Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Zoe Brooks, "Fool's Paradise"

After living in London for fifteen years Zoe Brooks returned to her native Gloucestershire to write and grow vegetables. Her collection Owl Unbound was published by Indigo Dreams in 2020. Her long poem for voices Fool’s Paradise is published by Black Eyes Publishing in May 2022. 

For fifteen years, Zoe divided her time between the UK and the Czech Republic, where she lived in a farmhouse under the shadow of the forest in the edge of the Sumava Mountains. Her blog Adventures in the Czech Republic recounts her time there and her love of that country. 

Zoe is a member of the management team for Cheltenham Poetry Festival. She set up and runs the Poetry Events in UK & Ireland Facebook group and enjoys performing poetry.

About Fool’s Paradise

This book-length mystical poem for voices was written following a visit to Prague immediately after the Velvet Revolution, a time which Zoe describes in her blog Adventures in the Czech Republic:

"... My friend was renewing old acquaintances and exploring business opportunities and so I just took the opportunity in her absence to explore and soak in the atmosphere, and what an atmosphere it was. It is now hard to explain what it felt like back in early 1990. I had no guidebook and instead just walked, following my instinct, often going over the same ground time and again. I was completely breathless with the beauty of the place and felt the city's history – both glorious and sad – reaching out to me from alleyways and courtyards, through the railings of the Jewish quarter and from the facades of once rich buildings. Now the visitor finds the route from Charles Bridge to Town Square lined with hawkers, shops crammed with souvenirs and frankly often tat; then it was quiet and powerful. The statues on Charles Bridge stood alone and silent, without the accompanying flash of cameras and chatter of posing tourists.

"On a number of occasions and at a number of places I came across small shrines of candles and flowers, set up to those who had been murdered by the oppressors. In Wenceslas Square there was a large makeshift memorial to Jan Palach – the student who had burnt himself to death in 1968 as a protest against the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring. Here there was a constant stream of people bringing flowers and lighting candles. It all felt hugely personal. I felt a voyeur watching the people's bowed heads. How could I comprehend what I was seeing? How could I share anything of the emotion that hung like incense in the air? And I was angered by other non-Czech visitors who stood around and took photos of it all.

"I regularly made my way back to the lights and warmth of Cafe Slavia either to meet up with my friend or to drink black Czech coffee and eat the Cafe's rich cakes. Energy and wits refreshed, I would then venture back on to the streets. I do not know whether it was the caffeine or the intensity of emotion in Prague at that time, but I increasingly found myself unable to sleep. In that heightened state I found angels everywhere – statues, in frescos, in pictures. I sensed too a presence in the air: the angels of Prague were weeping and rejoicing."

The poem that followed may have been inspired by that visit. It is not, however, about Prague. The city is in some ways a fusion of Prague and Istanbul, where Zoe had had another inspiring experience. 

The Czech friend who features in Zoe's blog and who introduced Zoe to the Czech Republic was Hannah Kodicek. Hannah, who died in April 2011, was a multi-talented writer, actor and artist. In the latter part of her life she was a story editor – working on the Oscar-winning film The Counterfeiters and advising on Danny Scheinmann's Random Acts of Heroic Love. The monoprints used in this book were created by drawing with acrylic paints on glass and were created in response to the poem. For more about Hannah's life and work see here. To see more about Fool's Paradise by Zoe Brooks, see here. Below, you can read an excerpt from the work. Please click on the individual pages to read them. 

From Fool's Paradise, by Zoe Brooks

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Laura Sygrove, "Three Poems"

Laura Sygrove is a recent graduate of the Creative Writing MA programme at the University of Leicester. She loves mythology and folklore, horror games and graphic novels, and is currently looking to break into the publishing industry. Her poem ‘IC-4593’ was published on NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory blog in 2021. You can read it here

Below, you can read three poems by Laura. 

About My Poems, by Laura Sygrove

These poems are taken from my MA Dissertation, a creative study on the effects of consumerism, and rooted in my experience working in retail and customer service. Consumerism as a system is built upon the backs of the working class – many of us actively participating in the exploitation of others through no fault of our own. Purchasing consumer goods or services in the market is unavoidable, and arguably essential in sustaining a happy and healthy lifestyle under capitalism. 

With these ideas in mind, ‘A Supermarket in Connacht,’ ‘SCO-117,’ and ‘Wood Wide Web’ were composed as short allegories, exploring themes of hospitality, greed and excess, autonomy and compassion. ‘A Supermarket in Connacht’ details the downfall of an ancient Irish warrior-Queen, whilst likening a trip to the grocery store to a kind of spiritual experience (one often encompassed by the phrase ‘retail therapy’); ‘Wood Wide Web’ conveys the idea that we, as consumers, are led, as opposed to being well-informed and in control; while ‘SCO-117’ addresses the role of machinery and technology in the workplace, displacing blame and responsibility onto inanimate objects. 

A Supermarket in Connacht

     I’m a regular at the Empyrean – 
The ollmhargadh down the road –
     I burn as six-wingéd seraphim
clothe my feet, mouth, and nose.

     Like Queen Medb, ruthless
And revered by all – 
     Risk it for that prized stud,
Stand by as men brawl;
     Raise babe and army 
As far as Donegal.

     Home is Éire – 
Where open-air
              spirits roam;
                                  Trace the gibbous moon         
by the cruel light of day,
      Waning       at the summit of Cnoc na Ré – 

I am equal to him if I possess equal fortune.

     Sip black coffee with syrups
And shop-bought jams;
     Climb man-made cairns,
Fall prey to internet scams […]

     You crazy babe, Bathsheba  – 
Indulgent in earthly riches – 
     Suckle forbidden faery fruits,
Rotting figs in pale juices;

     Pinch the flesh 
from fuzzy skins,      Savour pulp fiction 
And trashy magazines;
     Reality TV on livestream.

     Swim out from Galway Bay
to Love Island,
     Make haste and mate
Atop the Celtic moors;

     Pull me aside for a chat – 
Avenge my sister, 
Tit for tat;
     I am felled by a piece of cheese.


           Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings?
    - Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

     I have as much sovereignty as you – 
As much jurisdiction, and as much purpose!
I am a pillar of industry – 
     What have you to contribute?

I am phenomenal 
     Qualia of consciousness;
Saunter supermarket aisles 
with Psyche, my Soul – 
     A spectre chained to an endless present.

I am fleshless, full-bodied;
Sinewy nuts and bolts – 
     A tightening in my chest 
as you tinker and tarnish.

“Do you wish to continue?”

I only accept card payments, sir – 
Do not burden me further with loose change/  
                                                                    mere pittance. 
You’re all the same!
     You push my buttons,     finger 
                                             my slots,
     Play with parts of me you shouldn’t touch.

~ please insert absolutely nothing here ~

I am the future.
     I insist:     You cannot continue.

Wood Wide Web

          Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, 
          For thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
- Hebrews 13:2

     Droplets of atropa belladonna 
on eyelids – Emerald iris          
infused with ink black,     And blinded –     
     In anguish, think of me;
Seek sanctuary.
     Surf mycorrhizal markets,
fungal fibres laced with lipids –     Sidestep symbiosis 
                                  and slurp the sugared soil.    
     Stop, thief! – Translucent tears 
do wilting flowers weep;
(Ne parles pas, parasitic ghost pipe! – 
     Undead snowdrop! – Feign sleep!)
With bated breath, and tree roots 
                                           Feel your way – 
                           Hack mycelial networks and infiltrate
the mainframe.

    Brainless mould – More bold than I – 
Traverse the showroom floor with ease – 
     Ankles swathed in yarn-like shackles;
To loosen, soak the knots in LSD.

With tentacles that sift and tend
     to self-service warehouse,     Descend – 

Confide in slime to reach the labyrinth’s end.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Nina Walker, "Blooming"

Nina Walker is a third-year student and Leicester University. She enjoys writing, rug making and Ray Bradbury’s short stories. She’s been writing poetry since she was sixteen when the only person reading it was her mum. The dream is to be published eventually. 

Nina performed the following poem at the Creative Writing Student Showcase at Literary Leicester in March, 2022. 

About the poem 'Blooming,' by Nina Walker

The following poem was inspired in part by my paternal grandmother Wendy Walker, who worked in the hosier industry that was huge in the Midlands, as well as an article I read about the disgustingly long waiting list for people in this country needing cancer treatment. Since my grandma died of cancer during 2020 the two seemed thematically close. I wanted to try and get across the sense of loss I feel when I think about my grandma and the industry she used to work in. 'Blooming' is part of a larger collection I hope to publish about England’s past and how it affects our understanding of the present, as well as how we can come to love such a deeply troubled country.


The alley behind Debenhams sells discount granny bras 
And I want to cut off my hair
Watch the threads slip down the drain
One by one

I keep reading about our collapse
Makes me sick, stomach full of all this bile
So I eat cleaner

But I still feel rotten, soft like a pear gone brown in the middle
Soft like the skin round a lump
Growing plump
In the glands in my chest
An anxious spasm

The city is not our friend
Doesn’t recall our names like a bad teacher
Fumbles with our futures like a bleeding pen
Blubbering like the lady behind Debenhams 
Or on the market 
With her cheap elastic bloomers 
When I’ve lost my job and my hair
I hope she’s the only millionaire 

Something about these people with their day jobs and money makes me feel faker than tan.
I can’t carve away at the pain we’re all stuck to like plump blue bottles
Can’t make work mean more than pennies counted
Can’t remove the tumours

We work till our fingers can’t pick out the stitching anymore 

Till they’ve worn us out like Primark trainers 

My grandma worked with her hands 
Just like the woman did
But a tumour took my nan and a tumour is taking the woman too
But it's not in her body
So I can’t cut it out

The tumour is barren 
Stripped us of our tools 
Left us arthritic 
So we send our projects abroad to children with quick fingers 
Blank eyes

Your nan will live
Or not
They don’t really care if she makes a living 

Never mind the back alleys and soft flesh, it’s our conscience we should be searching.
If this country was a dog I’d shoot it out of mercy.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Jonathan Wilkins, "Utrecht Snow"

About Jonathan Wilkins, by himself

I am sixty-six. I have a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons; I love to write. I am a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstone's bookseller, and former Basketball Coach. I taught for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously.

Up until Covid, I regularly taught Creative Writing workshops in and around Leicester and also via zoom. I currently take notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University.

I have always loved books and reading, but nine years at Waterstone’s nearly put paid to that!

I’ve had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council, and had several non-fiction pieces published traditionally as well as fiction online. I have had some of my work placed in magazines and anthologies and also exhibited in art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station Waiting Room. I have my writing on various blogs. I love writing poetry.

I enjoy presenting papers at Crime Fiction conferences. It keeps my mind active through the research process and is a great way to meet new people and gain fresh ideas for writing.

As well as my Utrecht Murders Trilogy, I am writing a crime series set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s. 

My website is here

About Utrecht Snow, by Jonathan Wilkins

In Utrecht Snow, a crime novel initially written as my MA Creative Writing dissertation, we meet widow Caes Heda, Hoofdinspecteur at Kroonstraat police station, and his daughter Truus, a student at the local University. Caes is head of crime whilst his daughter is fed up with her studies and links up with private investigator Thijs Orman. Girls go missing from Utrecht and the police and Truus investigate kidnapping and murder. This is the first of a trilogy set in the beautiful city of Utrecht.

From Utrecht Snow

Caes Heda was normally about six foot two inches tall; but today he was hunched up against the cold and felt like a goblin, at half his normal size. He shivered yet again and breathed out the cold air, imagining it freezing on his neatly trimmed beard and moustache.

Caes could just see the Gothic Dom Bell Tower outlined against the grey morning sky. It was towering above everything, and it made him smile. Even as the snow feathered down it was still the centre of their universe. It watched over Utrecht from a height of what, over one hundred and ten metres, and could more or less be seen in Utrecht from wherever anyone stood, whatever the weather. True, it was a bit faint today, covered as it was in snow. No melting due to no heat leaving the building, the Dom was always cold, always frozen, it mirrored how he felt. Cold and alone, he just wanted to be alone. All of a sudden, Caes just didn’t fancy going to work. He just wanted some peace and quiet and to be left on his own, to wallow in his sudden misery.

Unfortunately, all his defence mechanisms didn’t stop the woman from sitting next to him - well, almost sitting on him in fact, as the bus picked up from Bleekstreet. She wedged Caes against the window and started talking to herself, or was it to him? He opened his left eye and taking a closer look, saw what it was. Dirty faux fur coat and then the sickly smell of snowy dampness and then, yes it was urine. Caes had to start breathing through his mouth to try to avoid the smell. He couldn’t get his arm away from her; he was stuck and she muttered on, words incomprehensible to him, Greek? Russian? He couldn’t tell, maybe it wasn’t a language at all; he was suddenly too tired to think. The half hour it took the bus to get to his office on Kroonstraat was a torment, where had she arrived from? He’d never seen her before on this route, though to be honest he did spend most of his journeys to work with his eyes closed.

It was such a welcome relief when she stood and got off the bus. Her smell, though, was hanging in the air. He hoped it wouldn’t hang on his clothes. The pressure on him at last relented as she moved; typical, it was also his stop. She shambled to the exit. Caes followed the smell.

He got off and found himself trailing the woman as she shuffled across the road and through the snow. Her muttering increased, talking to no one but everyone. People avoided her, even in the snow they could see her and they must have thought she was mad. She was going his way; in fact, she was going all the way. She entered the Bureau at Kroonstraat. Caes followed.

Caes Heda was Hoofdinspecteur in Utrecht. Thirty-nine and in charge of Crime at Kroonstraat Police Bureau, not committing it obviously, but tidying up after it had been committed. If he could catch them great, but he felt there was not much chance of stopping them all. It was a full-time job!

He did enjoy it, though, it was a bit like a game, but he was never sure who was winning. They had success and then the criminals had a win. They locked some up, but more and more were getting community service and prisons were closing due to lack of customers. He had always thought that saving money this way was a false economy as there seemed no deterrent anymore, but there again, he was but a simple policeman.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Ian Pople, "Spillway: New and Selected Poems"


Ian Pople, photograph by Mark Epstein

Ian Pople was born in Ipswich and educated at the British Council, Athens, and the universities of Aston, Manchester and Nottingham. He has taught English in secondary and higher education in UK, Sudan, Greece and Saudi Arabia. He taught at the University of Manchester for over twenty years. 

About Spillway: New and Selected Poems, by Ian Pople

Ian Pople is a man of the world. He has travelled and taught in the UK, Greece, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. His poems explore England, the larger world, and how changing perspectives readjust the sense of England and home. They deal with borders, crossings, closing boundaries. They are about transitions in space and time, the ways life and relationships change and adapt to illness, love, estrangement and loss.

The traveller changes identities as he moves, responding to different surroundings, and the early poems collected here provide a varied retrospect, moving through Africa, Europe and Asia – so that we read the more recent work from a different perspective. The travel poems explore the range of reactions, appropriations and misappropriations as physical and psychological boundaries are crossed. More recent writing responds to music and the visual arts, using assemblages or bricolage to convey the painfully familiar experience of displacement, dislocation. There are poems that answer back to figures from jazz history, Roland Kirk, Dupree Bolton and Pat Metheny among them. It is wonderful to encounter such an accomplished and varied a body of work which shares with us its vivid spaces and tones. Pople, one of the most lucid critics of modern and contemporary—especially American—poetry, is an original artist in his own right.

You can read more about Spillway on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read a sample poem from the collection. 

From Spillway: New and Selected Poems, by Ian Pople

The Aerodrome

This is rain in the Home Counties.
It falls on station platforms, on bicycle

helmets, on magpies that strut
on the grass, among the crows that spool

from the tops of trees, and winter
wheat as it appears in the field,

the field corner with its weed and rubbish.
It is raining from the corner all the way

to the horizon, to where the ‘no’
is divided from the ‘yes’; and beyond

to that transfiguration, and to you,
old aerodrome among fields, runways

among grass, broken frames, Nissen huts
that rust among the silver birches.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Amanda Jennings, "The Haven"

Amanda Jennings is the author of six psychological dramas and short stories, published both in the UK and abroad. Her debut, Sworn Secret, topped the Italian bestseller list, and was a UK kindle Top 5 bestseller, while In Her Wake was a W. H. Smith Fresh Talent pick. The Judas Scar, her second book, was optioned and is due to be rereleased later this year with HarperCollins. Her books are set in Cornwall, where her family originates and where her heart lies. The Haven came out in March this year in hardback, ebook and audio, with the paperback due out next spring. The Financial Times called it 'hypnotic,' while Lisa Jewell said it has 'spine-tingling ending that will take your breath away.' Amanda and her husband have three daughters and live in Oxfordshire with a menagerie of animals. Her website is here.

About The Haven, by Amanda Jennings

Winterfall Farm, spectacular and remote, stands over Bodmin Moor. Wanting an escape from the constraints of conventional life, Kit and Tara move to the isolated smallholding with their daughter, Skye, and a group of friends. Living off-grid and working the land, they soon begin to enjoy the fruits of their labour amid the breathtaking beauty and freedom of the moor.

At first this new way of life seems too good to be true, but when their charismatic leader, Jeremy, returns from a mysterious trip to the city with Dani, a young runaway, fractures begin to appear. As winter approaches, and with it cold weather and dark nights, Jeremy's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. Rules are imposed, the outside world is shunned, and when he brings a second girl back to the farm, tensions quickly reach breaking point with devastating consequences ... 

From The Haven

They lie together, limbs entwined, her body warm against his, his arms looped around her, their breathing synchronised. Somewhere outside an owl hoots. The dog responds with a half-hearted bark then the house stills. The silence is so loud it rings in his ears. He didn’t realise how much he’d missed this stillness until now. When he was a child he’d often creep out of the house at night. He’d lie in the rowing boat moored on the lake or hide in the soft grass in the fields, and stare up at the stars, a billion balls of fire a billion miles away, and imagine he lived on one. This place, this farm, is one of those stars. A new world. Somewhere they can be free. Somewhere he can build a home for his family.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Sarah James, "Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic"

Sarah James is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer, also published as Sarah Leavesley. Her poetry has featured in the Guardian, Financial Times and Poems of the Decade 2011-2020: An Anthology of the Forward Books of Poetry 2011-2020, as well as in a café mural, on the BBC, on buses and in the Blackpool Illuminations. She is the author of eight poetry titles, an Arts Council England-funded multimedia hypertext poetry narrative > Room, two novellas and a touring poetry-play. Winner of the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2020, the manuscript for Sarah’s latest collection Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic (Verve Poetry Press 2022) won the CP Aware Award Prize for Poetry 2021. In her spare time, Sarah is a keen walker, cyclist and swimmer, especially enjoying nature outdoors. Meanwhile, her spare room is home to V. Press, publishing award-winning poetry and flash fiction. Her website is here.

About Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic

Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic is award-winning poet Sarah James’s exploration of forty years living with type one diabetes, a life-threatening autoimmune condition that is now treatable, but remains incurable. The collection tracks her personal journey from diagnosis, age six, to adulthood, including the high and the low points, as well as the further long-term health risks lurking in the background. These are poems of pain, but also of love and beauty, taking in motherhood, family, nature, aging and establishing self-identity in a constantly updating world. The route to some kind of acceptance and belonging may be troubled by ‘trying to escape’ but it also ‘holds / more light than your eye / will ever know.’ The manuscript for Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic won the CP Aware Award Prize for Poetry 2021 and the collection is available from Verve Poetry Press here.

From Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic, by Sarah James

Thick-skinned, Thin-fleshed

on diabetes type 1

In the old young days: piss
          on diastix, and a glass syringe
twice the length of my palm.

On the children’s ward, I practised
          on thick oranges. Pushing a needle
through the fruit’s peel was so

unlike the ice-cold sting
          of pressing it through my own
thin-fleshed skin, the weight

of glass in my hand, pushing
          the plunger home. This sterilised
in my mum’s special saucepan,

while I played houses, and childhood.
          Later, lighter plastic for injections,
then a cannula and pump.

Blood tests now, for precision.
          Fingertips pricked to a scarred
numbness. For thirty-five years,

the red of life with a glint of steel.
          Each needle’s point etches
my mind; my body’s rubbed hard

by time. I carry the condition’s
          sharp sweetness in my blood;
its other daily stabs as invisible

as genetics. My fingers are a scabby
          black braille of blood-test marks,
and the smell of man-made insulin.

This wet dependence is survival.


He starts with a well-placed breath,
hint of a tingle blown gently
across the nape of my neck.

And again. I am a mouth-organ
with many quivering reeds;
silent vibrations amplify inside.

One by one, he un-hooks each bone
of my spine, lower, lower,
and still no lip-touch, no kisses, not

a single brush of finger on skin,
but oh, the soft rush of air,
the slow – fast, fast – slow press

of his presence. I breathe
seduction in.

Along the Edge

Living beside the canal towpath, every day brings doorstep birdsong, frogs and the water’s glisten, pulling me closer.

Moorhens snip the surface; a swan ruffles up a lace dress with her feather-stitched wake towards her reed-moored nest. Shimmering light hides the fast paddling beneath, the deeper flit of fish, and other sunken secrets – rusted metal re-sculpted by weed.

This evening, the hedgerow is a chorus of bird chatter and May blossom. Snazzy bulrushes and tall grasses sway to the late hours’ slow jazz.

As I watch from the footbridge, the sun’s touch warms my skin: a thin layer of amber silks across everything still within the day’s reach.

Here, I’ve no need for frog-princes – the canal carries my love without spilling.

Before night seals over, time skips a single heartbeat. It’s just long enough for me to lift my arms like wings, and dream the ease of quiet flight: rising as high as a whooper swan, looping and curving with the water, but always returning to this, my reed-moored home.

                                                                                     sleep is a ripple
                                                                                     of unseen breaths; a lone owl
                                                                                     hoots through the darkness

Saturday, 30 April 2022

Kathy Pimlott, "the small manoeuvres"


Kathy Pimlott was born and raised in Nottingham but has spent the last 45+ years living and working in Covent Garden, specifically Seven Dials, home of the broadsheet and the ballad. Her debut full collection, the small manoeuvres, was published by Verve Poetry Press in April 2022. She has two pamphlets with The Emma Press, Elastic Glue (2019) and Goose Fair Night (2016), and her poems are published widely in magazines and anthologies. Her poem ‘Closeups in Lockdown’ was one of just 20 chosen for inclusion in the Poetry Archive’s Now! Wordview 2020 Collection. Kathy has been a social worker and community activist, worked on a political and financial risk journal, in arts television and artist development. She currently earns her living as the administrator of a community-led charitable trust.

About the small manoeuvres 

In this, her first full collection, Pimlott slips her arm through ours and draws us in with her deceptively easy and intimate address, separating out the threads that make us – history, class, education, family, work, friendships – to examine 'the small manoeuvres that trundle us over the drop and on.' She weaves back and forwards through a lifetime with a mordant humour laced with tenderness. Fine-tuned to the oddness and beauty of the ordinary, she celebrates them with a relish for the deliciousness of language. There are mice, possible lions, natty Soho dogs, poison, georgette and a mermaid, apples, temples and gentrification, sticky carpets, vegan Bratwurst and aqueducts – something for everyone in this unsettling dance through time, characters and place.   

From the small manoeuvres, by Kathy Pimlott

Return to the Terminus

Too often now I sway into the night,  
that cosy winter dark between tea and
the turning out of pubs and cinemas, 
a late traveller fogging a rattling bus. 
See me on the upper deck with the dogs 
and other coughers, taken up with smoking 
in that sophisticated way, dragon-nostrils. 

I shouldn’t keep going back, am already yellow 
beyond scrubbing. These comfortable excursions
just won’t do while all the while life howls 
for attention. Last year a clever man I knew 
a bit courted a death he didn’t believe in. 
Visiting, face it, out of a desire to be blessed,
by happenstance I was invited into the scan,

into the intimacy of his scarred insides, 
to witness a death sentence, 90% sure, but, ah, 
that golden 10. First question: can I still 
have a drink? He died, swollen, in a hard clutch. 
And now this other man, mine, heads that way too. 
But anyhow, look, here comes the whipsmart clippie 
machine grazing her hip, its crank and buttons 

primed for pernickety fares. Only she commands
the bell: one for stop, two sharp dings for go. 
If I don’t tell you, how will you ever know about 
that bronco ride of side benches, the fear of slipping 
right off the bus as the driver speeds, skips stops, reckless 
on corners, to the end of his shift? It’s late, so join me, 
grip the pole, lean out into those bright, melancholy lights.

The Grand Union Canal Adventure

We three old girls, fractured 
by the usual losses, aren’t mended 
Japanese-style with precious seams 
that make each fissure sing,
but rivetted: serviceable, not art.

To prove our mettle, we choose 
to chug along the old Grand Union,
moor by fields of roosting geese 
to sway in darkness on the water’s 
shallow, dreamless shift.
Forty feet above the Ouse, I’m left.
The others go below to show me 
I can, despite my doubts, skipper us
along the strait way of the aqueduct, 
not falter, step back into empty air 

down into the river’s wilder waters. 
On a narrow boat there’s no choice
but to make the small manoeuvres 
that trundle us over the drop and on, 
now and again to know the satisfaction 

of a perfect approach to a bend. 
Shins bruised, knuckles scraped raw, 
we tie up, step ashore to climb the hill
up to the Peace Pagoda, so golden, 
so unlikely, outside Milton Keynes.

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Sophie Haydock, "The Flames"


Sophie Haydock is an award-winning author living in east London. Her debut novel, The Flames, is about the four muses who posed for the artist Egon Schiele in Vienna more than 100 years ago. She is the winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers. 

Sophie trained as a journalist at City University, London, and has worked at the Sunday Times Magazine, Tatler and BBC Three, as well as freelancing for publications including the Financial Times, Guardian Weekend, Arts Council, Royal Academy and Sotheby’s.

She has interviewed leading authors, including Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Bernardine Evaristo, Sally Rooney and Amy Tan. Passionate about short stories, Sophie also works as a digital editor for the Sunday Times Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory. She judges writing competitions and hosts her own short story club.

Her Instagram account @egonschieleswomen – dedicated to the women who posed for Egon Schiele – has a community of over 115,000 followers. For more, visit her website here

About The Flames, by Sophie Haydock

Vienna at the dawn of the 20th century. An opulent, extravagant city teeming with art, music and radical ideas. A place where the social elite attend glamorous balls in the city’s palaces whilst young intellectuals decry the empire across the tables of crowded cafes. It is a city where anything seems possible – if you are a man. 

Edith and Adele are sisters, the daughters of a wealthy bourgeois industrialist. They are expected to follow the rules, to marry well, and produce children. Gertrude is in thrall to her flamboyant older brother. Marked by a traumatic childhood, she envies the freedom he so readily commands. Vally was born into poverty but is making her way in the world as a model for the eminent artist Gustav Klimt. 

None of these women is quite what they seem. Fierce, passionate and determined, they want to defy convention and forge their own path. But their lives are set on a collision course when they become entangled with the controversial young artist Egon Schiele whose work – and private life – are sending shockwaves through Vienna’s elite. All it will take is a single act of betrayal to change everything for them all. Because just as a flame has the power to mesmerize, it can also destroy everything in its path …

From The Flames

Then Edith experiences the tipping point – a moment of balance before the descent – the sensation manifesting itself first in her belly. She puts her hand to her stomach, desperate, scared that somehow the baby is in danger, that it is all her fault. Why is she being so reckless? 

She remembers, then, that she has been pushed to the edge by the people she loves most.

It takes less than half an hour for the wheel to complete its circuit. In that time, she has thought of death and love, of blood and betrayal, and where her loyalties lie.

Who can we trust in this world? Edith still hasn’t a clue.

She begins walking again. Where else can she go? She feels as if she were a homeless rambler, one of these unfortunate types who have frittered everything away and must wander the streets, with no chance of redemption or return. She is sure she’s mistaken for such a figure too, grubby as she has become, shivering and shaking. She warms her belly, thinking only of the baby, of its emerging limbs and eyes closed against the darkness inside her.

Edith approaches the market. Stalls are closing up for the evening, men and boys packing away the produce, piling up crates. She runs her hands over wrinkled fruit and meagre vegetables, the prices sky-high.

‘One for a pretty girl, down on her luck,’ a man says, putting his hand beneath his stall and pulling out an orange. He holds it out and she is transfixed. Edith sits down. He produces a knife to peel it. She’s so empty, and the juice is so sweet. It’s rare.

As she is leaving, she touches a stack of tall, brittle firewood, the only type that can be sourced during this sad war, and imagines the flames that will consume it, given time. They promise so much: life-giving warmth, and destruction. A line that is so terribly fine.

Monday, 25 April 2022

Robert Graham, "The Former Boy Wonder"

Robert Graham is the author of the novel Holy Joe; the short story collections The Only Living Boy and When You Were a Mod, I Was A Rocker; and the novella A Man Walks Into A Kitchen. His play about fans of The Smiths, If You Have Five Seconds To Spare, was staged by Contact Theatre, Manchester. He is co-author, with Keith Baty, of Elvis – The Novel, a spoof biography; and, with Julie Armstrong, Heather Leach, Helen Newall et al, of The Road To Somewhere: A Creative Writing CompanionEverything You Always Wanted to Know About Creative Writing, and How To Write A Short Story (And Think About It). He grew up in Northern Ireland and for most of his adult life has lived in Manchester. He teaches Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. For more information please see his website here and follow Robert on Instagram @robert55graham. 

Below, you can read more about his new novel, The Former Boy Wonder, published in 2022 by Valley Press. 

About The Former Boy Wonder, by Robert Graham

My novel offers an insight into the way a man’s mind and heart works – not always with great wisdom. Mid-life crisis men who, failing on many levels, seek comfort in chasing after the ghost of their first love cause a lot of pain to the women who live with them. These men are also ridiculous. Because many have experienced it, this theme may appeal to women readers. It may also appeal to men who are having a similar mid-life crisis. 

Peter, the protagonist, is a romantic who is also needy and a bit of an idiot. The novel leans towards the side of the women in it, but at the same time, Peter is funny and has a fair degree of charm. So many readers won’t like his behaviour, but they may end up on his side – even though they will know he is heading towards a self-inflicted disaster. 

Peter’s attitudes and behaviour are not uncommon in mid-life men. Research shows that men often romanticise their first loves in a way that women don’t. To that degree, he may resonate with both female and male readers. Some will have experienced what happens when the dying of the light causes them to make foolish decisions while others may relate to frustrations and temptations my protagonist experiences in the course of the novel.

From The Former Boy Wonder

I was a romantic boy, looking for some whispered mystery, hungering for wonder. In my teens, I had a flickering dream about the fabulous girl who would someday appear. I would see her and recognise her, and life would finally begin. For years before this dream, though, I believed I lived under an evil spell. I had been the little prince, the apple of my father’s eye, and then he left. The little prince had lost his kingdom; he had been a happy little boy before it all went wrong. By the time I went to college, my circumstances had primed me to be rescued, reborn once I met this fabulous girl. She would appear before me, I would be hit by a bolt of lightning, fall for her in a heartbeat. That was the dream.

Manchester was bigger and more exciting than Belfast, any day. I arrived at the Poly and entered a new universe. In Manchester, nobody blew up bus stations and people didn’t shoot each other. Over here, it was safe to go out and have fun. British bands, the ones I listened to and read about pretty much never came to Belfast. The only gig in town was Rory Gallagher, who played the Ulster Hall at least once a year and swept audiences away, but that wasn’t much compensation for living in a musical ghost town. Yes, British bands who would risk their necks to come over were as rare as a solar eclipse, but every UK tour came to Manchester. Not many years before, I could have caught Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour at the Hard Rock in Stretford, and a few years before that somebody shouted ‘Judas!’ at Dylan in the Free Trade Hall. This was the place where the magic names in the NME walked off the page and into a venue that was only a bus ride away.

Friday, 8 April 2022

Rebecca Burns, "Kezia & Rosie"


Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014) – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011 and 2020, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project,” a project that showcases transcultural writers in the county.

Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016, followed by: a third short story collection, Artefacts and Other Stories, in 2017; a sequel novel to The Settling Earth, called Beyond the Bay, was published in 2018. Her first novella, Quilaq, was published by Next Chapter in 2020. Kezia and Rosie is her seventh book.

Her website is here, and you can follow her on Twitter at @Bekki66 and on Facebook at Rebecca Burns.

About Kezia & Rosie

When sisters Kezia and Rosie arrive at their grandparents' house in the summer of 1986 they aren’t sure when they’ll see their Mum and Dad again. 

While her younger sister Rosie is content playing on the allotment gate and having picnics in the garden, Kezia begins to realise that things aren’t quite what they seem. While embraced in Granddad and Grandma’s loving care, it's not long before seven-year old Kezia begins to notice strange looks between them, hushed whispers, and secret phone calls. She realises she must step into the frightening adult world if she is to make sense of her parents' troubled marriage.   

Written in beautifully delicate prose, Rebecca Burns' collection of linked short stories explores how a child learns to navigate new familial territory, the heartache of uncertainty, and a growing understanding of what, exactly, real love means.

From Kezia & Rosie, by Rebecca Burns

This is the best part of a weekend breakfast. When they first came to stay, the sight of creamy fat streaked with brown in the dripping pot made Kezia feel sick. It looked like earwax. Rosie point-blank refused to touch it. But even Grandma eats it on toast, so Kezia tried it. She found she liked the coffee-coloured blobs most of all, for they tasted of meat. Grandad puts a plate of toast in front of her and she takes the earthenware pot and smears dripping on top. He watches and nods. 

‘Good lass. That’ll put hairs on your chest.’ 

Another of his sayings, she’s heard it before. She’s supposed to say in return – ‘but I’m a girl’ – and, because it’s her birthday and she doesn’t feel sad, Kezia does. Then a thought occurs and the words are out before she can stop them.

‘Did my mum like beef dripping when she was little?’ 

Grandad pauses over the frying pan. A frown on his face, which he tries to hide. The toast is a brick in Kezia’s mouth. The feeling of heaviness which has clung to her for days, except for this most precious of mornings, slams back into her. 

‘Not really,’ Grandad says eventually. ‘Your Uncle Andy did.’ 

‘What about mushrooms?’ Kezia can’t believe she’s asking more. But, as it’s her birthday, she wonders if Grandad will open up and tell her something about her mother. It’s bright and early and sun streams through the kitchen window, turning the bottle of washing-up liquid into a collection of emeralds, and the clock ticks round like a steady companion. Kezia can see lint and dust in the air; it seems as if the house has momentarily slipped free of its mooring on Vernon Street, free of its place in the row of pre-war semi-detached houses with identical front lawns and paths and on the 318 bus route into town. At this very moment while Rosie and Grandma sleep upstairs, 3 Vernon Street is a floating space where anything might happen or be said. 

Grandad sighs and turns off the gas under the frying pan. He sits down opposite Kezia. He places a thick hand against the silver teapot and pours himself a fresh mug. 

‘This has been an upside down few weeks for you girls, hasn’t it?’ he says. ‘I don’t think you’re really interested in whether your mum liked dripping or mushrooms.’

Thursday, 7 April 2022

A. J. Lees, "Brainspotting: Adventures in Neurology"

A. J. Lees was born in St Helens and qualified in medicine from The London Hospital, Whitechapel in 1970. He trained in neurology at University College Hospitals, London and La Salpêtriere in Paris and was appointed to the staff of the National Hospital, Queen Square at the age of 32. He is one of the three most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researchers in the world and was responsible for the introduction of apomorphine therapy as a treatment for advanced Parkinson’s disease. For his contributions to medical education and his research achievements, he was elected a member of the Brazilian Academia Nacional de Medicina in 2010. 

His first book to be published by Notting Hill Editions, entitled Mentored by a Madman, described how the writings of William Seward Burroughs helped him to operate effectively within the complex milieu of UK medical research and inspired some of his research. Several of his books, including Ray of Hope and The Hurricane Port, grew out of  a deep love for the port of Liverpool. His last book, Brazil that Never Was, described a yearning for an idealised adolescent past, in which he had dreamed of losing himself in the Amazon forest, inspired by the adventures of Lieutenant Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. His new book is Brainspotting: Adventures in Neurology, published jointly by Notting Hill Editions and New York Review of Books. 

About Brainspotting:  Adventures in Neurology

This is a collection of essays explaining the making of a neurologist. An interest in bird watching as a child taught Lees the importance of observation and the need to record precisely what one sees, skills which gave him a head start when he began his training in neurology. In another chapter, he explains how the methods of crime detection used by Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes were a valuable introduction to the  diagnostic method of neurology, but in order to relieve suffering it needed to be combined with the humanity of Dr Watson. Lees believes that people can be trained to see things their mind does not yet know, and that attentive listening not only gives neurologists the diagnosis in two-thirds of cases but, like touch during the physical examination, can be a transformative healing ritual. In the last chapter, while extolling the miracle of modern neuroimaging, he warns that when used inappropriately or as a substitute for clinical training brain scanners can become weapons of mass destruction.

You can see more details about Brainspotting on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read three short excerpts from the book.


From Brainspotting, by A. J. Lees

When I tell people I am a neurologist, very few have much idea of what I do. Common reactions are: "Isn’t that the same as Gregory House?" or "How wonderful it must be to study the human mind?" When I reply that I make the blind see, the lame walk and can calm the shaking palsy, many assume I must be a brain surgeon. The media prefer to call me a "leading neuroscientist" even though I spend no time in a laboratory and carry out no research on the healthy brain ...

My mother, who sometimes used birds to tell fortunes, conserved my bird journals for many years. After I had qualified as a doctor she handed them back to me, reminding me how as a twelve-year-old I had felt the need to name every little brown bird that came into view. She then said, "Do you remember when you found that dead blue tit unmarked in the garden and how you buried it under the laburnum marking its resting place with an ice lolly stick?" At the time she had told me that when sailors were lost at sea blue tits carried their souls to heaven ...

Soulful neurology has realistic expectations that allow me to reduce the burden of suffering through my understanding of life as well as my scientific credentials. It embraces anecdote, cordial laughter and tacit knowledge but never lapses into sentimentality. It insists that mistakes in medicine are inevitable, but when they are admitted and taken to heart  become future friends. It expects me to talk unhurriedly to my patients as if they were my close relatives and to try to be kind and nuanced when forced to give bad news. It reminds me that neurological disorders can rupture aspirations and dreams and lead to frustration, loneliness and a profound sense of hopelessness ...