobody talked about the sick fear, the disruption and hardship. What’s the use of dragging all that up again? And yet, even though I was a child I didn’t only get the polite or sugar-coated version of history. Nana was completely open with me about her brother having a different dad who her mum hadn’t been allowed to marry. And about the suicide of her great-grandad about a decade before she was born.

I took these facts as they were given, crucial pieces of the story that I wouldn’t find written down anywhere, but nothing shocking. It’s only looking back now I’m older that I’m amazed, thinking about how in the 1980s we still referred to children ‘born out of wedlock’, and how much stigma is even now attached to suicide which was – lest we forget – illegal until the 1960s. Not only did my Nana happily pass this information on to me when I was still at primary school, but she knew it in the first place! Her mum got married during the first world war and openly brought with her the son she’d had with a previous boyfriend in another village. No passing him off as her little brother or an orphaned nephew, or leaving him to be brought up by someone else while she got on with her new life as many others did. And as for the story about Nana’s great-grandad, she got that from her grandma Emily whose father it was.

Nana with her grandma Emily in 1920

It was passed to me as I imagine it was passed to Nana, with sadness but no shame or condemnation. Emily found her father’s body and understood what had driven him to desperation. Perhaps the village doctor understood too, because the death certificate uses fancy medical terms for ‘died of old age’ whereas it must have been obvious what had happened. Emily clearly loved him and didn’t want the truth to be forgotten. Thus, even though Emily died nearly forty years before I was born I feel a connection with her, and thanks to the passed-down story I know that her dad had his troubles but did his best. Which I’m sure she would appreciate.

F could also have been for Ford Fiesta, fireworks, fish and chips, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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E is for Environmentalism

Last year I was clearing out a box and flicked through my (sadly incomplete) Garfield sticker book before it went in the bin. Eleven-year-old me had diligently written my favourite foods and pastimes on the relevant pages, and where it asked me to fill in what I wanted to do when I grew up, it said I wanted to save the planet. There in black and white (or blue and pale orange) was evidence of an early interest in the environment.

It shocked me when I saw it, because I would have said my interest in recycling and eco-responsibility came later. I know that when I was in my teens we had the energy-saving bulbs that took ages to get bright, but that was because my dad knew they were cheaper to run. I also remember when I first went to university I had a cardboard box for clean recycling, which Big Brother took home when he came to visit. At the time, I only had access to paper recycling on campus but at home we had a wheely bin for paper, cans, and certain types of plastic. I couldn’t bring myself to throw all those tuna tins in the bin. Dolphin-friendly tuna, naturally.

I’ve always loved animals: I grew up around cats, dogs, goldfish, goats, sheep, horses and ponies. We even lived somewhere temporarily where the neighbour’s donkey used to stick its head through the living room window whenever it was open. I mentioned a few posts ago the time we spent appreciating the Cumbrian outdoors, and I had the I-Spy books of British Birds and British Wildlife. Having said all that the thing that’s stuck in my mind, the thing I think might have made the difference between me being a nature-loving rambler and me being concerned about what we were doing to the planet, is a giftbox of soaps.

It was a colourful box the size of a shallow shoebox, and it was a present from my mum’s childhood friend, one of those people I knew as Aunty. The Body Shop (famous back in the late 80s as being the one that didn’t do animal testing) and Friends of the Earth as I recall, had joined forces and here were soaps shaped like a whale, a panda, a turtle maybe and a couple of others I’ve forgotten. There was a badge and a poster explaining why they were endangered and what we could do about it. It horrified me. Also, the soaps were too nice to use so the box hung around in the bathroom for a good decade proclaiming its earnest message, probably until Nana died and we worked our way through the stash of every nice soap she’d been bought for the last twenty years. So don’t dismiss the seemingly inconsequential, the marketing campaigns and the greenwash. They might not be game-changing in the grand scheme of things, but maybe they’ll make one kid think really hard about the world and adapt their behaviour accordingly.

For some reason I’ve kept this badge 35 years

E could also have been for elevenses or Earl Grey. Until I manage to get that Twinings sponsorship, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Split by Laura Kay

Lesbian rom-com, mostly set in Yorkshire and includes a cat. What’s not to love? I mentioned in September that I’d bought The Split after seeing Laura Kay at a Stay-at-Home litfest session on romantic comedy novels but hadn’t read it yet. Well, now I have and it was great.

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Unemployed teacher Ally’s been ditched by the love of her life in London, so she packs a change of clothes and the cat and crawls home to her dad in Sheffield. Much as she’d love to wallow while she waits for Emily to realise how much she misses the cat (and hopefully Ally), her dad’s not about to let that happen. It seems her childhood friend Jeremy’s crawled back home after heartbreak too and their respective parents figure they might cheer each other up as well as get each other out of the house. Reluctant at first, they soon fall back into their old groove and of course Ally’s going to sign up for the half-marathon in solidarity when Jeremy decides that’s the way to get his boyfriend back. Happily, though the training might well kill her, Ally’s at least found an attractive young running coach but she’s probably straight. Isn’t she?

The tagline was, ‘The laugh-out-loud read we all need right now’. I don’t normally trust ‘laugh out loud…’ quotes, in fact it’s often enough to put me off, but I genuinely did laugh out loud a fair few times. This was the easy-to-read rom com I was looking for all those weeks ago. It was much more me than The Cornish Cream Tea Bus and not only because I’m bisexual and not very feminine. It was full of normal people who work in shops, schools, a call centre, and go to old man pubs and chip shops. They regularly travel by bus, and when Ally leaves London she does so by train not car, in fact it’s mentioned later that she can’t drive. Training for a half-marathon doesn’t magically make them fit, slim, healthy and happy. And of course it’s set in Yorkshire.

The one downside is that Ally turns out to be an irresponsible cat-owner, which has put OneMonkey off reading it. On the whole though I zipped through and really enjoyed it. More than anything, it was a real affirmation of friendship.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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D is for Down South

For such a tiresomely Northern writer I have a startling confession to make: I spent nearly five years living Down South. In my defence I was not quite three when we decamped to the East Midlands and just gone seven when we returned to Drighlington having fit in a miserable eighteen months in North Cornwall in the meantime (don’t ask).

I don’t remember that much about it, and certainly if I look at a map of England now I’ll struggle to find the places we lived. Other than a lovely pool of floating lights for diwali in Leicester, what I mainly remember are differences in language. Not long after we moved to a village near Loughborough in the summer of 1981 we had a workman in one day and he called my Nana ‘mi duck’ whereas she of course called him ‘love’. Over his teabreak they had a good long chat about the different dialect words they used, and I listened with fascination. It was the first time I remember realising that there were different regional English varieties.

I knew there was BBC English (the proper one) and American English (a bad habit picked up from watching films) but without knowing the word ‘colloquial’ at that age I thought the way we spoke at home was what colloquial English sounded like all over the country. I don’t remember being an object of interest at school, however, until we moved to Cornwall.

Cornwall in red. The East Midlands is north east a bit, or maybe a lot.

Cornwall is as far away as you can get from West Yorkshire and still be in England. I had the unfortunate combination of being an intruder in established friendship groups, and having a noticeably different accent and unfamiliar vocabulary. I learnt to avoid the troublesome old-fashioned bits that were still current in Yorkshire but apparently not down there: thee and thou, the dost tha and hast tha constructions, saying five-and-twenty-past when telling the time (though I’ve reclaimed that one recently, I never stopped saying it that way in my head). The East Midlands workman notwithstanding, I was baffled as to why my classmates would pick up some of my perfectly normal utterances as catchphrases and use them out of context.

It took me years to untangle which bits of my ‘not proper’ vocabulary were general UK slang and which were Yorkshire dialect, in fact I went to university unaware that some of the words I used wouldn’t generally be understood. Which led to interesting conversations with Geordie OneMonkey when we first met, but that’s another story.

D could also have been for dogs, Drighlington, dancing, or detective stories but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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C is for Caravan

My grandparents’ caravan in the 1960s

Around about 1960 my mum’s parents acquired a touring caravan. After several years of annual trips to a Blackpool boarding house they could instead explore Scotland and the Lake District, going where they pleased and making their own eating arrangements. Which they did for a few years until apparently they found a place they particularly liked and by the time I came along in the late 70s, the family had a second-hand static caravan alongside about a dozen other static caravans in a farmer’s field in Cumbria. Throughout my childhood we went as often as we could afford the petrol.

It’s been said many times that there’s something peculiarly pointless about a static caravan. All the flimsy construction and inconvenience of the touring kind without the freedom and variety of the open road. My dad’s parents had their own static caravan near Morecambe until they gave it up in the early 80s to spend the money on a self-catering holiday in Spain for the coldest couple of months each year. Aunty D lived permanently in one at a windswept location above Huddersfield. Her daughter’s now retired to one near Hull. Oh the glamour of our metal and fibreglass boxes on their wedged-in-place wheels. And yet we loved it.

Until my mum got a mobile phone for work in the mid-90s, there was no phone and no TV. We went for walks up fells and round lakes, where my dad pointed out wildflowers and birds, and once in a while we’d see deer or red squirrels. We had picnics – usually the traditional British sort where you park in a layby and eat hard boiled eggs in the car. In the evenings we read books, listened to the radio or Hancock’s Half Hour tapes, did jigsaws or crafts, played Scrabble – or Monopoly if Big Brother was around. In short it felt like an escape from real life where we did wholesome, boring, old-fashioned things together. I wavered for a while in my teens, but once it had gone I missed those excursions into a quieter existence, and even now I find the sound of rain on a metal roof surprisingly soothing.

C could also have been for cardigan, continental quilt, chip shop, or custard. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Why writing a radio sitcom is a recipe for disappointment

This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sitcoms. I mentioned a while ago I’d been working through a sitcom-writing course from James Cary which has been really helpful, not least because it made me realise I’d sent a comedy-drama to the BBC Galton and Simpson Bursary by accident. However, it’s also made me realise a few other things which are giving me pause. To be honest, they’ve given me some ‘what the hell is the point of writing this?’ moments.

I keep hearing that we’re in a golden age of TV, the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime are commissioning British writers as well as the BBC, Channel 4, ITV or the various production companies that make programmes for them. Those of you who’ve been around here a while may know that I haven’t had a TV since March 2002, and though I’ve watched stuff when we’ve visited OneMonkey’s parents, and we used to watch the odd thing on the iplayer before the BBC realised non-licence-payers like me probably oughtn’t to be allowed access to the website, it’s not the same as watching telly and getting a feel for what’s popular and where things sit in the schedules. Consequently, though there are many TV sitcoms I know and love, I don’t want to (and wouldn’t feel equipped to) write one. No, idiot that I am, I want to write for radio.

Photo by Skylar Kang on Pexels.com

I know I can write passable radio drama, on a good day. I was one of the winners of the Script Yorkshire radio drama competition 2020 (production delayed due to the pandemic but fingers crossed it’s coming soon) and I co-wrote a well-received drama for a community radio station in 2018 (you can listen to it here). Comedy’s a different matter though, and as I said in a post about gatekeepers a while ago just because you’re confident about your script doesn’t mean it’s good, so it’d be nice to get someone else wanting to produce one of my scripts rather than, say, making it as a podcast.

However, while confidence doesn’t imply ability, I don’t agree with the idea that repeated rejection necessarily implies lack of ability. In a recent discussion about self-production of sitcom pilots, James suggested that if a script isn’t getting anywhere it’s not a good script and thus not worth trying to make your own version of. In many cases this will be true, but it did get me thinking, and we’re back to gatekeepers again.

The only place I can think of that would pay a writer for a radio sitcom is the BBC. To be precise, BBC Radio 4. So whether you’re entering BBC competitions or sending your radio script to Pozzitive or a freelance producer, you’re ultimately aiming to bag one of the few sitcom slots on Radio 4 (possibly via a stint at writing for someone else’s). And so is every other radio comedy writer, including the long-established ones. If you’re a Radio 4 executive, do you give up one of those few slots to a new but promising writer, or do you put series six of a previous ratings triumph in there? Because the reality is, it’s either or. There isn’t room for everyone and it’s no good consistently being top 20 in the pile when they can only take three scripts forward. It would be like a novelist having to either be picked up by Penguin or self-publish. Oh, and Penguin could only publish a dozen novels that year and they’d have to bump one of their bestsellers to let you in. I’m not saying the big publishers never pick up new novelists (and note there that they are publishers plural) but it wouldn’t universally be seen as a failure if your debut novel didn’t get on their lists. And yet it is with a radio script because there are no alternatives.

With a novel there are many smaller publishers you could try, and it may well be that some indie with its own niche is particularly suited to what you’re trying to do. With radio… As far as I know, there are no commercial radio stations in the UK that want scripted programmes, whether comedy or drama. BBC local radio doesn’t seem to either. So we’re down to community radio stations like the fabulous Chapel FM who help people make what they like, or making your own podcast. In both cases there’s only as much budget as you’re willing or able to fork out, you won’t get paid, you have to drum up your own audience, and the available actors probably rely on who you know and who’ll do you a favour. To write a sitcom well takes a lot of time and effort. Then add more time, effort and possibly money to make it yourself. To sink that much into a hobby takes dedication, an understanding household, and a bit of financial cushion, which naturally limits who can manage it. It might lead to a producer’s interest, if you can send them a link to a sitcom you’ve already made, but see above for scarcity of slots in the radio schedules and I think we all know what the reality will be.

Incidentally, during the discussion James also mentioned in passing the Radio 4 demographic, and it hit me in a way that it hasn’t before, just how limiting that is. For TV sitcom in the UK, people know what you mean when you say it’s more suited to ITV than BBC, or it’s a bit Channel 4. They’re aiming at different audiences. Radio 4 is one station, with one target audience. They can be a bit flexible in the hope that they draw in some younger listeners for a particular programme but they won’t want to alienate their core. Which means there are some sitcoms that can be as well-written as you like, they’re never going to be broadcast on that station. And that, in terms of nurturing a diverse bunch of writers (particularly younger writers) is really sad.

I am confident that I can write a decent novel (Wasted Years has been enjoyed by the few who’ve read it). With the aid of a sharp-eyed editor I could write a better one that might do OK. But I don’t imagine I’d ever trouble the Sunday Times bestseller list. Most authors don’t. In the same way, I reckon if I work hard I can write a decent sitcom script but I don’t imagine I’d ever be in the top five of several thousand entries to the Galton and Simpson, or make a Radio 4 executive pass up the opportunity for another series of Conversations from a Long Marriage or Ed Reardon’s Week. And while that would be fine if I had other avenues to explore with it, I don’t so it isn’t. I can either stop writing radio scripts (never going to happen, I’ve been at it on and off for 35 years) or I can make sure I write ones I can make into a podcast. Better start saving up to hire some actors.

If you want to help in that direction, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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B is for books

As you can imagine, I spent my childhood surrounded by books. I had a shelf of my mum’s hardbacks from the forties and fifties, with titles like Amelia Goes to the Seaside, or Doris Of Buttercup Farm. I got my older cousins’ Bunty annuals and Enid Blyton boarding school books. I borrowed books from the local library and the school library. There were family trips to library sales, charity shops and secondhand bookshops on Saturdays to stock up, and for a few years my dad worked near a secondhand bookshop and would regularly come home bearing his lunchtime haul and dish them out among us. I won books as school prizes and I had fond relatives (and the family friends known as auntie and uncle) who gave me books or book tokens for Christmas and birthday.

I can still remember the thrill of a five pound book token, stuck like a hinged stamp on the inside of a greetings card. So much more exciting than its modern credit-card-alike equivalent. I would clutch it tightly as I prowled the children’s room of the New Bookshop in Cockermouth, terrified that it would somehow come adrift and be rendered void before I found the perfect reading material. Then as now I had an unvoiced fear of wasting it on a book I wouldn’t enjoy. I don’t remember ever doing so, but I wonder if that’s down to my dad’s guidance. I was often steered by him towards books or authors I might enjoy (who am I kidding? I still am), and I remember him reading the blurbs on books I’d picked up because of their attractive covers to check they were my sort of thing.

I vividly remember picking this for its cover

What with the paternal steering, hand-me-downs and secondhand purchases I ended up with an odd mix, some of them still (or still in the 1980s) considered children’s classics and others plain old-fashioned. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Billy Bunter, Biggles, Bulldog Drummond, BB’s Little Grey Men and the Pat Smythe books beloved of my horse-mad mum (Pat Smythe was a famous showjumper in the 1950s). Most of them my contemporaries hadn’t even heard of, let alone read, but at least that prepared me for being completely out of step with them musically later on, when I bypassed Take That for The Clash thanks to Big Brother’s record collection.

Not common reading matter among my peers

B could also easily have been for baking, bacon butties, bread. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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In search of written rom com

Despite being a curmudgeonly cynic I have in recent years come to appreciate the rom com film genre. OneMonkey is an unrepentant romantic and through my existing love of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant films he’s gradually introduced me to such cinematic delights as How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Notting Hill, and Music and Lyrics. Lockdown, and the subsequent self-imposed lockdown-light, hit my reading hard: lack of concentration, lack of enthusiasm, lack of empathy. I’d caught part of a session on the romantic comedy novel, at the Stay-at-Home litfest and I wondered if that might be part of the answer. Perhaps a novel of light-hearted fluff would let me zip through, enjoying the ride, without having to conjure up strong emotions for fictional characters when I felt wrung-out due to too many strong emotions at home.

I had the remnants of a kobo voucher to spend so I bought a couple of e-books: The Split by Laura Kay which was one of the books featured at that Stay-at-Home litfest session, and The Cornish Cream Tea Bus by Cressida McLaughlin which OneMonkey picked for me.

The Cornish Cream Tea Bus (The Cornish Cream Tea series, Book 1) ebook by Cressida McLaughlin

The Cornish Cream Tea Bus is the first of a series set in the fictional village of Porthgolow in North Cornwall, each featuring different main characters, though I believe Charlie Quilter is in all of them somewhere. Charlie’s beloved uncle Hal has died and left her his vintage Routemaster bus, on which he used to do guided tours of the Cotswolds. Although Charlie can drive the bus, she’s a baker by trade and neither wants to give up the work she loves nor neglect her inheritance. Maybe if she can just take some time out to think, away from the messy split with her cheating partner Stuart, she can figure out how to combine the two. Luckily, her best friend has moved to Cornwall and has a spare room and endless patience. Certainly more patience than me.

Naturally, Charlie has love interests, that’s kind of what you expect with this genre, but a lot of it left me baffled. I don’t see the attraction of wide-shouldered, heavily-muscled arrogant men who wear suits and run their own business. I don’t really see my life reflected in designer dog-owning emotional women who wear high heels (and find said buff, arrogant men attractive), whose best friends are in marketing or ex-boyfriends are investment bankers. Perhaps it’s easier to be detached when it’s on screen or maybe it’s as simple as I literally can’t imagine these people, and when I’m reading about them that’s what I have to do.

Having said that, most of the fiction I read probably presents me with main characters whose backgrounds and motivations are different from my own, but I rarely have this problem. I wonder if certain types of realist fiction (by which I mean set now, in our world, portraying lives and events that could happen and are in some sense common) assume a certain viewpoint and feel they don’t have to go into details, so I’m never invited in. If the novel was about a serial killer, motivation would need to be set out and explored, if it was historical there would have to be context, but presumably everyone reading The Cornish Cream Tea Bus should understand exactly why some particular conversation calls for a bottle of wine, or why an otherwise capable person would go to pieces because a man had muscles visible beneath his shirt.

For plot reasons, Charlie jumped to a couple of conclusions no sane person would jump to. She also entirely failed to put two and two together and solve a mystery that was blindingly obvious (mind you, nobody else in the village did either). However, I read the whole novel so on some level it even worked its magic on me. I suspect that if you’re more comfortable with the wine, the buff men, the thirty-something professionals, this will be an excellent example of its type. It was surprisingly chaste, definitely no sex scenes and even the smouldering kisses were few and far between. The scenery was beautifully evoked and was very much part of the book, it almost made me want to visit Cornwall. There were some lovely moments involving pods of dolphins, and tense moments of both the romantic and plain old dramatic variety. There are many imaginative cakes, pastries, and decorated biscuits described, and I wouldn’t recommend reading it before a trip to the supermarket unless you want to come home with half the cream cake aisle.

I haven’t read The Split yet, having been lured away by epic fantasy, but when I do I’ll let you know what I thought.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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A is for Alphabites

You don’t get many J’s in a packet of Alphabites and as for a Y, well – forget it. Or at least that was the case in the late 80s when my family first encountered these letter-shaped frozen mashed potato pieces. Back then we still had a deep fat fryer so chips at home meant the proper fried variety. At the static caravan, however (probably the subject of C is for…) we had oven chips, skinny and over-cooked. We were thrilled, therefore, when Walter Willson started stocking Birds Eye waffles and eventually Alphabites. For a slow eater (and bookworm) like me, a plate of moveable type is too distracting to eat. Of course I started to see what I could spell, as though this was an edible version of Scrabble. But before I got onto the proper words I needed my initials: JYS.

The only Jacqueline mug I’ve ever owned. Pretty faded, but I have had it nearly 40 years.

I already knew that Y was hard to come by as an initial letter. Souvenir key-rings, pen-pots, mugs at seaside towns rarely came with a Y on them and never an Yvette. J should have been easier but it didn’t seem to be, and Jacqueline certainly wasn’t a name you often saw on bedroom door plaques or novelty pencils. Which meant that alongside the natural egotism of the baby of the family, I had this constant quest for rarities so whenever I did see a Jacqueline or a Y (I never did see an Yvette) I had to have it. I’d like to say I’ve grown out of it, but I saw a huge wooden J on a market stall a few years ago and OneMonkey knew he’d never hear the end of it if he didn’t buy it for me (in my defence, I’d like to point out that friend T has a flat full of T’s of various sizes, styles and colours).

The wooden J from the market

Back in the caravan c1988, the meal was halted while everyone searched their plates for a J or a Y. I already had an S. My dad dutifully handed over his J. Nobody had spotted a Y. Everyone looked again but a Y had not magically materialised, the Alphabites were now cold and I was disappointed. I don’t recall us having them again.

The holy grail: JY. Took me years to realise the wreath is supposed to make it read ‘joy’.

Other A’s I could have written about include: Animal biscuits, almonds (both sugared and paste), AA Milne, and Auntie Ann Tin Can Copper Kettle Brass Pan. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Creative non-fiction: letting go of accuracy

Memory is fallible. Revisit the scene of a treasured childhood memory and you might realise it can’t have happened the way you remember: the garden’s too small for it to have taken more than three seconds to cross, you couldn’t have seen the crossroads from the gate, and the tree you’re thinking of is next to the library not the primary school anyway. Memory is also selective. Ask a couple about their last anniversary meal and one remembers everything they ate but not what music was playing in the restaurant, the other recalls the waiter’s Brummie accent but not what they had for dessert.

My degrees are in physics and maths. Every day-job I’ve had since 2007 has involved returning university data to the government or its nominated agencies. It’s safe to say that I have been trained and conditioned to be as accurate as possible. With fiction I picture a scene and do my best to describe it. Creative non-fiction on the other hand, specifically anything involving memories, is way more tricky. Or is it? I still picture a scene and do my best to describe it, the bit that’s different is the other potential witnesses. A fictional creation that exists only in my head can’t be challenged by anyone else, no-one but me has seen it. My words might not capture it fully or do it justice but only I know that. A real event, unless I was the only one there, has other perspectives. Even if the people I shared the moment with have died, there’s always the possibility of someone stepping up and saying, ‘That’s not how I heard it’.

I value precision but I also recognise where it isn’t feasible – it’s no good recording a measurement to two decimal places when your instrument’s not capable of that fine a grain. I have finally recognised that precision in memoir-based writing is not feasible. You won’t remember everything accurately even if some aspects are so sharp they could have happened this morning. You will remember it from a different perspective, using different prioritising filters, from your parents or siblings, your date that night, the guy sat behind you on the bus. You may have misinterpreted motives or causes at the time. You will certainly bring your own history, upbringing, fears and biases into the mix as you do whenever you read, watch or listen. You probably cull some details and emphasise others every time you recount an anecdote, perhaps you also truncate time or distance to make the narrative clearer, more focused, punchier. It doesn’t make it untrue.

What matters, I think, is intent and potential consequences. Does it matter if I really wore my new wool coat with the blue velvet collar to an aunt’s funeral in 1985? Maybe I’m conflating two family gatherings and I wore the wool coat to someone’s 90th birthday the following month. Maybe I never had a wool coat with a velvet collar, I just saw it in Lewis’s in Leeds and wished I owned it, and I’ve superimposed it on my memories from that year. It’s a nice detail, it helps a reader picture the scene the way I’m picturing it, and if I went back in a time machine and realised it was a warm autumn day and I was in a cardigan I wouldn’t care that much. It would, however, matter if I said her younger sister wasn’t at the funeral when I know I can’t be definitive, because that would make readers think badly of her (she didn’t attend her own sister’s funeral!). Even worse if I said it deliberately to make people think badly of her. Better to say that I don’t remember her being there, or I remember it as though it was only my siblings, my mum and her cousin but it can’t have been (my Nana would have been there, for a start).

Thus I feel able to present an A-Z of my childhood, every two weeks for a year, starting next week. I will still be blogging about writing and books, but every other week you’ll get something short prompted by my formative years. It might be funny, poignant, or plain odd, but I hope it’ll be enjoyable. There will be no malicious intent but I am guaranteed to present a unique version so if you were there and remember it differently please feel free to respond in the comments. I mean, feel free to respond in the comments even if you’ve never met me, that’s what the facility is there for. Some of the pieces were written in response to the Mslexia quarterly alphabet prompt, I even sent a couple of them in (never selected, sadly) so thanks to Mslexia for kicking this off, and thanks to my family for giving me plenty to write about.

If you enjoy any of my ramblings you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Do you know more than you think about garden birds?

Last summer when lockdown had apparently made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more, I wrote a light essay about the birds in my garden. I wanted to braid past and present together and show that, almost by accident, I now knew far more than I thought about birds. I forget exactly why, but I’d started listing things I’d learnt from nearly a decade of watching our wildlife garden from an upstairs window, and I kept remembering another thing, and another and finally realised the list was longer than I expected. It made me think of the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, where Michael Palin starts listing their weapons, remembering another, and has to settle for a vague statement (‘Our chief weapon is surprise, fear and surprise…Our two weapons are fear and surprise, and…Amongst our weaponry…I’ll come in again’). Hence I called it ‘Among the things I know about birds’.

I couldn’t quite get the form of it right last summer and I put it away for a while then had another go after I’d read the admirably accessible An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth. When I’d finally got it in a state I was happy with, I sent it out to a couple of magazines. It was accepted almost immediately by ThereAfter, and finally appeared online this week. Richard Smyth’s read it and he liked my descriptions, if that’s an incentive.

I saw a woodpigeon on its too-small nest in the yew tree last Spring, looking like a parent with a well-cushioned backside trying to sit on a primary school chair, and I didn’t have to look it up. The beefier, more consistently-coloured cousin of the city centre pigeon, I’ve watched its kind crash onto the bird table, snap flimsy sapling branches and make its clod-hopping way around our garden for years. I could no more mistake it now for the elegant mushroom-coloured collared dove with its black torque than I could mistake a magpie for a jay.

from Among the things I know about birds, by JY Saville
Collared doves in our garden

I partly wrote this essay in wonder at my accidental education, but also as encouragement to other suburban (or even urban, if there’s any greenery nearby) nature enthusiasts who consider themselves clueless about the wildlife around them. You probably know more than you think you do. And if you don’t yet, then you can almost certainly learn gradually and painlessly by watching, with occasional looking things up in books or online. Ultimately, it’s not a race and it’s about enjoyment and appreciation rather than accumulating knowledge. I learnt recently that the sound like a rusty pump handle that I’ve noticed for the last few years is the call of a great tit, but I can’t recognise any other birdsong. Except the cloth-tearing sound of a jay, of course. And the squabbling jackdaws. And the tawny owl that sits on the roof sometimes. Hang on, let me come in again.

If Among the things I know about birds made you look at your surroundings differently, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Airedale by Dylan Byford

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Outside London, it’s pretty rare to find English sci-fi set in a real place. I can think of one or two set in Manchester, and Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series set in and around Rutland, but beyond that I’m struggling. It’s fair to say I was intrigued when I spotted one of the first novels from new crime publisher Northodox Press was ‘a near-future thriller’ set in a place I used to live: Airedale.

If you’re a dog-lover you might be familiar with the terrier of the same name, but I’m guessing that outside Yorkshire (probably even inside most of Yorkshire) the name won’t conjure up a place for you. As you might have guessed, it’s the dale (valley) where the River Aire runs, and these days houses Leeds commuters, many of them living in buildings that forty years ago were textile mills. There is also a UNESCO world heritage site, the mill village Saltaire. Dylan Byford has cleverly taken this geography and history and extrapolated it into a messy future. An unspecified time when another industry is disintegrating in the periodically flooded dale leaving empty warehouses and unemployment, Saltaire exists in a protective bubble, and northern politicians look to Durham rather than Westminster.

Airedale is a cyberpunk police procedural featuring politics, subversion, riots and local businessmen. It’s full of wonderful details of integrated technology and state surveillance, what’s changed and what hasn’t. Haz Edmundson is a contractor working for the police, what we might call a forensic computing expert who doesn’t usually have to deal with dead bodies. Except tonight, when for one reason or another he’s there when the body of an activist is discovered and he can’t let it go when it’s officially marked as an accidental death. How far is he prepared to go to uncover the truth? And who can he trust?

Haz is a wonderfully human character. A hopeless, unreliable, scruffy single dad who’s good at his job but not hard-boiled enough to deal with death in a detached way. He’s also apt to ask the wrong questions at the wrong moment, and land himself in trouble. I would happily read more books about him. If he can hang onto his life or his job long enough to star in them. There were a couple of interesting strands that weren’t fully followed up, in my view, and I don’t claim to completely understand the conclusions but I had a fabulous time along the way. Except for the bit near the start that’s really not for the arachnophobes (grit your teeth and race through it, it’s only half a dozen pages and only one of them is horrifying).

I didn’t pay for my copy because I won it in a draw on Twitter but other than them once reading (and rejecting) the manuscript of a crime novel of mine set in Newcastle, I have no relationship with Northodox and I don’t know Dylan Byford either. If you like William Gibson but have always wished someone would write in a similar vein but with uncool characters in small town Yorkshire (it can’t just be me), you are definitely onto a winner here. Similarly if you enjoyed the Greg Mandel series from Peter F Hamilton (I reviewed the first and second books a few years ago), or if you’re a fan of British police procedurals and you have an open mind on the SF elements. It does have a great sense of place, and I was initially attracted to it because of the setting, but I was hooked from the first page and the setting soon became the icing on a fine cake. Highly recommended, whether you know where Airedale is or not.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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New weird fiction: Brought to bed with a good book

I have a new flash fiction out at Janus Literary this week, which I’m excited about. Partly because Janus is fast becoming known for interesting and varied flash of quality, and partly because this story’s been four years in the pipeline. Janus didn’t even exist when I submitted this story for the twelfth and what I thought might be the last time. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to the casual reader and encouraging to the new writer of short fiction to hear the story behind the story, and I know that Janice Leagra of Janus appreciates openness so here goes.

It sometimes feels like writers have to pretend the magazine/journal/website their story ended up in was their first choice. In some cases this might be true – accepted on the first submission, or maybe venue A and venue B are equally thrilling and appropriate but A is closed to submissions so you try B, get rejected, try A eventually and get in. On the other hand, a casual glance through writing-Twitter reveals constant tales of rejection, and if you pay attention you’ll also spot the tales of acceptances on the twenty-fifth try. It strikes me that it must be rare for a story submitted on spec (as opposed to invited or commissioned) to end up in the place you originally hoped it would. Or indeed wrote it for.

I wrote Brought to bed with a good book for a body-themed issue of a magazine that no longer exists, in June 2017. I have an idea that I’d heard someone talking about how pregnancy made their body unrecognisable, so one of the first lines I wrote down was, “Veins darkening, ropes thickening like the vines decorating an illuminated manuscript” (which eventually became, “veins darkening until I looked tattooed, calves twined with vines from the borders of an illuminated manuscript”). Combine that with the idea of going to bed with a good book, and there you have it. The title plays on that, with the old-fashioned phrase of being brought to bed with a child i.e. giving birth.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Looking at the revision control on the document, I started typing in it on June 8th after mulling the idea over for a while, and on June 9th I submitted the final, polished piece. I think I’ve tweaked a couple of words since then but essentially the final published version that’s at Janus was written in a day, four years ago. Clearly it didn’t get selected for that magazine back then, though I genuinely don’t know why since all the feedback was enthusiastic. I’m sure I tweeted at the time about getting a rejection that included the phrase ‘best flash I’ve read this year’ and wondering if that was actually worse than just a bald ‘no’. When you get constructive criticism in a rejection it gives you something to work on, a way of potentially improving the piece so it might get somewhere on the next try. ‘This is great but we’re not using it’ makes it all feel bafflingly random. Which of course it often is.

It’s easy to think, when you get a form rejection (by which I mean, a standard paragraph with nothing specific to your story) that the story’s not good enough, or it was a barmy idea, or the ending needs more work. It might be fine and it all came down to personal taste, or fit with the other pieces in the issue, but you don’t know that so you put the piece aside and let it stew for a while and tinker with it and don’t send it back out for months. Or at least I do. This time, however, I had outside confirmation that it worked and kind of did what I meant it to, so I sent it to five more places in 2017, and got a form rejection every time. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was too weird for the mainstream and too mainstream for the SFF mags, nevertheless I sent it out four times in 2018. And got four form rejections. I tried a competition in 2019, and didn’t longlist, and I gave it one last try at the start of 2020. I’d resigned myself to yet another story I was pleased with and proud of, being consigned to the electronic bottom drawer and never being read by anyone other than OneMonkey and a handful of editors. And then Janus Literary appeared, and I soon realised they might be just the people to try. I was right, they liked it, and in June 2021 Brought to bed with a good book was finally released into the wild. Never give up – if you’re sure the story is working.

If you’d like to read Brought to bed with a good book, you can find it at https://www.janusliterary.com/2021/06/30/jacqueline-saville-brought-to-bed-with-a-good-book/ and I recommend you explore the rest of the issue as it’s full of good stuff for varied tastes. Max Hipp’s Dream Baby has a similarly odd and unsettling vibe, if that’s your bag.

Like many online mags, Janus Literary is all done for the love of it so no money changes hands. If you enjoyed Brought to bed with a good book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Offhand, I can’t think of any spy thrillers I’ve read before. Obviously I’ve seen The Ipcress File, and the Le Carre adaptations starring Alec Guinness, but I haven’t actually sat down and read any of the books behind them. I have my dad to thank for nudging me towards Mick Herron’s Slough House series, of which Slow Horses is the first volume.

About a year ago I started listening to the American spy comedy podcast Mission Rejected, and since I’d taken to calling my parents daily during lockdown and was somewhat lacking in conversation topics, I told my dad about it. He suggested I give Mick Herron’s novels a go, if inept spies were what I was after. Dark satire, rather than comedy, but most enjoyable. They weren’t available via the library ebook service, and pandemic restrictions have meant the Library of Mum and Dad has been off-limits for 18 months, plus of course if you’ve been here before you’ll know I’ve been trying to read the overlooked books on my shelves during lockdown. However, I read a Guardian interview with Mick Herron earlier this year and it prompted me to buy the first book in the series (as an ebook, to limit clutter).

“Plotting is pretty much secondary to me,” he says. “What really interests me is the characters and getting to grips with them, and them getting to grips with each other.”

Charlotte Higgins interview with Mick Herron, The Guardian, 15 Jan 2021

As you might guess from that quote, the mission is not the important bit, or rather, it doesn’t matter that much what it’s about. It’s all in the context of the War on Terror, with some stereotypical far-right nutcases kicking about. The meat of the book though is the relationships between the has-beens (or never-weres) at Slough House, and between Slough House as a whole and the ‘proper’ spies at Regent’s Park. None of whom bear any resemblance to the old-fashioned gentlemen in the Alec Guinness dramas. Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, is very much the Andy Dalziel of MI5 – crude, abrasive, but underestimate him at your peril. There’s also a walk-on part for Peter Judd, a right-wing politician described as a buffoon with floppy hair and a bicycle. Can’t think who he reminds me of…

Herron is good at sleight of hand, and there were a few places where I was misdirected and had to flick back a few pages to work out why. I also enjoyed his use of ‘if a passenger on the bus were to glance through the window, this is what they’d see’ kind of thing, rather than it all being from one character’s point of view. I doubt it’s a realistic picture of life in the modern secret service, but it’s full of interesting characters and I’m looking forward to working my way through the remaining six novels plus a few novellas.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Learning to write about climate change

I can’t believe I haven’t yet written about How to Start Writing the Climate, a series of four workshops run by Linda France for New Writing North. Prospective participants had to apply with a sample of their writing, and it’s always a boost to be selected in that way, whether it’s for an anthology or an online gathering. As I write this in mid-June we’ve had three of the four workshops, with another short piece to write before the final one in early July.

Since I write in various genres including sci-fi, it would be easy to see climate change as something I could (should?) tackle in a particular way. The books I’ve read that had it at their heart have all been sci-fi (I recommended a few a while back). It’s a common theme, usually used in a dystopian way – societal breakdown due to food or water shortages, damage to infrastructure through storms or floods – and set in the future. The trouble is, we’re living through it right now and it could (should) crop up in every genre except fantasy, because it is the realest of real.

I say that, but it even has a place in fantasy. My semi-rural fantasy novel set in northern England in 2018, the one that got me onto the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, has a strong ‘green’ theme: pollution, fracking and ecosystem damage, as well as changing weather patterns and political responses to the climate emergency. It’s still SFF though, still a niche readership (if it’s ever published) and all about impending disaster – the North Sea has decided people can’t be trusted with the land so she decides to reclaim it. I felt that climate change, its effects and possible mitigations, people’s fears and plans relating to it, ought to crop up, however subtly, in all genres. Just like environmental considerations ought to crop up to some extent in all policy and planning. Hence my desire to attend these workshops.

Bridlington beach
The North Sea in calm mood in 2015

The trouble is, if it is a topic with strong emotional pull – a topic where there are fears and arguments in the background – it’s hard to know where to start. I also found it was hard for me not to stray into near-future SF, or into some kind of hectoring, doom-laden vein. On top of all that I’m not an expert, just a Guardian-reading citizen who’s looking to live through this. All those mythical target dates (this by 2030, that by 2040, the other by 2050) should be comfortably within my lifetime, I have a stake in this. Maybe not as much as if I had children, but still…

Linda started off by acknowledging these difficulties and trying to help us through them. We had a delve into why we write at all, why we want to write about climate change, and why it’s difficult. The delve included some free-writing sessions, where you write for a set time without stopping (if you get stuck you write e.g. ‘I’m stuck, I can’t think of anything, how annoying’ etc until you break out of the rut). I’ve often found these useful for freeing up the mind, or rather, sneaking ideas past the self-censor, and it helped here too. I gained a tiny insight into what my personal angle might be, the motivation that could see me through. I also did a mind map which I augmented over a few days, and that gave me some bare topics but also phrases I jotted down like ‘no plastic tat’, ‘ok if you’ve got good quality belongings to start with’, ‘it’s expensive to be frugal’.

Then we talked about who the audience might be, and I faltered. There’s a mix of poets and prose writers in the group but we’re not talking documentary style, factual writing. Primarily we’re looking to inform as we entertain, with poetry or fiction or creative non-fiction (true events written in a storytelling narrative style). I can’t imagine that any reader of the sort of literary journal I might aspire to be published in will be unaware of climate change or what they can do to slow down or mitigate it. They might not be prepared to make the changes they recognise as necessary or they might not be able to afford to (I once explained to an earnest middle-class student that normal people aren’t deciding between the recycled brand and the standard big-name brand that costs the same, they’re deciding between the recycled brand and the value brand which costs half the price. He didn’t seem to get it). But fundamentally, I’m not telling them anything they didn’t know and I’m unlikely to change their behaviour. Two things, then: one, I can at least reflect reality better if I weave some thoughts on climate change in; two, I can make it specific and bring it closer to home.

The view from my front door when the moor was on fire 2 years ago

While I think it is true that at some level we must all know what’s going on by now, and what we can do (would like to do, are prepared to do, ought to do) about it, it still sometimes seems far away if you live in a comfortable inland area of a developed country. There’s talk of droughts and sea-level rises and melting glaciers but I live in a pretty rainy part of northern England where people still laugh at southerners and their summer hosepipe bans. We’ve had some devastating moor fires over the last five years but it’s easy to focus on people’s carelessness with cigarettes or barbecues, rather than how much more likely these fires are if the moor gets drier than normal. So maybe Climate Change the big scary topic is familiar, but specific ways it’s affecting northern England and its weather and wildlife will be unusual enough to make someone pause.

My next problem involves starting out on climate change and ending up on biodiversity loss, extinctions and habitat destruction. I worry that, although the two are connected, I’m straying off topic. However, if there’s one thing I learnt from my repeated reading of Douglas Adams (sadly I don’t seem to have learnt how to write good comic fantasy), it’s the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. By which I mean, if I write with the intention of writing about climate change and how I feel about it, then if it ends up being about reduction in butterfly numbers and changes to migratory patterns that aren’t all directly caused by climate change, that’s ok. Feeling a connection to nature, which many people have discovered or deepened during the pandemic, makes us care more about our impact on the planet, and by extension, man-made climate change. Expect more birds and trees to crop up in my non-SF stories. And butterflies, of course.

A butterfly photo I took at Tropical World in Leeds, before I even had this blog

If I’ve given you something to think about, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Some thoughts on reading fees

The topic of reading fees came up on Twitter again this week. Since I don’t seem to have talked about this for a while (about 3 years, in fact) here’s a few of the things I’ve been thinking.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

First off, what do I mean by reading fees? I mean any kind of payment or purchase required before your own writing will be given consideration. Some places have tip-jar options, or you can pay if you want feedback rather than a bald yes/no, but those are not a barrier to entry as they’re not compulsory. I can think of 3 types:

  1. A stand-alone competition e.g. the Bridport prize
  2. A competition run by a magazine or media company e.g. Stand magazine or The Sunday Times
  3. Run of the mill submissions e.g. to a magazine for publication

Secondly, why is it a problem? After all, in the age of instant electronic submissions isn’t it reasonable to want to put the brakes on the half-baked, ill-considered, nothing-to-lose, late night entries? Some poor soul has to read these things. And the prize money has to come from somewhere, and you can’t expect people to judge competitions out of the goodness of their hearts, and there are printing and website and publicity costs… Well, yes. But still…

It was Sarah Davy of Northern Writers Studio who got me thinking about all this again this week. If you’re not a writer you’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. Nobody’s forcing anyone to enter competitions and sure, we’d all love some free money but there’s no need to whine if you can’t afford to enter. Except, in short fiction at least, it’s those competition wins (or shortlisting, or longlisting) that get you noticed, show people you’re at a particular level, get you work. So they matter, and consistently deterring particular groups from entering means you’re consistently holding them back from – shall we call it career progression?

I’ll take the 3 types of fees in reverse order. Number 3 is easy – it shouldn’t exist. If you think of a magazine, publisher or production company, who are their customers? Readers or broadcasters, I would say. Logically, the customers should be who they’re charging. If they’re charging money to submit a story or a script and what they’re offering in return is what the average person outside the industry would imagine is their day to day business (we will print this story in our magazine and sell it to readers, we will pitch this sitcom to the BBC and hope they pay us to make it) then it looks a lot like exploitation. Kind of like charging the actors to appear on stage as well as making the audience pay for tickets. If you can’t get by without charging writers, you haven’t got a viable business model and you might want to have a rethink.

Number 2 should allow for funding of prize money by the magazine etc profits. Ironically the biggest prize money, the most publicity and arguably the most kudos comes from two competitions with no fees – the Sunday Times short story prize and the BBC Short Story Award, both presumably funded via their other business, and/or sponsorship. They weed out the time-wasters by requiring a certain number of publication credits. Now, I have other problems with those two (if the judges can call in stories that haven’t even been entered, it’s not a level playing field) but they’re not putting up barriers to writers with little spare cash. In other cases, you would hope that their normal business (selling books or magazines, for instance) would give enough money to at least subsidise the competition. If it doesn’t, and they’re in fact hoping the competition will subsidise the magazine, then we’re back to the scenario in number 3.

The ones I find it hardest to know where I stand on are the first batch, the competitions that just are. The Bath flash fiction or novella-in-flash awards, the Bristol short story prize (which came out of a magazine originally but it no longer exists), the Bridport. As far as I know, they charge fees to enter, a certain number of writers will be selected for their annual anthology which they then sell, and any profits from that will be ploughed back into the competition. They often have early-bird discounts, and the Bath has a regular (free) writing competition where the prize is free entry to the quarterly award. Once they’re up and running you could think of them as being a bit like scenario 2, only with a single product that isn’t the main focus of their business, but mainly they’re getting their funds from entry fees. Tricky. I have entered the (quarterly) Bath award 5 times (2017×2, 2019×2, 2020), the Bristol twice (2013, 2020) and the Bridport twice (2013, 2017). Why?

The cash prize would undoubtedly be nice, particularly if you’re a cash-strapped writer. It could pay for a course, a new laptop or snazzy software, books or a research trip. Perhaps a treat, as a reward for all the rejections you put up with for the remainder of the year. Or the gas bill, so that’s one less thing to worry about when you’re trying to concentrate on a plot knot. But is that the main reason we want to enter? (I say ‘we’ but I’m on a well-paid contract till next summer, only working 3 days a week but my annual salary still starts with a 2 so I can afford these things at the moment). If it’s easy money you’re after, lottery scratchcards are a better bet – you won’t have spent hours writing and rewriting, and when you don’t win it won’t feel like a judgement on your talent and possibly your worth as a human being. So it must be something else that’s drawing us in. External validation. The thrill of having that famous judge rate your work. Kudos. Bragging rights or a notch on the CV (that career progression I mentioned earlier).

Which leads me to my first suggestion:

reduce the prize and therefore the need for fees

Judging, printing and publicity costs will remain but if the prize fund needs to be £1000 instead of £5000 surely you can knock a couple of quid off the fee (the small fees still add up but it’s a start) or afford to waive fees for more people. Sarah Davy mentioned the problem of there only being a handful of free entries, and these having to be applied for. This means people of limited means are competing with each other for those coveted places, and there are plenty of people I know who have the attitude that there’s always someone worse off than them so they would never apply. Also, it’s mortifying to have to plead poverty, particularly since writing’s a small world and it could be someone you know who’s processing the applications.

About 10 years ago I worked in a university estates department and there was a presentation on the implications of the Equality Act 2010. I recall there being some emphasis on treating people the same where possible – so instead of saying if you need level access you can go round the side of the building, you make the main entrance accessible. Or in my case, you make the general campus map hold all the accessibility information instead of requiring people to ask for a separate map as we had done previously. So instead of making people prove their need and compete for access,

have a free-entry day

Or happy hour, or whatever suits you. You can announce it in advance, spring it on people on Twitter at short notice, mention it in passing in an email newsletter 2 months beforehand and it’s their own fault if they don’t write it on the calendar. But in some way, you’re saying whoever enters during this slot doesn’t have to pay, and you’re trusting that the entire cohort won’t wait to enter on that day. I believe SmokeLong Quarterly already do something along these lines.

In some ways, I think we’re in another argument for universal basic income, but until that day comes there are things that can be done to mitigate the discriminatory effects of reading fees, which you would hope would be a popular move, what with all the talk of diversity in publishing recently. Like it or not, if your magazine or competition is seen as prestigious in your field (poetry or flash or crime-writing or whatever) you have some responsibility for ensuring you aren’t only selecting winners from those who can afford to pay.

Bridport prize (novel) £20; Bridport prize (short story) £12; Bridport prize (flash) £9; Bath Flash Fiction (or novella-in-flash) Award £9; Bristol short story prize £9; Mslexia novel competition £25; Mslexia short story competition £12; Mslexia flash fiction competition £6…

If you fancy taking the sting out of all those fees, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturiste - Jessie Burton - Babelio

This 2014 debut novel is set in late 17th century Amsterdam (October 1686-January 1687, to be precise) and since I like good immersive historical fiction I’d been contemplating reading it since I first started spotting it in charity shops several years ago. It had been actually written on my To Read list for at least a couple of years, and I finally borrowed it recently as an ebook from the library. It seems to have flipped my fiction switch – I romped through it, and once I’d finished I was yearning for another novel (I’m on the spy novel Slow Horses by Mick Herron now, review probably to follow in due course).

Nella Oortman has come from the country to be the new teenage wife of a successful Amsterdam merchant twice her age. He buys her a dolls’ house version of their own house as an amusing distraction from his perpetual absence on business. Nella finds a mysterious miniaturist to craft the furnishings she requires, as she tries to settle in with her new sister-in-law and the surprisingly forward servants.

The miniaturist and the cabinet house are the least satisfying elements of the story, to my mind. The essence of the book is bound up in the intrigue, the performative piety, and the things that are not as they seem. The hypocrisy of a society which is so puritanical and yet their fortunes rest on sugar (indulgence) and slavery. It was wonderful on detail and catering for all senses – the smells from the canal and the kitchen, the tastes of the food they’re eating, as well as the usual sights and sounds. Including the occasional reminder that in the evening with only a couple of candles burning, there are lots of shadows for a young girl to jump at.

Even after reading the whole novel and re-reading the first few pages I still don’t quite understand the prologue and it didn’t feel like it fit, to me. However, given the enormous success of this novel I’m probably in a minority (or, given that I loved the novel anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter). If you enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier you will love this, maybe Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy will have set you up to be well-disposed towards it too.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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