Monday 17 August 2020

Alan Baker, "A Journal of Enlightened Panic"


Alan Baker was born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and has lived in Nottingham since 1985, where he has been editor of the poetry publisher Leafe Press for the last twenty years, and editor of its associated webzine Litter. His previous poetry collections include Variations on Painting a Room (Skysill, 2011), Letters from the Underworld (Red Ceilings, 2018) and Riverrun (KFS, 2019). He has translated the poetry of Yves Bonnefoy and Abdellatif Laâbi. Below, Alan writes about writing poetry, and his new pamphlet, A Journal of Enlightened Panic (Shoestring Press, 2020).

About Poetry and A Journal of Enlightened Panic

By Alan Baker

I still have strong connections with Newcastle (there's a poem in Tyneside dialect in A Journal of Enlightened Panic), but Nottingham is my adoptive city and I've lived there since 1985 (I recently published a book entitled Riverrun which is sixty-four modernist sonnets about the River Trent in its Nottinghamshire stretch). I started writing poetry in my teens, gave it up, then returned to it in my late twenties, but I didn't publish my first, slim pamphlet until I was forty-two. I've published ten collections of poetry since then. Why do I write poetry? Because I love it, always have - not writing it I mean, but poetry itself, reading it out loud, hearing it read, reading it silently, and I've loved it since I was a youngster enamoured of G. M. Hopkins and Robert Frost. So I wanted to "be in that number" as the song goes, and learn the art.

A Journal of Enlightened Panic is a short series of poems, most of which are dedicated to someone, mainly other poets, and includes a collaboration with the poet Robert Sheppard (see below). The collection starts and ends with two long poems. The last poem is called "Voyager," a reference to the spacecraft of that name; the poem is in memory of my mother, and it combines images of space travel, a night-time walk and a sea journey. The opening poem is about "the thoughts a man may encounter as he walks the park in the autumn of his life," which thoughts encompass ecology, art, politics, John Donne, Keats, Shakespeare and the Zen Buddhist master Sunryu Suzuki.

The disk on the book cover is the “Sounds of the Earth Record” which was placed in both Voyager spacecraft when they were launched in 1977.

Two poems by the imaginary Slovenian poet ABC Remič

If I Were ...

If I were a blade of grass
I’d be bending in the wind
like all the others, in the wind
off the Karst that smells of the sea.

If I were rowing in the ripples
I’d be unrolling in crinkles of
light against the hills, distance
unthreading perception, gently.

If I were empty of perception
I could abandon History and encounter
The World, my enemy, my friend,
my teacher, in all its variousness.

If then, beyond Time, flung across Space,
a jay caught in a gust, I’d know
Identity is a silhouette bird acting as scarecrow,
choking up a paroxysm of irony.

If the scarecrow smiles, if Sirens
call lonely men on container ships,
and ghosts walk the leagues of grass,
then storm clouds, tribal wanderings, ritual.

If overhead wires trapped onto a page of dashes
tell us of nothing, or next to nothing,
then the solid black I feel is not ghostly solid:
my ears are up to my eyes in Reality.

Slovenia (excerpt)
An advertising hoarding of a rearing horse,
a railway platform reduced to a grey smear.
Slovenia! I'm sick of your posturing, I'm weary
of your constant demands for attention, your angst,
even the tightness you leave in our collective lungs
that the romance of a steam-train cannot relieve;
the rearing horse is a symbol for a British bank,
the trains run on time, sure, but they take us nowhere.
Hills hunch black like slag-heaps, while streamed cctv
images of cobbled streets and marble kerbstones
infiltrate our dreams; a pixelated Ljubljana Old Town
lacking its charm and suppressed memories.
Lit buses in long lines ease up the crowded street
packed with faces at bright windows, and I run
to catch one, full of workers heading home. My people?
"hard-working, diligent and proud" the brochures say,
using my tainted words. A queue, stiff in readiness,
waits, as one, his pin prick pupils deep in their sockets,
like a bronze statue of one of our obscurer saints, leans
forward and hisses "You can't get on without a ticket."

Note: Poems were written jointly by Alan Baker and Robert Sheppard for the latter’s anthology EUOIA (European Union of Imaginary Authors).

Friday 14 August 2020

Stephen Johnson, "How Shostakovich Changed My Mind"

Stephen Johnson studied at the Northern School of Music, Manchester, and composition under Alexander Goehr at Leeds University, then at Manchester University. Since then he has written regularly for The Independent and The Guardian, and was Chief Music Critic of The Scotsman (1998-9). He is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber 1998), and studies of Mahler and Wagner (Naxos 2006, 2007). As a BBC broadcaster he presented Radio 3’s Discovering Music for 14 years, as well as a series of fourteen programmes about the symphonies of Bruckner. He is also a regular contributor to the BBC Music Magazine. Stephen radio documentary, Shostakovich: Journey into Light, was nominated for a Sony Award in 2007. And in 2009 his radio documentary Vaughan Williams: Valiant for Truth, won a Sony Gold Award. His book about music and mental health, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (based on the Shostakovich documentary) was published by Notting Hill Editions in Spring 2018, followed in 2020 by a book about Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910 (Faber). In 1997 Stephen began composing again. His orchestral work Behemoth Dances had its premiere in Moscow in April 2016, followed by its UK premiere in London in May. In January-February 2019 his Clarinet Quintet Angel’s Arc was performed by Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet, and an American premiere is planned for November 2020. Stephen's website is here

Below, Stephen talks about How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, and you can also read an excerpt from the book. 

About How Shostakovich Changed My Mind

By Stephen Johnson

On one level my agenda in writing this book was intensely personal: I wanted to see if writing about my own experience of bipolar depression and childhood trauma might help me get it all into some kind of new perspective. I think it did, but in the process I realised there was another, still more important purpose. By writing about how important music - and particularly tragic music - had been in my own story of survival, I wanted to say to others who have gone through profound mental suffering, ‘Don’t despair. There is always the possibility of redemption, of finding a path from misery to meaning, and the music of someone like Shostakovich can help us find it.’ It still amazes me how a man like Shostakovich, nervous and to some extent emotionally fragile, was able to keep his sense of moral and emotional purpose under the constant surveillance of Stalin’s hideous Soviet totalitarianism, and to reach out to others in his music - I’ve met survivors of Stalin’s ‘terror,’ and of the indescribable suffering of the Siege of Leningrad, who insist that his music helped them. I’m one of many - possibly millions - who can say the same. The book looks at how the music achieves its effects from several different angles - neurological, psychological, philosophical - but it remains ultimately a personal testimony to something which, in the end, remains mysterious. I start with a reference to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, transformed into an enormous insect in the harrowing story 'Metamorphosis,' who, on hearing a violin playing, asks himself, 'how could he be a brute beast if music could make him feel like this?’ That, in essence, is what the book is about.

From How Shostakovich Changed My Mind

I am sixteen, and I'm striding, stamping, pounding my way across the West Pennine Moors. The weather is bracing: sudden gusts of wind, tattered low clouds racing across the sky, occasional brief flurries of sharp-sided rain. It suits my mood perfectly. My head is full of the end of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. In my mind's ear I can hear it all in studio clarity. I'm half-roaring, half-spluttering along with it. I'm glad there's no one around to see me. But - of this I'm quite sure - I don't feel alone. Shostakovich knows what I am feeling. His music assures me of that. Perhaps he knows better than I do. But he has given me something else as well. He has given me his community: half-imagined, half-real. As he says, in the Fourth Symphony's last pages it's all set out rather precisely. There is a great choir that I can join: a choir of grief, rage and determination to survive. Where it is I don't know yet, but I know that it is. And while the music lasts I am part of it, one voice amongst many. Somewhere out there is a We to which I belong. The thought is comforting, sustaining, indescribably uplifting. When the final bars have faded into silence I stand still for a moment. I am not worthless, despicable, insignificant, unworthy to be heard; how can I be, if music can make me feel like this?


Tuesday 11 August 2020

Jonathan Davidson, "A Commonplace"

Jonathan Davidson, photo by Lee Allen

Jonathan Davidson was born in 1964 and grew up in the Didcot, South Oxfordshire. He has lived for many years in Coventry and now lives in Birmingham. He won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 1990 and his first collection of poetry, The Living Room, was published by Arc Publications in 1994. This was followed, seventeen years later by Early Train (Smith|Doorstop, 2011). He has also published three poetry pamphlets, Moving the Stereo (Jackson’s Arm, 1993), A Horse Called House (Smith|Doorstop, 1997) and Humfrey Coningsby: Poems, Complaints, Explanations and Demands for Satisfaction (Valley Press, 2015), and an e-book Selected Poems (Smith|Doorstop, 2014). His combination of memoir and criticism, On Poetry, was published by Smith|Doorstop in 2018 and his latest collection is A Commonplace (Smith|Doorstop, 2020).

He has had eight radio plays broadcast on BBC Radio Three and Radio Four, along with radio adaptations of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and W. S. Graham’s The Nightfishing on BBC Radio Three. His stage adaptation of Mary Webb’s novel Precious Bane was produced by Interplay Theatre and toured extensively in 2008 and 2009. He has produced six poetry-theatre works, his most recent touring shows were The Hundred Years’ War (touring in 2014/15) and Towards the Water’s Edge (touring in 2016/17), both co-productions with Bloodaxe Books and the Belgrade Theatre Coventry. Jonathan's website is here

About A Commonplace
By Jonathan Davidson

Poems – my own and other people’s – are scattered across my life. They are in books and notebooks, folded in wallets and hidden in desk drawers; a few are memorised. They are as commonplace as food and drink. I wouldn’t want to live without them, although I dare say I could. They will be the last things I forget when I have forgotten everything else. Some of these poems are gathered together in this book, A Commonplace.

A Commonplace is a collection of my own poems interleaved with other people’s poems, poems I admire and that give solace or inspiration. As there are things I want to say about my own poems, and about those by other poets, I have included an on-going commentary. This isn’t something I’ve done before, but it has made me think about how poetry is released into the world.

You can order A Commonplace here. Below, you can read two poems from the book. 


They are bringing back the borders.
So a night train whines to a dead halt
and in the blazing darkness of suspicion
uniformed men – just doing a job – thump
through doors and fill the corridors
with their orders and mistrust.

They are looking for the others, not you.
But still, your eyes look to your shoes
in need of spit and polish. You hope
they do not stop. They stop.
You hear the hum of electricity.
Voices demand papers. And it begins.

Live Broadcast

Too late to go out and nowhere to go
anyway, I content myself with this
celestial but dis-concerting music,

a Brandenburg by J S Bach, which they enjoy
in London very much. Your message says
you’re sitting down to listen to it too,

or busying yourself with things that must
be done, or watching as the last high clouds
grow dark. Although we are alone the gods

of digital transmission have ensured
the sound they give to me they give to you.
Now all that is between us is the music,

which is not anything at all, but keeps
our little minutes and our little thoughts
in its design, so that we can be known

each to the other, keeping time, until
the final notes have died away and grand
applause releases us back to our selves.

Thursday 6 August 2020

Gill Mann, "A Song Inside"

Gill Mann has always loved writing. To keep her parents happy she started her working life as a solicitor but sixteen years after qualifying she re-trained as a professional photographer, becoming an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society. Finally she worked out what she really wanted to do and returned to university to study for a Post-graduate Diploma and Masters degree in Psychodynamic Counselling and has worked as a therapist ever since. Her interest in people informs her writing. Although she writes mainly from life she has recently turned to fiction, starting work on a collection of short stories based on the theme of therapy. Below you can read about her first book, the new memoir A Song Inside, as well as an extract from it.

A Song Inside, by Gill Mann

‘You are a song inside me now, a melody that stirs and bursts into life when I think of you.’

In this heart-breaking, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting memoir, Gill Mann remembers life with her son Sam - a boy and young man who enchanted and infuriated in equal measure. Sam saw colours where others saw grey. He made people feel alive. His unvanquishable spirit sings out as Gill reflects on the joys he brought, the difficulties of his struggles with schizophrenia, and the impact of his death.

Part journal, part journey into the past, and part conversation with Sam, in this beautifully written memoir, Gill thoughtfully and tenderly reveals her relationship with her son, both before and after his death. A Song Inside explores universal issues of love and loss to reveal how we can move forward and find happiness again, without leaving behind the people we have lost.

Featured below is an excerpt from the opening of the memoir.

From A Song Inside

At the garden table, mug of tea in hand, I sit and wait for the young policewoman to speak. It is Bank Holiday Monday: a day of bright sunshine and impossible clarity. Colours around me shout and sing. Blood-red geraniums in terracotta pots, fresh-cut grass as green as newly minted peas, wisteria hanging in swathes of smoky mauve. 

"You have a son," she says, placing one hand on the swell of her unborn child. It is such a simple statement of fact, a lovely truth, but a strange one for this young woman to be telling me, sitting in my own garden beneath a sky of cobalt blue. It seems she doesn’t expect an answer for she is carrying on, but

"Yes," I agree in my head, "I have." She tells me his name too.  

"Samuel Edward Roberts," she says.  
"Yes," I agree in my head, again, and then I realise. Of course, not the burglary. It’s about Sam’s passport, stolen ten days ago as he slept on a train from Bangkok to Chiangmai. 
More words come, yet still there’s no mention of the passport. I feel a sudden, cool waft of foreboding, as fleeting as the shadow of an aeroplane passing before the sun. Then a strange thing happens. The words cease to belong to the young woman opposite me. They take on an embodiment all of their own. I can see and feel them, floating on the garden air.

"He’s travelling in Thailand, in Mae Hong Son province," her words continue, relentless. Suspending themselves in the space between us, above the table, they hang in the air like an executioner’s axe. 
There is no faltering, no change of pace or tone when she speaks again. "Your son has been found dead in his hotel room. We’ve been contacted by the Thai police."

There is silence as the words sway in front of me. Such an innocent conglomeration of consonants and vowels; but put together, such devastating words. Words which must not be allowed to turn that simple, lovely truth, "You have a son," into a terrible lie. 

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition 2020: Results

The School of Arts at the University of Leicester runs an annual Joe Orton Creative Writing competition that invites A-Level students to write an Edna Welthorpe letter. 'Edna Welthorpe' was the persona that Orton invented to embody the values he abjured - a middle-class, middlebrow, conservative. Through Edna's letters of complaint (or praise), Orton mocks social and sexual convention. 

The Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition is funded by a kind donation from Dame Vivienne Westwood. It runs annually. The deadline for entries next year is 30 June 2021.

You can read the winning and runner-up letters, by Emmy Warr and Josie Thornton respectively, here.

Below, Emmy and Josie talk about their writing processes, their experiences of writing Edna Welthorpe letters, and their success in the Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition 2020. Congratulations to both of them!

By Emmy Warr (winner)

I first heard about the Joe Orton competition through an email from my English teacher, and was immediately drawn to the humorous elements of the character of Edna Welthorpe. 

I’ve always enjoyed Creative Writing and reading satirical pieces, so it was great to have the opportunity to merge the two, as normal school curriculum doesn’t often allow for this kind of comedic writing. I was also drawn to the social commentary aspect of the letters in Edna Welthorpe’s caricatured presentation of social conservatism, which lightheartedly explores the clash between the modern world and outdated viewpoints. 

When it came to my own letter I tried to include these features to best capture the voice of Edna, choosing the subject matter of women’s clothing because it allowed for me to explore generational conflicts on a smaller scale. I also tried to replicate her pomposity and exaggerated outrage to reflect the caricatured nature of Orton’s letters, and the contrast between the mundane content and hyperbolic tone of the writing that is a key feature in his original Edna Welthorpe letters. It was great fun to write in the voice of such an over-the-top character.

Overall I think entering the competition gave me a great outlet to explore satirical writing and an opportunity to discover a hilarious and entertaining character. I was delighted to win and have a new-found confidence in my Creative Writing.

By Josie Thornton (runner-up)

For me, the appeal of Creative Writing is the experience of immersing myself in somebody else’s thoughts. It’s great to explore how people can have such different perspectives on the world that we live in, and it’s interesting to adapt my style of writing to suit each specific voice. Edna Welthorpe is certainly a strong and defined persona. Before I began to write my piece, I read through some of Joe Orton’s original Edna letters, to look at the different issues he was addressing, and also to explore exactly how Orton engineered Edna's distinctly priggish tone. The letters made me smile, and I couldn’t help but hear Edna’s shrill, disapproving voice, dripping with superiority. I could see her tapping away at her typewriter, peering over her glasses, rather pleased with herself as she signed her name, Edna Welthorpe, and of course not to forget the (Mrs), which in itself seemed to speak volumes about her traditional character. 

I decided that my letter was going to be addressed to a grocery delivery service, since at the time when I was writing, towards the beginning of the national lockdown, society was going crazy for stockpiling and booking delivery slots for weeks in advance. I imagined that Edna Welthorpe would get caught up in this flurry of panic-buying, and felt certain that even despite the extreme and trying circumstances, she would still feel the need to voice her concerns, oblivious to the fact that Ocado might have more pressing worries to address than defrosting dauphinoise, during a time of national crisis. 

I’ve loved having a go at imitating Orton’s style, and feel especially proud to celebrate his work since he is from my hometown of Leicester. 

Monday 3 August 2020

Jenny Kane, "The Accidental Author"

From the comfort of her cafe corner in Mid Devon, award-winning author, Jenny Kane, wrote the contemporary women’s fiction and romance novels, Midsummer Dreams at Mill Grange (Aria, 2020), A Cornish Escape (2nd edition, HeadlineAccent, 2020),  A Cornish Wedding (2nd edition, HeadlineAccent, 2020), Romancing Robin Hood (2nd edition, Littwitz Press, 2018),  Another Glass of Champagne (Accent Press, 2016), and Another Cup of Coffee (Accent Press, 2013).

She has also written three novella-length sequels to her Another Cup of ... books: Another Cup of Christmas (Accent Press, 2013), Christmas in the Cotswolds (Accent, 2014), and Christmas at the Castle (Accent, 2016). These three seasonal specials are now available in one boxed set entitled Jenny Kane’s Christmas Collection (Accent, 2016).

Jenny is also the author of quirky children’s picture books There’s a Cow in the Flat (Hushpuppy, 2014) and Ben’s Biscuit Tin (Hushpuppy, 2015)

Under the pen name, Jennifer Ash, Jenny has also written The Folville Chronicles (The Outlaw’s Ransom, The Winter Outlaw, Edward’s Outlaw - published by Littwitz Press), The Power of Three (Spiteful Puppet, 2020) and The Meeting Place (Spiteful Puppet, 2019). She also created four audio scripts for ITV’s popular 1980’s television show, Robin of Sherwood

The Waterford Boy, Mathilda’s Legacy, The Baron’s Daughter, The Meeting Place and Fitzwarren’s Well were released by Spiteful Puppet in 2017/2018/2019/2020. 

Jenny Kane is the writer in residence for Tiverton Costa in Devon. She also co-runs the creative writing business, Imagine. Jenny teaches a wide range of creative writing workshops including her popular ‘Novel in a Year’ course. 

All of Jennifer Ash’s and Jenny Kane’s news can be found at She tweets @JenAshHistory and @JennyKaneAuthor and @Imagine_Writing

The Accidental Author
By Jenny Kane

I am not supposed to be a writer. I ought to be sat in a dusty library somewhere researching medieval manuscripts, or be bent over an excavation, sifting sand to find traces of the Anglo-Saxon diet or Roman coins. Instead, I’m sat in the corner of a café making stuff up.

In 1990 I was lucky enough to take a degree in Archaeology at the University of Leicester – and I loved every minute. (Apart from when I had to write an essay on Marxist symbolism in Archaeology – that is several precious hours of life I will never get back!). Then, on graduation in 1993, I was offered the chance to do some research into my first love - medieval history. I took a part time PhD, comparing the reality of fourteenth-century crime with how crime was perceived in the ballad literature of the period. I focused my study on a family called the Folvilles. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this was the moment I began to accumulate the information and inspiration that was to drive much of my later writing life.

While I researched my PhD, I worked part time in the university library and as an admin assistant in the Attenborough Tower, making the History lecturers cups of tea and doing their photocopying. I had no idea that those two small jobs were helping me to build the skills I needed to be a writer. Not just the ability to write itself – which I learnt from the PhD writing -  but skills of patience and self-discipline required to make you sit down at a desk and write.

I left Leicester, PhD certificate in hand, in 1999. It was to be another six years before I began to write. Although, when I woke up on that life-changing day in 2005, I still had no idea that was what I was going to do. 

After dropping my youngest child at school, I was sat alone in a cafe, eating a large Mars Bar scone and drinking coffee, when an idea for a story arrived in my head. To this day I have no idea where it came from. I knew I had to write the idea down - and I did, on a paper napkin. That story - which was basically pornography – sat in my handbag for weeks before I looked at it again. When I did finally have the courage to type it up, I sent it to a short-story publisher in the States and promptly forgot all about it. Whatever literary itch I’d had, had been scratched. Or so I thought.

Three months later, I had a letter telling me that the story had been accepted for publication and asked if I had any more. 

In that moment I knew I had to write. As I clutched the acceptance letter in my hand, I could feel the certainty of it arrive in my head. I didn’t think I’d be any good at it, and I had no hopes of major success – just a realisation that “being a writer” was something I had to at least try out.

Fifteen years later and, by some miracle, I’m still writing. My writing journey has taken me from a career as erotica author, Kay Jaybee, to romcom author, Jenny Kane, and on to historical crime novelist and audio scriptwriter Jennifer Ash. It is as Jennifer, that all my PhD research finally came into its own. My work on the Folville family now forms a three-part (soon to be four-part) series, called The Folville Chronicles.

Recently, the first in a series of romcoms for Aria, called Midsummer Dreams at Mill Grange (Jenny Kane), was published, as was a Robin of Sherwood audio story for Spiteful Puppet, called Fitzwarren’s Well (Jennifer Ash). 

With two more novels and more scripts commissioned, I’m busier than ever.

I often reflect on my experiences as a student at Leicester in my work - whether it be the research I did in my PhD or my time working in the Attenborough Tower (where I set my romcom, Romancing Robin Hood), the university has had a profound effect on my writing life, for which I will always be grateful.