humour

Two topical stories released this month

Two of my short fictions have been published this month, Evidently Lovestruck in the first issue of Truffle Magazine, and Twelve Weeks’ Rest in volume 2 of the first issue of Untitled:Voices.

I felt a twinge that might not have been indigestion. There was a chance I was believing my own fairytale.

Evidently Lovestruck is flash fiction (about 300 words) which originated from a word-list challenge from a couple of years back – you know how I love them! I think it was a list of words that President Trump had (or was rumoured to have?) banned so it’s an eclectic mix and took me in unusual directions. Given that I’ve spent the bulk of the last 24 years on one university campus or another, it’s no surprise that it’s set at a university, and as my background’s in physics the tongue-in-cheek jibes at love across the STEM/Arts divide are probably not that surprising either. It came out at the beginning of June, which people keep telling me is Pride Month. When I was an undergraduate and first starting (unsuccessfully) to submit stories to competitions in the late nineties, I think having a gay couple at the heart of a story like this would have been seen as political, potentially controversial – what point are you trying to make by having them be the same sex? As it happens my first submitted story was about a same-sex couple (female, since you ask), but then I was trying to make a point. Whereas when I wrote this quirky little campus romance, the two characters that popped into my head both happened to be male and I liked the way they went together. It never crossed my mind that this was anything out of the ordinary (which indeed it isn’t now, thankfully), until I thought back on how far we’d come.

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The other story that came out this week is Twelve Weeks’ Rest, which was written during (and is about) lockdown, and is much longer (nearly 2000 words). It’s about trying to look after your health when the management see you as a human resource, not a person. It’s about hidden key-workers, the ones in warehouses that people forget are at the other end of their online order when they’re shopping for essentials. It’s also about sisters looking out for each other. It’s dedicated to (and sadly inspired by) Sister Number One. I was angry when I wrote it and I think that comes through, but I hope a bit of humour sneaks through too.

She says it like she’s disappointed in me, which she probably is. A loyal employee would tell the government to stick its shielding programme and carry on working.

You can read Evidently Lovestruck for free online at Truffle magazine. For Twelve Weeks’ Rest you can either read it on the website (be aware that it’s 4 pages long so you have to keep going back to the top to move on) or download both volumes of Issue 1 at the main Untitled:Voices page – they are free, but Untitled are asking for donations to the Stephen Lawrence Trust.

Monologues in Minutes

You know I love a writing challenge, so it was inevitable that I’d put my name in the hat for RapidReel. They’ve been having challenges throughout lockdown, where a bunch of writers are given a prompt at 9am, they have until noon to send back a 1-2 minute monologue script with a character note to aid casting, and then suitable actors have 4 hours to read, rehearse, film and upload the finished thing.

On Friday evening when I got the email to check I was available to take part on Saturday, I’d almost forgotten I’d signed up, so it had an element of pleasant surprise about it and I was sat at the computer by five to nine on Saturday morning, keyed up and ready to go. We got a photo prompt, someone walking up a sloping tunnel towards what looked to me like sunshine. I drank Earl Grey and brainstormed with a biro. Words it made me think of. At the back of my mind, but not written down, was a thought about Time Team. Five minutes later I started writing about Time Team.

Time Team, for those not British, old or nerdy enough to know, was a long-running programme where a group of archaeologists had 3 days to dig some interesting site and see what they could learn. I loved it, I watch old episodes whenever I get the opportunity, and their dig at Piercebridge already inspired my story Ghost Bridge which is in the first Crossing the Tees anthology. But I digress…

By 9.50 I’d written a monologue from the point of view of a farmer’s son in his 20s that was safely within the time limit, prompted by the picture, and was light-hearted. Working title: Inspired by Time Team. Time to run it past OneMonkey.

“So what do you think?”

“You’ve done your usual trick with the ending.”

“What do you mean, usual trick?”

“With the last two lines you’ve hinted at the start of a whole new story which has the potential to be way more interesting than the one you’ve just told.”

“Oh.”

Back to the scribbling board.

OneMonkey brought me a huge mug of black coffee and I wrote a different ending to Inspired by Time Team, but before I had the chance to read it to him I’d been seized by another burst of inspiration. Half past ten saw me finish a monologue from the point of view of a woman in her 50s. Working title: Redundant. Still plenty of time to polish it up, but I wanted to read it to OneMonkey first.

“You’ve done that thing with the ending again.”

Drat! I wrote a second ending to Redundant, read it to OneMonkey knowing he’d been right, knowing this one was better, waiting for the nod of approval from my trusted first-reader.

“The ending works now. But…”

“It’s nearly the same character as Custard Cream isn’t it?”

For those who haven’t seen it yet, I Could Murder a Custard Cream is a darkly comic monologue I wrote, which was made into a film for Slackline Cyberstories last month (you can read about it here).

“What happened to the rewrite of Inspired by Time Team?”

So I read him that and he liked it, and so did I. It wouldn’t make me look quite so much like I could only write monologues for middle-aged women. And it was light-hearted. We could all do with a bit more light-hearted these days. It was well after eleven but there was still plenty of time to edit it to my final satisfaction, come up with a proper title, check all the formatting and file-naming guidelines again, edit it some more, and send it in. Plenty of time.

I came so close to calling it Farmer Jones and the Field Drain of Doom. I opted for A Ferret Too Far – this may have been partly influenced by writing a radio play involving a wereferret on Thursday. But that, as they say, is a whole other story.

I faffed with commas, I wrote a quick character note. I changed one mild swear word for another. I re-read all the guidelines. I pressed send at 11.56 and sank back, drained, half-expecting to be told I’d named my file with the wrong date or some such glaring violation. But no, all was well.

So if you’d like a minute and forty-five seconds of light relief in the form of a young man called Alan doing a lovely job on A Ferret Too Far (and really, why wouldn’t you?), you can watch it here:

 

Did I mention they filmed my monologue?

I announced with great delight recently that Slackline Productions had chosen my monologue, I Could Murder a Custard Cream, to be filmed for their Slackline Cyberstories. It is now available on YouTube starring Susannah May and directed by Callie Nestleroth, and it’s been done so well I grinned incessantly for the full 9 minutes and 51 seconds.

It’s a dark comedy set in a village in the Yorkshire Dales, and revolves around the magnificence of the humble custard cream (that’s a popular biscuit, for those not from round these parts). Susannah was glintingly wicked as the nameless biscuit-lover.

She was also kind enough to say that this was one of her favourite monologues,

and Lee Stuart Evans, author of the novel Words Best Sung (which I reviewed a while ago) said it was brilliant.

 

Lee’s a genuine TV and radio comedy writer by day so I’m choosing to believe that he knows what he’s talking about! As does my dad of course, who declared it ‘most amusing’.

If these endorsements have made you think that this film might be worth ten minutes of your life, I urge you to go and watch now at https://youtu.be/J4BR3odiNQI

While you’re there, I’m sure you can spare a few more minutes for the other Cyberstories too, they’re good. You can quote me on that if you like.

All Points North by Simon Armitage

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This book had been sitting on my To Read shelf for weeks when Simon Armitage was announced as the new Poet Laureate, so it seemed only right to take it down and start reading. As you might expect from a Poet Laureate, he’s best known for his poetry and there are a couple of excerpts of it in All Points North, but only as they pertain to broadcasts or events he was involved in. On the whole, this is memoir and observational humour, as if Alan Bennett had grown up on the wild edge of Yorkshire in the era of Joy Division. Released in 1998, if the book came out now it would most likely have been a blog first.

There is ‘genuine memoir’ if you like, nostalgia and childhood memories, tales from his time as a probation officer or appearing in local panto (transplanted to the coast for an am dram conference), and the more recent that could be categorised as ‘scenes from the life of a poet’, like a visit to a film set or making BBC radio programmes. All of this reveals his poetry background: the creation of atmosphere, the lyrical descriptions of the everyday, the skirting of pretentiousness without ever quite falling in. There are also bits of local news deftly retold, snippets, fragments, snapshots, anecdotes from the pub that in another context or told in another way would be nothing.

Being, as the title suggests and his origins dictate, northern in character and largely about the north, the book is infused with dry humour and a keen sense of the absurd in the mundane. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue where the insurance firm phones (twice) to check he really is a poet (“Are you well known?”). The bulk of the book is written in second-person, as though he’s sat outside himself reminding another self of his actions and memories, which causes the odd tangle of position (who, then, is ‘we’?) but if you’re happy to accept that it makes for an interesting style.

I loved it and kept laughing loudly on the train as I read, but I would imagine All Points North to have particular appeal or relevance to those who know or love West Yorkshire, maybe also to those who know or love someone from West Yorkshire. If you read it without any prior exposure or knowledge, you may well come away with the wrong impression.

Things a like can mean

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Things I’ve meant by clicking ‘like’ on Twitter:

  • Wow that was really funny, you made me laugh on a grey day
  • Yes, I have seen your response but I don’t know what to say in reply
  • I choose not to be the only one in your social circle who hasn’t ‘liked’ this
  • I wholeheartedly endorse this sentiment
  • Mildly amusing
  • I enjoyed the story/article/video you linked to
  • Thank you for linking to that story/article/video, I may look at it someday
  • Clever wordplay, well done
  • What a lovely cat
  • Fabulous photography
  • Good for you for sticking up for yourself/this cause
  • Option B in the retweet/like limited poll
  • Wish I’d said that
  • I said that yesterday
  • More people should say things like this
  • I defend your right to say this but I disagree
  • I would like to end this conversation now
  • I accidentally leant on my trackpad and don’t want to unlike this in case that makes you feel bad

I feel the need, the need to read

I remember seeing a sign outside a supermarket a while back, Run out of wine? it asked, and I scoffed. Wine is a luxury item, staples are what you run out of and need to rush to the shop last-minute for, I said. Who considers themselves to have ‘run out of’ wine?

It could be relevant at this juncture to point out that I don’t drink wine.

I do read books though, and with no reviewing going on at the moment (the Bookbag’s cupboard has been relatively bare for a while) I’ve worked my way through a great chunk of my To Read pile. There’s still one Christmas present to read but it’s non-fiction and yesterday afternoon, with only half an hour’s worth of second-hand crime novel to go, I realised I wasn’t quite in the mood for it. I could have bought the next Tad Williams novel for the kobo, as I’ve still got an unspent voucher from my last birthday. I could have stuck to the half-finished short story collections I’ve got lying around, but I like to pick at them and leave time between morsels. I looked at the To Read list (books to borrow or buy when I get round to it) and made a decision.

At that point I had an hour before the local library closed, not to reopen until Monday morning. It takes fifteen minutes to walk to the library if I’m brisk, so I had plenty of time. I checked the online catalogue, selected two books that were available, made a note of which shelves they were on, grabbed a bag. We had a minor domestic crisis (feline related), but I opened the front door twenty-five minutes before the library shut. The wind, which had sounded fairly gusty indoors, was howling and once I reached the next street, blowing me backwards. I was fighting to step forwards instead of on the spot. I checked my watch halfway down the hill. Ten minutes till closing time.

The grille was half across the door when I got there, the library empty save for one man behind the counter. I dashed across the room to social sciences, grabbed Grayson Perry’s Descent of Man, hurried over to history and spotted Stuart Maconie’s Jarrow book as I approached, reaching out for it as I neared the shelf. Within a minute and a half of entering the building and still with a couple of minutes to spare I was handing my books over, out of breath, hair at all angles, scrabbling in my pocket for the library card I hoped I hadn’t left at home. The librarian looked bemused, but he’s seen me many times before so I assume he’ll have realised it was an emergency. Because as everyone knows, although you can’t run out of wine, you can run out of books.

Week 16: Comedy Gold

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Thanks to a refresher from re-reading the BBC Academy radio comedy pages (though not from reading the pictured pamphlet, which I only remembered as I came to write this post) I’ve written two sketches for Newsjack this weekend that not only made me laugh, but made OneMonkey laugh too. I have yet to hear whether they made the producers of Newsjack laugh, but one can only hope.

I can now reveal that the northern-themed writing I alluded to before Christmas is a guest post in the Literature and Place slot at Laurie Garrison’s Women Writers School, and you should have less than two weeks to wait till you can read it. In the meantime if you’re of a sci-fi bent you could read a new review I’ve written for The Bookbag, for an Alastair Reynolds novella, Slow Bullets.

Before I race off to write one-liners in time for tomorrow morning’s Newsjack deadline, have I mentioned the rather wonderful RS500 yet? They’re working through Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 album list, inviting an essay or a piece of fiction related to each one, and so far they’re at 252 so almost halfway but I only heard about them recently. While I may dislike many of the albums on the list, and bemoan the exclusion of some of my favourites, I applaud the harnessing of musical passion to a writing project like this, and I encourage any and all of you with a love of music to read, absorb, and contribute.

Bits that fell off the cat

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On the stairs to our flat there are 2 beech leaves and some mud.

In the hallway there is a small slug making a break for freedom.

On the pristine purple carpet in the living room, vacuumed only half an hour earlier, there are several pieces of spiky bush, some more mud, and some moss. There is now enough fur on the armchair to stuff a small cushion.

In the bedroom there is a piece of hawthorn twig. On the bed, damp leaves and fur. Underneath my pillow (how?) is a buttercup seed, all the better to give me golden dreams.

The cat likes to blur the boundaries between inside and out. He lets us enjoy the garden on a cold, wet day.

Either that or he’s on commission from a cleaning company.

Reviewing The Last of the Bowmans

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For today’s stop on the blog tour for The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson I’m not going to write a review. You’ve already read a few of those I’m sure, and anyway I wrote one for The Bookbag about a month ago (go read it now if you like, I’ll wait). Instead, I thought I’d tell you why I wrote the review in the first place.

Reviewing books for The Bookbag is always a thrill because I get to pick from their list of available books, some of which haven’t even been published yet (the exclusivity!), then I get a book dropping through the letterbox, which perks up the day no end. The fiction list usually includes debut authors, authors who’ve been around a while but haven’t crossed my radar, and authors I’m familiar with. New and emerging authors often sway me, they probably benefit more from a review than a bigger name with an established fanbase, and I might turn up something unexpected. J Paul Henderson wasn’t a name I’d come across before, having completely missed his debut novel Last Bus to Coffeeville despite both Leeds and Bradford libraries having copies in stock. The last few books I’d reviewed had been crime or fairly intense sci-fi so I was looking for something lighter, though not necessarily out and out comedy. I looked at the details of What a Way to Go by Julia Forster (hmm, maybe) then The Last of the Bowmans (his brother’s doing what and his Uncle Frank WHAT? Visited by his dead father?!). It certainly sounded different and it was the little details in the synopsis that grabbed me and made me take notice. His father wasn’t just dead he was in a bamboo coffin, of all things; his brother’s not just a stalker but stalking a woman with no feet. Intriguing. Could go either way, I thought, depends how he’s likely to come at it – what else do we know about this author? He’s from Bradford – done deal.

In case you haven’t read a review or even a synopsis yet, here’s what the novel’s about: Greg Bowman’s been in America for a few years, staying in touch with his dad Lyle and Lyle’s barmy brother Frank, but not with his own brother Billy. Never the most reliable member of the Bowman family, nevertheless Greg makes it home for Lyle’s funeral and sticks around to help sort out his affairs and do up the house, in no way using it as an excuse not to return to his girlfriend in Texas (honest). It’s while Greg is sitting down to dinner at his dad’s house after a day of planning and inventories that the ghost of Lyle appears to him and asks him to take over some unfinished business – sorting out Frank and Billy. Henpecked Billy has become a stalker, and Uncle Frank the Planet Rock listening Wild West aficionado is planning, aged nearly eighty, to rob a bank. Greg reluctantly starts unpicking family secrets and finds a startling one of his dad’s that he’s not sure what to do with.

Comedy’s never an easy thing to pull off in a novel, and comedy drama (I think) is even harder, but The Last of the Bowmans cracks it. I once described A Touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood as ‘understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best’, and The Last of the Bowmans definitely follows in its footsteps with its odd characters and surreal situations interleaved with the humdrum. It’s the mundane details that make it, they ground the whole thing so that it’s that much easier to accept a ghost in a ballgown having a chat with his son, for instance. I’m not saying it’s flawless (neither was A Touch of Daniel, few books are) but it found its groove early on and powered along at a fair clip. In my (biased) opinion, northern writers tend to handle comedy drama better than most because it chimes with a certain northern approach to life, a general attitude that doesn’t take the world too seriously. The tragicomic prologue of The Last of the Bowmans where eighty-three-year-old Lyle dies in the pursuit of a chocolate bar sets the mood nicely, and you can’t beat a good funeral scene in a book like this. Particularly if you’ve got a cantankerous old bachelor like Uncle Frank there to wind up the vicar and assorted attendant old women. The book is dedicated ‘For the Uncle Franks of this world’ and I have to say Frank was probably my favourite character, I like an eccentric that goes his own way and his love of Planet Rock helped.

As well as the obvious family themes (commonalities among differences, misunderstandings and different viewpoints or versions of past events) there’s the idea of the returning wanderer with Greg. Through his eyes we see what’s changed (and what, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t) in the seven years of his absence. The distance, both from the place and the people he left behind, has given him a different perspective on his family and – partly because he’s cleaned up his act, partly because of his mission from Lyle – he’s attuned to things he would once have missed. Having left West Yorkshire and family myself for a similar amount of time to Greg, I remember that dual feeling of coming home and being a stranger and I think that helped draw me in. There are extra resonances for me in that Billy lives in an unnamed small town in the Wharfe Valley that could well be heavily based on the bit of Wharfedale I can see from my study window, and one of my sisters (like Billy) was forced into a change of direction fifteen years ago when the mills closed and her niche job didn’t exist any more.

Whatever your background, if you enjoy a good black comedy The Last of the Bowmans will make you laugh even as it makes you think about how much you really know your nearest and dearest. And if you do happen to be from West Yorkshire, so much the better.

The Last of the Bowmans was released by No Exit Press on January 21st and you can get it in print, for Kindle, or as an epub (see the No Exit Press website for details). My proof copy came via The Bookbag (thank you!), so I could review it for them over there.

Ilkley Literature Festival: parting notes

This year’s festival finished over a week ago and I’m still catching up with the things that were put aside because of it, the notes I wrote during it, and the thoughts I meant to write down but never did (which have been buzzing round my head with decreasing energy ever since). You can tell how much catching up I need to do by the fact that the first line said ‘finished on Sunday’ when I started to write this post…

I took part in the Open Mic on the final Sunday evening. An interesting experience and I’m glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t do it again with prose. 16 of the 19 performers were poets, the judges were poets, the compere was a poet, and even the email said ‘you have been chosen to read your poetry’ (which gave me a moment of panic when I got it). So reading a comic fantasy story that took all but 4 seconds of the allotted 3 minutes did make me feel a little out of place. One chap did a humorous monologue on changing his life, with the refrain ‘it’s not for me’ – which I found myself saying at appropriate junctures last week, with a laugh (when the person offering you a slice of cake hasn’t heard the monologue, you just come across as odd). There was also a fabulous poem about spades, bane of poets because you have to call a spade a spade.

Two weeks ago I went to see Mark Thomas, who sometimes seems to do things just to get a rise out of people, but more often than not there’s a point to it and he causes change. And he’s very funny. I confess I was a little uncomfortable when he seemed to be saying that it’s all one big art project, a sort of performance and participation art. How is a gruff northern ‘modern art? It’s just an empty room with faulty light fittings’ socialist supposed to reconcile that with Mark Thomas being an angry, funny, long-standing left-wing activist who makes a difference?

There were a few other events I either didn’t enjoy enough or didn’t understand enough to write about here, and I’ve probably forgotten deeply insightful things I thought in the gaps between events (festival time does involve a lot of waiting around). However, that’s all for this year. The festival blog is apparently spreading its event reviews over the next couple of months rather than putting them all up in an exciting flurry (don’t ask me why), so you can continue to discover new views on the events over there for a while yet.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie – writer, broadcaster, unashamed wearer of red trousers – provided well over the allotted hour of insight and mirth this evening in Ilkley’s King’s Hall. The event was billed as relating to his most recent book, The Pie at Night (which even he keeps calling Pies and Prejudice by accident) but although he did keep referring back to it in passing, and read a short extract eventually, the bulk of his readings were from earlier works and the bulk of the delivery was comedic and anecdotal.

Particular stand-outs for me both revolved around his mum. The wonderful tale of him interviewing her some years ago about her taking the two-year-old Stuart to see The Beatles in 1964: she can’t remember what the band played or who supported them, but can recount at length the weather, the neighbours in the queue, the refreshments, and what the family had for tea later.

The other one was a trait which all northern women (used to) have, of relational story-telling such as ‘you know, Gladys. Worked with your mum at the chip shop before she married that feller from Rotherham with the false leg. He had a caravan two berths down from your Norman at Brid that summer, when Flo and Arthur won the teddy bear on the front’. It wasn’t his mum’s long-winded argument about Blackpool so much as the way Stuart Maconie linked it with Icelandic sagas, and northerners being the true inheritors of our forefathers’ means of expression (instead of Agbard son of Gimli who slew the troll, we have Ethel wife of Peter who drove the bus. He put it better than I have though…). I like that idea, I shall return to it at some point, I’m sure.

Interestingly, the hall was only about two-thirds full, and I do wonder if it’s the prices that are the problem. There was a list of ‘over 100 events with tickets remaining’, including some big names. I bought a whole raft of tickets weeks ago, and I got a shock pulling these ones out of the pack tonight and realising in some moment of madness in late summer I’d handed over nearly thirty quid for OneMonkey and I to sit and listen to an admittedly amusing raconteur for an hour. There are so many events packed into such a short time at the Ilkley litfest, and so much I’m interested in every year, but only so much I can afford to go to (and don’t expect me to have any left over to buy the books).

As for Stuart Maconie’s latest book, this evening’s left me none the wiser as to whether I should read it. It has made me want to go borrow Pies and Prejudice from Big Brother though.

Petrified by proper poetry

A good five years ago I thought I’d lost my affinity for poetry, though more recently I decided maybe I’d just been reading the wrong kind of stuff. In the meantime I started using haikus as writing exercises but that was as close to writing poetry as I got.

Recently we talked about poetry at an Ilkley Writers meeting. There were a couple of poets present, but a few of us were in the ‘frightened of poetry’ camp. Frightened of the rules, frightened of getting it wrong, of being found out by ‘real’ poets, sounding pretentious and making fools of ourselves. We’d all been put off poetry at school, with sonnets and rigid rhyming schemes, then looked at ‘grown up’ poetry with no rhyme or reason (sorry…) and felt completely adrift. I quite like rhyming poetry, I said, and someone else (who’s keen to start writing poetry) agreed. I suggested, if she wants to write poetry and is having trouble, why not try rhymes? Rhyming poetry’s for kids though, she replied. And there lies one of the problems.

If anyone’s familiar with the Hancock’s Half Hour episode The Poetry Society from 1959, they will know where I’m coming from. Proper poetry for grown ups must be deep and serious, must not contain any rhymes, and absolutely on pain of death must not be intelligible to the casual reader on the first run through. If performed, it should be intoned with plenty of pauses and a frown. The casual listener (of which there will be few) should be made to feel like the dunce at the back of the English class.

Thankfully, this is not universally true, as I’ve been discovering lately, but it’s been true often enough (or has seemed true, at least) that some of us have taken it on board and shied away. One of the group (not a poet, but not frightened of poetry, in fact he’d just written a humorous rhyming poem about Charles Darwin’s sojourn in Ilkley) pointed out that popular poetry, the stuff that engages audiences and sells festival tickets, is usually funny and may or may not rhyme, by the likes of John Hegley and Roger McGough (he didn’t mention Pam Ayres but I guess she’s a popular entertainer poet too. Personally, I’ve never got past her accent but I applaud her use of it – more people should keep their regional accents). A poet in our group told me lots of modern poetry rhymed: WH Auden and Tony Harrison to name two. Tony Harrison had come up in conversation elsewhere that week, to do with dialect (of which undoubtedly more later) so I ordered a book of his poetry at my local library and I’ll see how it goes. While I was there I picked up a slim volume by Helen Burke, whose poetry I’d enjoyed at a reading a few months earlier. I may be beginning to lose my poetry fear.

John Hegley and Helen Burke poetry books

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Becoming a Geordie by long proximity

Cover of Larn Yersel' Geordie by Scott Dobson

An invaluable guide. Well, quite entertaining anyway.

A few years ago in a post about rendering accent in writing, I mentioned that after 10 years of living among Geordies I’d attempted to write a Geordie character, only for OneMonkey to recoil in horror at my ineptitude. Well, a couple of weeks ago I had another go (completely different story, and characters) and this one passed muster. I’m not saying it would fool a native, just that OneMonkey judged it bearable.

I had a feeling I might do better this time, I can now read and interpret the whole of the 1960s educational pamphlet Larn Yersel’ Geordie, even if I can’t say most of it out loud. I have understood each one of OneMonkey’s uncles in normal conversation, and barely notice that his dad speaks a completely different dialect from me. Despite living back in West Yorkshire (‘the South’ as OneMonkey calls it) for years, I appear to be morphing slowly into a North East native, scoring 100% on the Chronicle’s How Geordie Are You? quiz (though I’m not convinced of its scientific accuracy…) and recognising more than half of these You know you’re a Geordie when… signs in myself. Time to go recalibrate myself with some Yorkshire dialect poems.

Queen Lucia by EF Benson

This 1920 novel of middle-class country life never fulfilled its comic potential, sadly. There were a scattering of amusing episodes that went nowhere, and an awful lot of everyday life that made me shake my head in despair rather than laugh.

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, universally known as Lucia due to her pretentious scattering of Italian phrases in conversation, is undisputed queen of Riseholme society. This doesn’t seem like much of a prize to me, as the village of Riseholme appears to house some of the most vain, selfish, mean-spirited, shallow and catty members of the idle rich around. Nevertheless, where Lucia leads her subjects gleefully follow, at garden parties, musical evenings and the like. She sets the local tastes in art and literature despite having little qualification to do so. During the summer of this book, however, there are stirrings of rebellion – some of her subjects start trying to think for themselves, and what’s more, there are outside influences. Naturally, chaos ensues.

At times Queen Lucia feels like it’s going to be a satire, at other times a farce, but for me it never quite works as either and perhaps it only set out to be a gently comic novel that I’d have enjoyed if I’d been around at the time. It’s not angry socialism rearing up, for I’ve enjoyed a multitude of Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse and F Scott Fitzgerald novels containing more than their fair share of spoilt rich creatures. I just couldn’t find any point of contact with patronising Mrs Lucas and her ‘silvery laugh’ and her baby talk (‘Me vewy sowwy’) though I did have some sympathy for her sidekick, camp middle-aged bachelor Georgie with his dyed hair, and talent for embroidery.

Queen Lucia is the first in a series and I believe some or all of the novels have been adapted for TV. That might be more successful as the comic potential could be developed and brought to the fore. I downloaded it for free so anyone who feels they might have more luck with it can do the same, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Writing in alphabetical order

This month’s exercise at the Telegraph Short Story Club is a 26-sentence story in alphabetical (or reverse) order. These were my first 2 slightly tongue in cheek attempts:

As if by magic the shopkeeper appeared. Ben jumped, dropping the packet of Smarties he’d been about to slip in his blazer pocket.

“Caught you,” the man sneered. “Damned kids, thinking they can get one over on me. Every year it’s the same, I’d flog the bloody lot of you.”

“F-f-flog?” stammered Ben, who was shocked but not as frightened as his occasional speech impediment made him seem.

“Go on, hop it before I ring your headmaster.”

Hurrying out of the corner shop before the old man could change his mind, Ben collided with someone hurrying the other way. If there was one person Ben should never have run into, it was Jack Grosvenor. Jack was feared and loathed in equal measure, an arrogant, swaggering bully from the fifth form, manipulative and sly.

“Knightley, what the hell do you think you’re playing at?” he barked. “Let’s see. Maybe you could make it up to me.”

Nearby was an independent record shop that was slowly going out of business. Our Price records had opened up a few streets away and all the schoolboys took their pocket money there these days.

“Perhaps you could liberate a cassette or two for my listening pleasure,” suggested Jack. “Quickly, I didn’t mean next week.”

Running along the street away from Jack, Ben’s stomach was doing somersaults and he felt like keeping going. Sprinting into the sunset, as it were. Tomorrow he’d have to go to school though, and Jack would find him and make him pay. Under the watchful eye of the record shop owner, Ben sidled down an aisle, watching the watcher rather than looking where he was going. Vinyl cascaded across the floor and Ben legged it, grabbing the nearest tape box while the shopkeeper’s attention was elsewhere.

“What have you done to my LPs, you little hooligan?” he bellowed.

X-Ray Spex were belting out Germ Free Adolescence from a builder’s radio as Jack kicked his heels in the street.

“Yes!” he shouted, punching the air when he saw Ben running towards him with a cassette box, but then he saw what it was. “ZZ Top, bloody hell.”

And going the other way…

Zaphod Beeblebrox was Alan’s role model. You would have thought he’d have picked someone better, or at least more achievable. Xena, Warrior Princess, had in fact been his first goal, but it had been doomed to failure. When his wife found the costume at the back of the wardrobe she assumed it was for her, and flounced off to Birmingham for sisterly solidarity and a good moan. Vadim next door had been most understanding, helping Alan come to terms with his new life. Until then, Alan had wondered if he might be suppressing his feminine side, hence the aspirational Xena (thus avoiding anything too pink and girly), but the way he took to baking his own pies in his wife’s abandoned pinny he thought that couldn’t possibly be it. That was why he’d gone for a real man’s… alien, on his next attempt.

Smooth-talking, super-confident Zaphod had been the stand-out character for Alan, when he’d read the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all those years ago. Regrettably, he was more of an Arthur Dent by nature, and the change in approach wasn’t easy. Quite how all those slick suits at the posh bar next to the station managed it, he wasn’t sure. Pheremones, maybe. Or the size of their wallets. No matter how hard Alan tried to throw himself into being cool or wild he couldn’t bring himself to do it. May I buy you a drink, he’d say. Like Zaphod would bother asking! Killer chat-up lines just weren’t compatible with the thickness of glasses Alan needed to wear, and it was about time he faced it.

Jenny had been watching the man with the bottle-bottom specs all evening. Intrigued by the loud suit and cocktails which didn’t seem to go with the rest of him, she decided to go over and liven up her night.

“Have we met before?” she asked, leaning against the bar next to him.

“Gosh, I don’t think so,” he said.

“Funny, I could have sworn you looked familiar. Excuse my mistake.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Can I join you anyway?” asked Jenny. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Alan,” said Alan, wishing it was something cooler and wondering what Zaphod would do next.

If you feel inspired (and really, how could you not) do come and join us.

Diary of a disorganised writer

Tuesday morning: Remember there’s an interesting submission deadline on Friday. 1000 words doesn’t sound too daunting, not too late to start. Use the commute to write copious notes on proposed story.

Tuesday evening: Write 350 words of story, not bad. Retire for the night feeling positive.

Wednesday evening: Have crisis of confidence, then get sidetracked by discovering some particularly useful parish registers for family history have been scanned in and are available for free online. Drifting off to sleep, remember Wednesdays are supposed to be blog days.

Thursday evening: Abandon the 1000-word story. It’s too near the deadline and anyway it wasn’t going anywhere. Back to parish registers.

Friday: Final week of two MOOCs to catch up on. No time for writing.

Saturday evening: Check writing diary and notice the deadline was Sunday not Friday. Re-read the 350 words, decide it has potential. Strip away 50 words, bang out 900 more, prune a further 200. Fall into bed, smug but exhausted. Realise it still needs a title.

Sunday morning: Spend two hours thinking up titles. Go with the one that first suggested itself as sleep beckoned last night. Sit back with a cup of tea, feeling proud.

Sunday afternoon: Remember to submit story. Write delayed blog post. Make mental note to keep better track of deadlines in future. Find half-written blog post from Monday.

Stretching It by Mandy Sutter

I first encountered Mandy Sutter in 2005 and when I spotted a couple of years ago on her website that there was a novel in the offing I knew I’d have to read it when it came out. This summer it’s finally available and thanks to this video taster it shot up my To Read list and has now been devoured, with pleasure.

Stretching It by Mandy Sutter

Jennifer Spendlove is 32, overweight, and lives with her elderly hypochondriac mother on the outskirts of Leeds. One of those gentle souls too nice for their own good, Jennifer gets taken advantage of regularly but instead of standing up for herself she seeks solace in snacks and the creation of papier mache sculptures. In between the regular ferrying of her mum to the doctor and the hairdresser, Jennifer is trying to sneak off for a series of dates, the result of a lonely hearts ad in the local paper. Of course, finding a soulmate – or even a decent boyfriend – was never going to be that simple, but her loss is our gain as she perseveres through a queue of unsuitable men. And all this while the new regime of efficiency at the cash-strapped factory where she works overturns her everyday world.

I mostly read Stretching It on the train, and mildly embarrassed myself when the laughter wouldn’t stay silent, or when tears prickled my eyes. It was a quick, easy read and I stayed up late to finish it, so it’s fairly safe to say I was caught up in it. I cared enough about Jennifer to groan at bad decisions and gasp at jeopardy, and I even formed a grudging attachment to her self-centred mother Alicia. On the whole the book is light and humorous so the two darker scenes later on particularly stand out and come as something of a shock; I actually felt bad for laughing at something that comes shortly after the second one. However, the mildly unsettled feeling soon passed and I enjoyed the rest of the novel, putting it aside with a warm glow.

I think anyone who enjoyed my first novel, Wasted Years,would probably like Stretching It (and hopefully vice versa); you could describe both as being about a young woman in West Yorkshire working her way through unsuitable candidates in the search for love, though Stretching It is more overtly comic than Wasted Years. I wouldn’t usually read anything described as a romance novel (see my review of Out of Time by Monique Martin), so if that applies to you as well, don’t be put off by the centre-stage appearance of Love – there is nothing soppy here.

At Home by Bill Bryson

As a rule I like Bill Bryson books, they’re cosy while not being afraid to point out some uncomfortable truths, and they’re usually quite funny while they’re about it. At Home definitely had its funny moments, and a plethora of interesting facts, but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

At Home is subtitled ‘A Short History of Private Life’, and promises to give us insights into history via a tour of Bryson’s Norfolk rectory; the chapters are named after each of the rooms in his house. I enjoyed (via the iplayer) Lucy Worsley’s TV series If Walls Could Talk, in which she explored the changing nature of household life and the notion of privacy by looking at the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room over the centuries, and I anticipated something similar in this book. Though probably with a  lot more asides and entertaining anecdotes.

In the end I think I found there were so many asides I lost track of the point, if there ever was one. In some chapters I was left with the feeling that he’d dug up some fascinating stories and couldn’t think of an obvious way to tie them to a room, so he’d sort of shoe-horned them in using a link so tenuous it had become invisible. The book is brimming with enthusiasm, as is usually the case with Bill Bryson, and I did enjoy (and read to the long-suffering OneMonkey) most of it, plus I learnt a few things (always a good thing when reading). However, it did feel a bit like a jumble at times, more like one of those books they put out at Christmas and people keep by the toilet for occasional browsing, than a history of anything in particular.

One (minor) niggle was that while he’s using an English house as a starting point, and mainly talking about English history, occasionally he’ll drop something American in. Logical, you might say – he is American, after all – but there was the odd startling fact that made me sit up and say ‘Really? I never knew that’ then it would become clear that I never knew that because it’s not true over here. That would have been fine, but there were places where I wasn’t sure if he meant in England, America or both, and I was left wondering.

All that said, I would imagine if you’ve ever enjoyed a Bill Bryson book you will find much to please you in At Home, particularly if you go into it without expecting much of a thread.