I’m reading my first rock autobiography of the year and I start wishing I could write fiction as raw and truthful and powerful as a Bruce Springsteen song, that would last as long in the head and the heart, and I stick one of Big Brother’s cast-off tapes in the cassette player in the kitchen and Thunder Road kicks in and my heart soars and I’m twelve again and buying a second-hand Born To Run LP to play on Sister Number One’s hand-me-down record player, and I’m nineteen and clinging to Born in the USA when my peers are telling me it’s not cool, and I’m thirty-five and BB’s handing over the Springsteen tapes he’s replaced on CD and I’m rediscovering that feeling of gritty bluesy rock n roll, and I want to phone BB and tell him how glad I am that he let me rifle through his record collection, and how much joy and catharsis all that music has brought me over the years, a liferaft and a battle cry and a manifesto. But I can’t, because I’m British and reserved, and what is more I’m a gruff northerner. Nevertheless… Nevertheless.
It was the Northern Short Story Festival on Saturday, courtesy of Leeds Big Bookend, and I went along to take part in the Flash Fiction Slam, a kind of competitive open mic. There are lots of photos here on Flickr including an unfortunate/amusing one of me with what can only be described as an expressive reading face on. Masses of variety on show, I was outclassed by Lynn Bauman-Milner doing a dark and intense take on Cinderella while I opted for The Invisible Woman, which you may have read here on Reflex Fiction recently. Neither of us won.
Mark the artist (who’d come along with OneMonkey to be supportive) and I ended up talking to the illustrator Simon Smith for ages. There are photos of that too, if you’re interested. Among other things, Si worked on Stories from the Forests of Leeds with Daniel Ingram-Brown, a genius idea where writers (amateur and otherwise) around Leeds created characters based on area names then developed stories around them. I would love to see a Bradford version (naturally) and if all else fails maybe Mark and I could initiate it ourselves. Hmm…
Coincidentally I was looking at an old map of Haltwhistle this week and the story ideas within the names on that sheet alone were fantastic: Hot Moss, Galloping Rigg, Baty’s Shield, Foul Potts, Clattering Ford, Windy Law, Foul Town, Crooks, New Angerton, Fairy Stairs, Witches House (ruin), not to mention at least 3 castles. I urge you to go look at the fabulous old Ordnance Survey maps there on the National Library of Scotland site, they’re amazing whether you’re interested in history, your neighbourhood, or quirky old places to build a story round.
Lastly, lest I forget, the International Women’s Day poetry pamphlets from Bradford Libraries are out now, with my poem in. Dead excited to get this through the post:
Since I know you don’t get enough of me writing about the North, and writing, and northern writing, there’s an article of mine over at Women Writers School about that very thing.
You’ll recognise it by the photo above, and my unbridled enthusiasm. And the mention of Luddites. Some of the other writers that Laurie Garrison has invited to add to her Literature and Place theme have covered exotic places like San Francisco and Bhutan so you can be an international jet-setter from the comfort of your armchair.
As ever, thoughts welcome. Do you love all my references to northern this, that and the other or do you sigh every time it comes up? Does fiction set in a place that’s familiar to you have an additional hook, or do you like reading yourself into places you’ll never visit? If you’re a writer too, is there somewhere that has that magic for you?
Some objects are full of stories. Take this small wooden gate:
Earlier this year I spotted it on a shelf in a local charity shop and couldn’t resist. Not unreasonably, OneMonkey asked why on earth I wanted it and what I was going to do with it. I just do, I said, and I’m going to put it somewhere and look at it – what else?
The truth is, it was the story behind the wooden gate that appealed to me. It’s the sort of thing my dad might make as trackside scenery for a model train (he builds the kind that actually run on coal, outdoors) but it’s an odd scale, the base-board is about a foot long. There was nothing similar on nearby shelves, it was in good condition and the gate opens, so: what did it get made for, and why did someone get rid of it? There’s the mundane explanation that it could have been a test piece for learning a particular woodwork technique, and once made it was just taking up valuable house room. That’s a bit boring though, and I’ve thought of lots of better ones in idle moments, but I assumed it was only me who was interested in it.
Sister Number One noticed at Christmas that I’d added the hedgehog and the mouse which have lived on my bookcase for many years. Big Brother then suggested I get a suitably sized rucksack and sit it on the stile, perhaps with a walking stick propped against it. And a pair of boots, he added. Boots? Yes, then we’ll wonder where the walker’s gone and what’s through the gate. And we all sat and looked at a second-hand model gate, and wondered.
Somebody please tell me how it’s December 5th. I’ve had the first listen to the old Metal Christmas tape, I’ve eaten half a dozen mince pies, but I’m not getting what you’d call festive. There is no tinsel in my heart. Of course this won’t surprise anyone that much if they’ve ever encountered me in December before, but I do try (sometimes) to feel the excitement and capture the magic. In a non-consumer-capitalist way, obviously.
Closest I’ve got this year so far is via the fabulous sketches by Chris Mould for Matt Haig’s new children’s book The Girl Who Saved Christmas – he’s tweeting pages day by day I think. Incidentally, it looks like Chris Mould is from Bradford, which I honestly only noticed after I’d been bowled over by his illustrating style…
This week I’ve made two story submissions, and written nearly 6,000 words of the novel I was doing for NaNoWriMo (it got derailed so I’m giving it a bit longer). And read a lot of urban fantasy (which is relevant to the novel I’m writing).
Time to start thinking back on the (reading and writing) year, soon. How has yours been?
An afternoon stroll interrupted by dark lunar landscape. Swathes of burnt bracken and heather, an oasis of green and one unscathed tree. Why stop there? What’s so special about this grassy peninsula, tongue of flameless ground licking the slope?
One small step, as walking boots raise puffs of black, disturb the November smell out of place in summer sunshine, reminiscent of the fire-damaged stock in a long-closed second-hand record shop. One giant leap, crunching through dark crust like a bite into royal icing, like slicing into a macabre wedding cake. Do it again, sink into a pile of burnt twigs.
Bend to sift through ashy debris, looking for ready-to-use charcoal sticks to draw this scene later. Pick them up and they crumble to flakes. Hints of living browns and greens among the grey, as well as cracked and scorched eggshell.
Later, on the ridge, look down and see the tracks left behind.
The Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival is well under way and it’s less than 24 hours till I’ll be in Studio 2 with Andrea Hardaker and Rosalind York from Ilkley Writers. Our programme, Down the Rabbit Hole, is about inspiration, northern writing, and why we write what we do. Between us there’s a good 25 minutes of poems and stories amongst the chat (and a sprinkling of musical confetti).
I’ve been going on about this radio lark, I know, but it’s exciting. I listen to an awful lot of radio and it’s the pinnacle of success for me (far more exciting than television), partly because it’s so mysterious. Through voices and sound effects whole worlds are created. Tomorrow as you listen to us speaking (I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ll be tuning in) you will all have different images in your minds, even if you know what we all look like. The fact that my stories are printed out on the back of junk mail that’s been folded and put in my pocket a few times won’t come across on air – it will sound exactly the same as if I was reading from a gilt-edged book with a ribbon marking my place.
I’ve been dipping into the rest of the festival so far, quite a varied programme and you can listen to anything you’ve missed via the listen again page. Andrea and Rosalind are getting ready to take part in tonight’s Readathon, where an entire book is read out in a literary relay all through the night. I’ve opted for a good night’s sleep instead. Wish me luck…