family

Based on a true story

I’ve had a piece of creative nonfiction published this week, at the ever-fabulous flash purveyor Ellipsis Zine, and it feels a bit weird. In a good way. I think.

The first exercise on the Fast Flash workshop I did last month was about the power of recall. Events with strong emotional content are stronger in our memories, said Kathy Fish, and she asked us to dredge up some strong memories, no matter how slight the incident, throw in as much sensory imagery as we could, and write something vivid. The second memory I made a note of was learning to tie a bow in around 1981:

Lying in the dark car, head on Nana’s lap, her face striped by moving orange from the streetlamps, and me reaching up to tie and untie the bow at the neck of her dark dress (black or dark brown, with orange squares or diamonds?). It felt rough, like the skin on her fingers.

If you read The Lesson (as the piece was eventually named at Kathy’s suggestion) you’ll see the essence of the whole thing was right there in that first flood of memory.

As I write this blog post on Monday afternoon, The Lesson has been getting a lot of love on Twitter already, and it’s great to know it’s touching so many people. It’s a big leap from sharing it with a dozen fellow participants on a writing course, who are also sharing (in some cases unbearably sad) memories, to sharing it with anyone in the world who cares to read it. I’ve written a lot of fiction with real cores, but nobody generally knows which bits are real and which bits I made up. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with admitting to loving your grandmother, and if I could look up at her now I think I’d see that smile.

Advertisements

Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Paperback of Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Mandy Sutter is very good at those little moments of awkwardness that say so much about a character. The small but crucial details of a life, usually presented with dry and distinctly British humour. I was intrigued, therefore, to see what a collection of stories based on a couple of years spent with her (white, English) parents in Nigeria as a child would be like.

Only nine of the twenty stories are actually set in 1960s Nigeria, with others set in England just before or after this period, or later in the life of Sarah, the little girl whose father’s oil-company job takes the family to this strange, hot place, so far away from Nana. Nine stories also happen to be written from Sarah’s point of view, with another four from the perspective of one of her parents, and the rest from an assortment of acquaintances and teachers. Thus, in snapshots from different angles and at different times, we get glimpses of Sarah’s life, and the context of the family’s time abroad.

Seeing Nigeria through Sarah’s eyes as a child, we get a more matter-of-fact view than an adult might give, it’s just one more new thing at an age where many situations and long words are also new. There are still boring lessons, playground games, going to a friend’s house for tea, even if the surroundings have changed, and the etiquette with it. A mild object of interest in Nigeria, Sarah stands out just as much on her return home, where she is referred to at school as Miss Nigeria, after the teacher “had been the first to call Sarah by that name and now everyone did.” At first glance, Sarah seems to blend her English and Nigerian experiences more successfully than the adults, as with her borrowed rituals following a family bereavement, in Seed. Three for the Price of Five, and Mobylette Dreams could be tales of any awkward, unhappy teenager, unsure of her place and using either comfort eating or belligerence as a shield.

For Sarah’s mother the colonial feel of their existence in Nigeria is bothersome: the servants, the behaviour expected of the company wives, the empty days. She seems happier on her return to the English suburbs in Iroko-man, with tamed rubber plants in pots, back to normality (“What made us buy all those coffee tables?”). Sarah’s father, on the other hand, seems to leave part of himself behind on his return to England, never quite settling, with whisky gradually filling the void until eventually God takes its place. Throughout all the stories, Mandy’s eye for detail takes us right there. She conjures up the heat, the vegetation, the out of date kitchen in Nigeria, the unpreparedness of Sarah’s mum and the contrast between staid 1960s England and the slightly chaotic life they have in Nigeria.

I keep referring to this book as a short story collection because I remember Mandy talking about it in those terms a couple of years ago, and three of the chapters have appeared as stand-alone pieces elsewhere. As such I approached it as a collection even though it seems to be being marketed as a novel, and it worked well as linked stories, with the links between some more obvious than others. Someone else who’d also read it expecting a collection of stories said to me, “I’d be disappointed if I was expecting a novel”. I’d at least be confused. Perhaps neither of us reads as many experimental novels as New Welsh Rarebyte have assumed.

As a collection of short stories, however, this is a delight. Although there’s an obvious hook for anyone who’s interested in Nigeria or has been through a similar relocation, like all good writing Bush Meat is universal. It’s about childhood, and what shapes you, the long reach of events in the past, and how the same set of circumstances are experienced and remembered differently by members of the same family. Bush Meat is available now in paperback and ebook, via the publisher New Welsh Rarebyte.

Warning: timeshift approaching

Preparing to leap into 2018 with renewed vigour and a sense of purpose (no, really) I thought I’d wrap up the year with some random observations, mainly springing from Christmas.

IMG_20171229_143006~2.jpg

OneMonkey’s parents kindly bought me a couple of graphic novels for Christmas: Grandville Force Majeure, and Blacksad. The Grandville novel is the final volume of Bryan Talbot’s fantastic series about a badger who’s a detective in an England where France won the Napoleonic wars, and I’d been looking forward to it immensely (I read it the day after I got it, and it was tense, thrilling, and a fabulous end). I think OneMonkey’s parents have bought me all five of the Grandville novels, and before that they supplied a few volumes of Cerebus the Aardvark (which kickstarted my love of comics, as detailed here in 2010) so maybe there was a need to fill the gap, or maybe the lass in the Newcastle Travelling Man was particularly enthusiastic, anyway they hit upon Blacksad. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s from Spain, sounds good, and is about a detective (spot the theme?) who’s a cat. OneMonkey immediately noticed the abc of anthropomorphic lead characters in his parents’ gifts (aardvark, badger, cat) so I’m intrigued to know where I might go from here. Any good ones about dragons kicking about?

IMG_20171226_143721~2.jpg

I got a couple of other books for Christmas (the Mike Savage one has graphs in, that’ll keep me happy for a while), some notebooks, a beautifully distracting Moomin diary to keep on my desk and write deadlines in, and a pen and pencil set from The Nephew (who I didn’t see until a couple of days after I took the photo). Not many books were exchanged in our house on Christmas Day this year, though we gave The Nephew three: two as presents and one I’d finished with and thought he might like (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow). And come to think of it I bought three for Big Brother and my dad gave him a Robert Rankin novel I was returning to the Library of Mum and Dad (basically he didn’t have anywhere to put it and Big Brother was sitting next to him on the sofa). So some of us did ok for reading material.

I’m yet to count up how many books I’ve read this year, but not as many as in 2016 I think. That could be the lack of a commute beginning to show, or it could be related to the number of story submissions I’ve made this year (again, not counted up yet but a huge increase on 2016). The final submission of the year was made this afternoon, now I’m going to get my reading and writing back in balance by settling down with a cup of tea, the last mince pie, and a half-read copy of Brasyl by Ian McDonald.

Wishing you all a peaceful 2018 filled with all the books you want to read, all the creative endeavours you’ve got the energy for, and a liberal sprinkling of quiet contentment.

Speech from the dead

Back in June I caught the first half of the first one of Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures on Radio 4. As one of Britain’s best known writers of historical fiction, naturally she was talking about what we can know about the past. She talked about phrases passing down the family and in a sense keeping someone alive and it made me think about the time-spans word of mouth can cover and how immediate it makes the past feel.

I remember my Nana (born 1918) telling me anecdotes her grandma (born 1870) had told her about her younger days, which made my Nana’s grandma (and her dad, born 1832) more real to me than many a second cousin who lived nearby but never crossed my radar.

I have been known to refer to someone as an ‘Aunt Sarah Ann’ because they started clearing the dinner table before everyone had finished eating. The original Aunt Sarah Ann who had this mildly irritating habit was born in 1860 and was my great-grandmother’s aunt. Both of them died in the 1950s but the phrase persists in its fourth generation. It is slightly unfortunate for poor old Sarah Ann that this is the one trait that’s been remembered by the family, other than her short stature.

Whenever I’m full of cold I think of the phrase ‘poorly sick with a shawl on’, which my Nana’s friend Alice told me was what her grandmother (born 1860s I think, a friend of Nana’s grandma) always said in similar circumstances. I heard stories of Alice’s grandmother from my Nana too and I’ve had her described to me, so again she feels quite real to me though I’ve never even seen a picture of her.

I spent a lot of time as a child talking to Nana and Alice (hence the dedication in The Little Book of Northern Women) and the stories I heard about growing up in the 1920s and 1930s were full of detail as they relived their memories for me. I can still picture vividly many of the things they described – it helps that I spent part of my childhood in the same village, I guess. There’s a story in The Little Book of Northern Women called The Silent Witness which grew out of Nana’s childhood in particular (not the violent bit, I hasten to add) and I’d love to think that when I’m old I might tell a child born more than 100 years after my Nana some phrase or anecdote that they’ll remember, to keep the connection going.

 

New story, new author photo

It’s been a while since I had a new short story (as opposed to flash fiction) available, but Letters From the Past is now on HeadStuff in their Fortnightly Fiction slot. It’s primarily about a woman who’s been looking for her ‘real’ father, by which she means the one she shares genes with. It’s also about how genes don’t necessarily make a family, how time passes by quicker than you think, how it’s easy to put things off till it’s too late, and how you can spend all your time searching for something that you had all along. I urge you to go read it. And you can always leave a comment to let me know what you think of it (politely…).

When the story was accepted, they asked me for a square photo. I thought it would be nice to use something a bit more up to date than my familiar Twitter picture, which is from summer 2015 as I recall. I trawled through our photos and realised the ones of me basically fall into two camps: leaning my head on someone (usually OneMonkey but occasionally a sister or friend) or wearing a paper hat at Christmas (possibly also whilst leaning my head on someone). There were two on northern beaches with my hair clearly showing which way the wind was gusting, and one of me surveying the damage when the moor had been on fire (which I wrote about here). I decided to use that, it’s out of date too but it’s nearly a year more recent than the Twitter one.

JY_Saville_May2016

Northern Rail Odyssey part 2: the North East

We start the day with a look at the rail map and the weather forecast. Though it’s not bad with us, there are claims of heavy rain along the Tyne during the morning and we briefly wonder whether to change our plan. That would be a shame, I say – I quite fancied walking in the footsteps of OneMonkey’s Haltwhistle ancestors who moved to Hexham for a while before ending up in North Shields 150 years ago. He points to another circle on the rail map. You’ve got another strand of ancestors there, I say, so that’ll do. Or we could go there, he says, tracing his finger over the glossy paper. That’s ok, you have ancestors from there too. Exasperated, he asks where else we could go that some dead relative of his has already settled in, and I point to Windermere, Kendal, Whitby, Northallerton, Darlington, Sunderland, Newcastle. Oh yes, and Hull. Unlike me and my smallish swathe of Yorkshire, you don’t have to go far back in OneMonkey’s family tree to get pins in a map all over the North. He looks at the map for a moment. We stick with our original journey.

By the time we arrive in Hexham the worst of the rain is over, though evidence of its earlier ferocity is abundant. This is particularly true in the park, where some kind of Spring fair is underway. We join hosts of other determined souls in wellies and walking boots, wax jackets, cagoules and parkas, and trudge round dripping stalls selling candles and stained glass, jewellery, local cheese. There are human traffic jams on the paths as despite the boots, no-one quite wants to squelch onto the churned-up grass to get by. Small children plod up and down a fifty-yard stretch, perched on placid ponies. I feel mildly guilty for not buying anything as the stallholders are clearly cold and wet, but I tell myself we could come back after we’ve been round the abbey (we don’t).

Door at Hexham Abbey

Hexham abbey

Hexham is the sort of small town that’s dotted with art galleries, and before we even reach the town proper from the station we’re lured into a couple. One is the sort that’s nice to look at but is all original canvases for hundreds or thousands of pounds. Unfortunately, though there’s no indication from outside it turns out to be the artist’s house, and we spend a strained ten minutes making smalltalk (something neither of us is good at. Remember, we both have physics degrees) before sneaking out as soon as he leaves the room to attend to his jazz CD. The second is a mixture of originals, prints, cards, sculptures, glass paperweights. This one contains an artist too, but he doesn’t seem to have invited us into his house (though he may live upstairs for all I know) and not everything on show is his own work. I feel I can mutter criticism to OneMonkey about the odd modern canvas. There are paintings of the ghosts of shipyard workers streaming through the streets of Wallsend (another OneMonkey family connection) which I particularly like, and we dive back in an hour later so I can buy a card of one on the way to not quite missing the train.

Strung out between Newcastle and Carlisle, this train line is like stepping through a door to the countryside. A sudden hop from the Metro Centre surrounded by Primark bags and young couples, to being sandwiched between the river and a stretch of fields, and the further along the valley we travel the more remote from city life it feels. As we venture slowly through some remote cutting I look at the violets and primroses dotting the embankment. Elsewhere there are great walls of orangey-yellow gorse, but due to the non-opening windows on this train I have to imagine the soft coconut smell that this weak sunshine might be coaxing forth. I also imagine (though of course don’t see) kingfishers diving in this stretch of South Tyne, and drink in the colours of the woodland, spot the half-hidden waterfalls. It makes me wonder why OneMonkey’s ancestors would want to leave.

Haltwhistle is closed when we get there. Possibly everyone has decamped to Hexham for the Spring fair. A walk to Hadrian’s Wall is suggested and dismissed, as we don’t want the possibility of missing the train – we’re more than a couple of miles away from the wall at this point. That leaves a visit to OneMonkey’s ancestors, in a churchyard that seems to grow as we walk through it, and then we race back down to the deserted station. I thought Haltwhistle was supposed to be the centre of Britain, I say as the train putters into view. You’d think they’d have a plaque or something. OneMonkey looks at me – you were stood on it, he says, remember when we looked at the map to see where the church was? Oh, I say. Maybe I should have taken a photo.

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

The highly predictable review of the year, and a preview of 2013

With one mince pie and a heel of stollen left in the tin, it’s time to turn our attention to the changing of the calendar. A moment to pause and reflect on the twelve months behind, and start planning the next batch.

2012 saw the release of my first novel Wasted Years, as an e-book costing £1.99. It also saw, back in January, the free electronic release of the graphic novel I wrote a few years ago, Boys Don’t Cry. If you’ve read those and are eager for further output, you might not have to wait too long: plans are afoot for a small collection of my short stories (I would call it a slim volume, but it’ll be an e-book), mostly unpublished ones, to be called The Little Book of Northern Women. I’ve been designing the cover this very morning.

In case anyone’s interested, my submission level for 2012 was higher than ever before, but since it mostly consisted of competition entries I have very little to show for it, at least in the way of publications. In the way of fun, friendships, silliness, and mentions in the Telegraph (here and here), there’s been quite a bit, thanks to Louise Doughty and the SSC. Apart from Kelvin and JulieT, I don’t think I can point you at any of my SSC comrades, I don’t even know most of their names, but I can point you at one of the best stories to win the monthly competition, which happens to have been written by possibly the most active member of the SSC: go read ’76 by Kipples, I’ll be here when you get back.

I hope you enjoyed that story, I did. Anyway, apart from SSC output, I’ve been reading the usual mix of Doctor Who novels, crime, fantasy, sci-fi, writing manuals, and literary fiction this year (and a history of British trade unionism). I got an e-reader for Christmas (Kobo mini, since you asked) and I’ve already started filling it with Anthony Trollope novels I haven’t yet enjoyed (he did write an awful lot of books). So many books, so little time, as ever.

May you all have a year filled with all the books you most want to read, all the story acceptances you warrant, and some understanding relatives for when the deadlines are looming. See you on the other side of midnight.