Wednesday 23 December 2020

Nigel Pantling, "It's Not Personal"

Nigel Pantling has been a soldier, a civil servant and an investment banker, and for the last twenty years has advised chief executives of companies on strategy. He has written about these worlds in two pamphlets, Belfast Finds Log (Shoestring Press, 2014) and Hip Hind Hook (Smith|Doorstop, 2018), which relate the dangers and human frailties he saw as a soldier in Northern Ireland and during the Cold War, and in his first full collection Kingdom Power Glory (Smith|Doorstop, 2016) which lifts the lid on the secret worlds of Whitehall and the City. 

About It’s Not Personal 

It’s Not Personal (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) evokes a life, from childhood in the fifties, through the challenges and eccentricities of the workplace, to the unpredictability of family, love, and death. These are poems concerned with truth; but just as importantly, with what it means to tell a story. You can watch Nigel reading from It's Not Personal at the on-line launch, hosted by Martha Sprackland, in November 2020 here. You can read three poems from the collection below.

From It's Not Personal 

On the Way Home from Choir Practice

He was older and bigger than me, and his punch
was as glorious and unexpected as
when we trebles hit the top A in the Kyrie.
I’d done nothing to deserve that.
Oh my outrage as I named him to the police.
I wanted him tracked down, humiliated, punished.

The doubts took years. Had I provoked him?
Maybe I’d exaggerated my shock and the pain?
His mother, when she came round to apologise,
blaming it all on her being so ill with the cancer:
how had she deserved that? And how had he?
I’d pressed charges: where was the mercy in that?

Something My Girlfriend Said to Me

Do you remember, when you were a boy,
how the chimes of an ice-cream van
could bring on a rush of excitement,
how you struggled with the choice –
a strawberry mivvi, a rocket lolly,
or a 99 with hundreds and thousands –
how different each felt
in your mouth,
on your tongue,
how wonderful
it was to know that
if you chose a mivvi today,
you could still have a 99 tomorrow?
Well that’s how it is with me and men.


Final Interview for MI6


There are five of them this time, seated in a row.
No introductions and no name cards.
They give you a hard time but you keep going.

Then the young woman, surely the most junior
but doing most of the talking, tells you to imagine
you’re in a hostile country, and to choose one of them
to be the local you have to entrap, suborn, entice,
seduce or otherwise persuade to come over.

She gives that look you’ve got wrong before, so you choose
the blimp beside her, and greeting him like an old friend,
commiserate on his child’s poor health, and then pretend
you’ve had him photographed as he takes your gift of cash.

When you arrive home, the offer letter is on the doormat.


Slippery bastard chose me. 'Hello Mikhail, it’s good to see you,
let’s have a beer, and I’m so sorry to hear the baby’s poorly.'
Chummy as you like. Perfectly believable. Of course I just blinked.
Took some time to get to the point, but at last he offered me cash,
for 'medical treatment,' one diplomat to another, no questions asked.
When he mentioned the camera, it could have been me thirty years ago.
I was for saying no. But none of the others had been in the field.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Kevan Manwaring, "Black Box"

Dr Kevan Manwaring is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. He is an alumnus of the University of Leicester, where he completed his PhD in Creative Writing under the supervision of Dr Harry Whitehead in 2018. He also taught Creative Writing at the university. His novel and now audio drama Black Box was written alongside his doctoral research, inspired by interdisciplinary conversations on campus and visits to the National Space Centre. It won the national 'One Giant Write' science fiction manuscript competition in 2016. 

About Black Box

Prize-winning eco-science fiction novel Black Box, by Kevan Manwaring, has been adapted into a gripping audio drama by Alternative Stories and Fake Realities as part of their CliFi season. 

Inspired by the cutting edge research into artificial intelligence and space exploration at the University of Leicester (where Kevan completed his PhD and won various writing commissions) Black Box was written as a ‘side novel’ during his part-time research degree – a break from researching Scottish folklore for his main project. He entered the national Literature Works ‘One Giant Write’ science fiction novel manuscript competition ‘on a whim’ and won it. 

Kevan wrote a draft of Black Box while on writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross, Western Highlands. To research the settings of the novel he visited the National Space Centre, and the biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall. 

Adapting his own opening chapters for the pilot episodes, Kevan has worked closely with sound engineer and Alternative Stories director, Chris Gregory, who recruited and recorded professional British and American actors, and created the soundtrack and soundscape. 

Launched as part of the Alternative Stories CliFi season, Kevan was interviewed about his project in a special feature alongside fellow writer Anna Orridge, whose short story, ‘Backdrop,’ was also adapted. You can listen to the interview here

Black Box is a dark eco-science fiction thriller about the consequences of exploration of the Solar System and beyond. A desperate mission to find water – and the possibility of life – on one of Jupiter’s moons is set against a backdrop of a dying Earth. Kevan says: 'In Black Box, I wanted to look into the abyss, but I also wanted to offer a glimmer of hope. I offer not another bleak dystopian vision of the future, nor a wildly optimistic utopia, but what Atwood terms an "Ustopia" - for one man's heaven is another man's hell.'

You can listen to all three pilot episodes of Black Box here.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Anna Vaught, "Saving Lucia"

Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 saw the publication of Anna's third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose), which has just been longlisted for the Barbellion Prize, and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. She is currently finishing a new novel and working on some non-fiction, while a further novel and second short story collection are on the desk. Anna’s essays, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She is represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agents, in New York City. Her website is here. She is also on Twitter @BookwormVaught and Instagram @bookwormvaught6. 

Anna Vaught will be giving a guest talk and masterclass as part of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester on Wednesday 3 March 2021. If you are interested in attending, please email Jonathan Taylor (jt265[at]le[dot]ac[dot]uk). 

About Saving Lucia

How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, reshaping their pasts and futures as they went, including killing Mussolini? What if one of those people were a fascinating, forgotten aristocratic assassin and the others a fellow life co-patient, James Joyce's daughter Lucia, another the first psychoanalysis patient, known to history simply as 'Anna O,' and finally 19th Century Paris's Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann? That would be extraordinary, wouldn't it? How would it all be possible? Because, as the assassin Lady Violet Gibson would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imaginations.

Saving Lucia explores the last days of the life of the Hon Violet Gibson, would-be assassin of Mussolini. In St Andrew’s Hospital, her lifetime co-patient is Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, and Lucia helps Violet to organise one last and extraordinary adventure, together with two other well-known psychiatric patients, and in the process secure freedom and understanding for herself. Saving Lucia is historical fiction with strong fantastical elements woven in - the journey undertaken is itself a work of prodigious fantasy - plus refrains and rhythms from the works of James Joyce, particularly Finnegans Wake. It is a testimony to the role of the imagination in mental illness and in confinement and its stimulus was the long and difficult experience of its author, who saw these women not as cases, but as heroines. 

Below, you can read the opening page of the novel. 

From Saving Lucia

Violet Albina Gibson, the Honourable, was behind bars, wearing an immaculate black crepe dress, clasping her finest manners and a lovely, lacquered fountain pen, for letters to Churchill and others. She was a criminal because, in April 1926, in Rome, she shot Mussolini. And she was insane with it; an assassin with devotions, prayers and visions. Not a steady-handed murderer, but one that broke apart most untidily and could not be trusted. In prison, in Rome, she threw a chamber pot at her guard and a flower press at a crackbrain; for an Honourable lady, such rude things she said. Then there were the screams and intransigence: strange mystical tantrums. And in 1927, when they put her in the mental hospital, in England, behind those necessary bars, through which you saw a fine vista—oh and the borders were lovely this year! —she would never do a jigsaw or embroidery, when instructed for her own good. Only towards the end of her life would she do one thing they suggested: she agreed to stand outside with the birds and encourage them to feed from her hands. 

Other than that, a hopeless obdurate virago, a strange dotty old girl, mad with religion. And a danger. Or a nuisance. Or both.

Monday 14 December 2020

Congratulations to Jane Simmons!

Congratulations to Jane Simmons, poet and PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, whose poem "Nativity" has just won the Seren Christmas Poetry Competition 2020. You can read her poem on Seren's blog here

Jane Simmons is a former teacher/lecturer who completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Leicester, where her research project is The Poetics and Politics of Motherhood, a practice-led exploration of motherhood through an environmental and political lens, engaging with the theme creatively and as it is treated in contemporary women’s poetry. As a reviewer for The Blue Nib literary magazine, Jane has built a significant publication history of writing about contemporary women’s poetry. A small selection of her own poems appeared in the March 2019 edition of the magazine. Her collection From Darkness into Light – poems inspired by the Book of Kells – was published in 2018. Further poems appeared in the anthology The View from the Steep. She has work forthcoming in Ink, Sweat & Tears. Jane regularly reads and performs her work in the Lincoln area. She won the G. S. Fraser Prize for Poetry in both 2019 and 2020; you can read her winning poems here and here. She recently gave a guest lecture and reading at Leicester University, on the first-year undergraduate module "Introduction to Writing Creatively."

Thursday 10 December 2020

Anne Caldwell, "Alice and the North"

Dr Anne Caldwell is a freelance writer and education specialist, based in West Yorkshire. She has worked for the National Association of Writers in Education, the British Council as their Literature Programme Manager, and currently lectures for the Open University. Her specialism is prose poetry and she is a keen walker. Her poetry has appeared in a range of anthologies and magazines in the UK and internationally. These include The Rialto, Writing Women, The North, Poetry Wales and Stride. Anne has published three collections including Painting the Spiral Staircase (Cinnamon Press, 2016). In 2019, she was co-editor of The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, alongside Oz Hardwick. Some of her prose poems were runners up in The Rialto Pamphlet Competition in 2017. Anne has just been awarded a PhD in Creative Writing, focusing on prose poetry, at the University of Bolton. Her website is here.

About Alice and the North 
Alice and the North (Valley Press 2020) is a sequence of prose poems that form a love-song to the North, its post-industrial landscapes, wild uplands, obsession with weather, seasonal change and awkwardness. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice before her, the lead character shifts and changes as her journey across the North continues; she is at turns playful, sexy, rebellious and adventurous, carving a new identity for the region as she goes. From herring quines to the hidden corners of Manchester, from Lytham St Anne’s to the canals of Congleton, readers are invited to grow up with Alice as she finds her voice – straddling the territory between prose and poetry, exploring the down to earth cadences of everyday speech and the richness of the North’s many idioms and dialects. Alice even finds time to gently tease the 'titans' of Northern poetry, Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage, whose voices have long shaped the poetry-reading public's idea of the North. Now, however, they must step aside and make room for Alice. 

Copies of Alice and the North are available from here. Below, you can read three prose poems from the collection. 

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Bert Flitcroft, "Just Asking"

Bert Flitcroft was born and brought up in Lancashire but now lives in the Midlands. He has three collections of poetry published: Singing Puccini at the Kitchen Sink and Thought-Apples, and recently Just Asking. His work has appeared in a number of national magazines and anthologies. He is a prize-winning poet, has been Poet in Residence at the Southwell Poetry Festival and has performed at a number of national festivals including The Edinburgh International Book Festival. He was Staffordshire Poet Laureate 2015–17 and curated the on-line Staffordshire Poetry Collection. He has worked as resident poet with one of our ‘National Treasures,’ The Wedgwood Collection at the V&A; as resident poet with the prestigious R.I.B.A. exhibition ‘The Road Less Travelled’; and recently as part of the University of Keel project ‘Labelling the Museum.’ His website is here

About Just Asking
As the title suggests, this is a collection in which most of the poems set out to pose a question, either directly or by implication, for the reader to consider in the light of their own experience and feelings. These questions may be about specific situations, or more generally about our own sub-conscious, unspoken attitudes to people, places, events and so on. Bert's poetic voice is clearly evident in the collection but with this in mind there are also poems written in the voices of a range of characters.

From Just Asking

To my friends: just asking…

Some days I have nothing new to say
of consequence. No opinion about the rain,
no forthright view about the latest scandal
or the smell of crusty bread.
But should something startling happen:
an angel threaten to descend
or a best friend lost, or an old love found,
these are surely pearls worth diving for.

We have swum in the same sea for years,
so why, when the water feels deep
do you lapse into awkward silence,
close up your hearts and seal them
as tight as oyster shells?
Why the need to keep a cancer secret,
or treat a shortage of sex as a shame
as if it were a sweet grape
withered to an unspeakable raisin?
Or admit to the heat of unrequited love
that has scorched the heart of all of us?
As if these things were a moral failing
or a sign of weakness.

My life is full of conversations I do not have.
This is a matter of soul.
Some days I might as well be up a mountain
shouting into the ice-blue emptiness,
or in the supermarket buying beer and oranges.

It’s grim...

Have you been, to The North?
They say, up there they have an ugly angel,
a rust-coloured, furnace-welded crucifix
with the wingspan of a stadium,
a man of steel holding up the sky
around the fraying edges of the city.

Like Lear, it seems, he is a challenge
to every storm and bolt of lightning.
And he casts a shadow on our conscience,
yours and mine, they say, like a sin.

Sad, really. I’ve seen a photograph.
They say it is deliberately a shocking sight.
Like celebrating grime, I’d say.
You cannot see love in his eyes,
he has no eyes.
Beauty? It can’t be in his smile,
he has no mouth to smile.

No fallen angel this, they say.
Stand at his feet, they say. Look up
at his thick-ribbed pride,
his barrel chest, the bulging calves,
that muscle out their industrial presence,
as if he is watching over them. As if
he is bolted into the bedrock of their being.
It’s how they stand up in the world,

Thursday 3 December 2020

Chris Westoby, "The Fear Talking"

Chris Westoby is the author of The Fear Talking, published December 2020 by Barbican Press. He is Programme Director of the MA Creative Writing (Online) at the University of Hull. Outside of facing down his own fears in his debut book, Chris is interested in the untold stories of others. He leads a Writing from Life module and has conducted narrative research exploring gendered barriers in higher education and how social media impacts the aftermath of a death by suicide. He believes in the power stories have to improve understanding, practice and the wellbeing of the storyteller.

About The Fear Talking
By Chris Westoby

I'm a thirty-year-old who has had a severe anxiety disorder for my whole life. Growing up, I kept my illness secret, even from my parents. Partly through the shame of the things I thought, the things I was afraid of, my hidden behaviours, but also because it was the 00s and nobody talked about these things. I had no idea what was up with me. That secrecy, confusion, isolation, avoidance is what The Fear Talking is all about.

I know there are others out there who feel as isolated as I did, so I wrote the book I always wish someone had handed me. This is not a book about getting better, or turning my experiences into something positive. There are enough success stories out there. Not everyone does recover, and I want that position to be better represented. The Fear Talking is written in the confused and terrified voice of the sixteen-year-old me who didn't know what the hell was wrong with him. It's a book about breaking through that wall, someone learning about anxiety from the very bottom, learning to communicate it. It's about the damage it causes to others, but also the moments of real connection that come from finally understanding each other.

Below, you can read an excerpt from the memoir. 

From The Fear Talking

‘What’s the matter?’ Mum says. Her voice restrains itself. It’s almost formal. She puts two slices of bread in the toaster and pushes the lever down. Tops her cup of tea up with a little kettle water. Every movement faster and louder than usual. 

‘I couldn’t get on the bus.’ 


‘I didn’t feel well. Still don’t.’ 

‘I’ll have to take you in, then.’ She turns over a jumper that’s drying on the radiator. The toast pops up. I keep my head down until she takes her breakfast through to the lounge, then I tread quietly upstairs. 

For ten minutes I hope she might forget me and just go to work. 

‘Let’s go, then,’ she calls from downstairs. I hear her plate and mug go in the dishwasher. The hollow clop of her shoes marching down the hall. The jingle of her keys. My mind is made up. She can’t seriously think I’ll come down. 

‘Go without me,’ I say from the top of the stairs. ‘I can’t go.’ 

Down by the front door, she looks up at me. Her voice coiled and sharp, her eyes shining. ‘Get your bag and let’s go. I’m going to be late at this rate.’ 

‘Then just go.’ 

She looks around, her head doing little shakes. 

‘I can’t, Mum.’ 

The snap I was waiting for. Her voice raises, ‘Then get changed and get your arse down to that workshop, and at least make a living for yourself if you’re throwing your education away.’ 

I don’t reply. 

Her voice cracks into a high-pitched shout, through pressed teeth. ‘I’m wild!’ 

What an odd thing to say. 

She comes storming up the stairs. I move out the way. 

‘I’ve got one son who avoids me and another who’s deceptive.’ 

She does something in her room and then runs past me, down the stairs again. She’s still shouting as she picks her bag up and makes for the door, but it’s the slight muffle through gritted teeth and the wobble in her voice I hear more than the words. The door bangs in its frame. Through the obscured glass, her Fiesta’s little engine revs like a boy racer’s car as it reverses out the drive. 

I sit on the stairs for a long time.  

What do I do? What the fuck do I do? 

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Peter Thabit Jones, "Garden of Clouds: New and Selected Poems"

The author of fourteen books, several of which have been reprinted and four published in Romania, Peter Thabit Jones's work has been translated into over twenty languages. He is the recipient of the Eric Gregory Award for Poetry (The Society of Authors, London), The Society of Authors Award, The Royal Literary Fund Award, and an Arts Council of Wales Award. He was awarded the Ted Slade Award for Service to Poetry in 2016 by The Poetry Kit (UK), the Shabdaguchha Poetry Award 2017 (USA), and the 2017 Homer: European Medal for Art and Poetry.  

In March 2008 Peter’s American publisher, Stanley H. Barkan, organised a six-week poetry reading tour of America for Peter and Dylan Thomas’s daughter, Aeronwy. 

Peter's chamber opera libretto, Ermesinde’s Long Walk, for Luxembourg composer Albena Petrovic, premiered at the Philarmonie Luxembourg in 2017 and at the National Opera House Stara Zagora in 2018. His full opera libretto for her, with Svetla Georgieva, Love and Jealousy, premiered at the National Opera House Stara Zagora in Bulgaria in 2018, at the Théâtre National Du Luxembourg in 2019 and at the International Festival “Sofia Music Week,” Bulgaria, in September 2020. 

Peter has resided at Big Sur, California, as writer-in-residence for two months each summer from 2010 to 2019.  His drama The Fire in the Wood, about Big Sur sculptor Edmund Kara, premiered at the Actors Studio of Newburyport in Massachusetts in 2017 and at the Henry Miller Library and the Carl Cherry Center in California in 2018. 

You can find further information about his work here.     

About Garden of Clouds: New and Selected Poems
Published by Cross-Cultural Communications, New York, Garden of Clouds: New and Selected Poems comprises some poems published in previous books by Peter Thabit Jones and a larger group of new poems. There are poems about a boy raised by his maternal grandparents in a working-class home below Kilvey Hill in Eastside Swansea, Wales; poems about dementia, autism, widowhood, and favourite poets (such as Rilke, Edward Thomas, R. S. Thomas, and Dylan Thomas); poems about a Welsh town busker, an Elvis Lookalikes competition, participating in an outside poetry reading in Belgrade, Serbia, and trips to the Mojave Desert and the Grand Canyon; poems about human conflict, such as the poems ‘War Child’ and ‘Soliloquy of a Leader,’ and personal loss and grief for the poet’s second son, Mathew. There is also a selection of poems about Big Sur, California, where the poet has resided annually for two months as a writer-in-residence since 2010. 

The Big Sur poems are new poems, not included in his previous book, Poems From A Cabin on Big Sur (also from Cross-Cultural Communications). The poems engage with the rugged and wild beauty of the landscape that spreads all around the isolated writer’s cabin. The cabin is a fifteen-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean, which can be viewed in all its glory from the main cabin window. The lament of the ocean is the ever-present aural backdrop to the chosen solitude.

Below, you can read three poems from Garden of Clouds: New and Selected Poems.


Stones take to each other naturally,
Like a family of sleeping creatures,

The large ones accommodate little ones,
To create a colony of hardness;

They rest in centuries of stark stillness;
They are elephant-heavy to lush grass.

Their colours employ the afternoon sun;
They are as warm as loaves from an oven.

Each one embodies its personal death;
They are cobbled memories of the sea;

They are the solid language of labour:
Each one weathered to a perfect image.

They rest, innocent of their history,
Like a grey display of featureless skulls.

They have tasted our sweat and absorbed our blood.
They rise and fall, symbols of man’s conscience.

Their persistence has sculptured their silence;
They hint that their souls haunt other planets.

They are magnets for our primitive thoughts;
They are the armour of truths beyond us.

They shape our built fears of an afterlife,
They could tempt us into acts of worship.

War Child

He is already a hundred years old.                               
Barely nine, his eyes slowly drown                                 

In his sudden tears as his brown fingers                       
Tremble below the wound of his lips.                              

His thoughts walk through the dust memories             
Of destruction, the bomb-collapsed                                  

Building where his parents, three brothers                    
And his two sisters were killed.                                           
He is alone in the world.  Alone with his fears.               
His small bag of experiences is already full.

The Western reporter and cameraman                              
Will go back to their hotel and stitch together                  

Yet another war story, while the boy will wander            
His devastated city, where horror                                         

Is piled on horror, where planes scratch                                
The night sky and break up the morning.                              

He shakes his dark head, he is lost for words,                       
As his eyes stare through the flesh                                            

Of so-called civilization                                                                 
To the foul and bloodied bones of reality.         

Edward Thomas in Swansea

You brought your troubles
With you: the almost-empty
Pockets of your poverty;
The tarnished wedding-ring

Of your worn love for Helen;
The mind’s shelves of commissioned
Books far too many.
It’s said you looked down

At Lower Swansea Valley,
The hell-smouldering
Far sprawl of tall
Choking factories.

Was your mind a mess,
A trench of dark thoughts
That stretched away
From reality.

The jigsaw of Europe
Was breaking apart,
Young men queuing
To wear the King’s khaki.

You returned to England,
To your nest of worries‒
The sparks of the war
Burning possibilities‒

Then Robert Frost coaxed
Your mind towards poetry.