Monday 31 January 2022

Edward Parnell, "Ghostland"


Edward Parnell, photograph by K. Walne

Edward Parnell has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. He’s been the recipient of an Escalator Award from the National Centre for Writing, and a Churchill Fellowship to fund a research expedition to the Australian Outback. The Listeners, his first book, won the 2014 Rethink New Novels Prize. His latest book, Ghostland (William Collins, 2019), is a work of narrative non-fiction that was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize 2020 for memoir and autobiography, and for the East Anglian book awards. Edward is a keen birdwatcher and naturalist, which also informs his work. His website is here.

About Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country

In his late thirties, Edward Parnell found himself trapped in the recurring nightmare of a family tragedy. For comfort, he turned to his bookshelves, back to the ghost stories that obsessed him as a boy, and to the writers through the ages who have attempted to confront what comes after death.

In Ghostland, Parnell goes in search of the ‘sequestered places’ of the British Isles, our lonely moors, our moss-covered cemeteries, our stark shores and our folkloric woodlands. He explores how these landscapes conjured and shaped a kaleidoscopic spectrum of literature and cinema, from the ghost stories and weird fiction of M. R. James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood to the children’s fantasy novels of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper; from W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Graham Swift’s Waterland to the archetypal ‘folk horror’ film The Wicker Man 

Ghostland is Parnell’s moving exploration of what has haunted our writers and artists – and what is haunting him. It is a unique and elegiac meditation on grief, memory and longing, and of the redemptive power of stories and nature.

Below, you can read a short excerpt from the book. 

From Ghostland, by Edward Parnell

From Chapter 5: Memento mori

I arrived with the dusk on a biting, slate-skied afternoon, a mixture of sleet and snow starting to fall as I made my way up the path that coiled around the hillside. The light, dim to begin with, grew steadily darker as I wound higher. Three redpolls – small finches I picked out from their high-pitched, questioning calls – flew over my head, looking for somewhere to roost, though they would have more luck down in the shelter of the mound than at its summit.

I was visiting Glasgow’s gothic monument to death, its sprawling memento mori (from the Latin ‘remember you must die’): the Necropolis. The site covers a hill behind St Mungo’s Cathedral, giving an impressive panorama of the city. Formerly rocky parkland, in 1831 it was given over to afford ‘a much wanted accommodation to the higher classes’ that would be ‘respectful to the dead, safe and sanitary to the living, dedicated to the Genius of Memory and to extend religious and moral feeling.’ Since then, various extensions to its original area have been made, alongside fifty thousand burials in 3,500 brick-partitioned tombs.[1] 

No one else was about – they probably had more sense on this bitter afternoon at the back end of 2014. I’d gravitated here, pulled by the name, and by the pictures I’d seen of the place’s impressive architecture – as well as the melancholia of my own mood – after tagging along to the city with my partner, who was here for a work conference.

In particular, I was drawn to one of the Necropolis’s most imposing structures, the Aiken Mausoleum, its classical pillars and portico half-hidden by tangled ivy and creepers. Peering through the wrought-iron gates that locked across its front I could just read some of the words on the memorial plaques inside. 

More disconcertingly, in the darkness I could also make out a rectangular opening that presumably marked the steps down to the graves themselves, though the paltry torchlight from my phone did not show any detail. Was it spooky? Perhaps a little, but the lights of the city, multiplied at this time of year by those of Christmas, were close. And I was used to wandering in such places – albeit not quite as grand as this – as, for five years as a boy I had been a chorister;  for a dare we would sometimes run through the graveyard of the town’s thirteenth-century church after evensong on winter Sunday evenings, pausing midway to touch the top of the coffin-shaped tomb with the foreboding cleft through its lid.

In my present, too, walking back from the train station to my own house after dark I have to pass along an unlit lane that runs beside the local cemetery. Just before the darkest point, where the trees crowd in from both sides, the curve of the road and the low flint wall to the left look almost identical to the Victorian artist John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Moonlight Walk – the self-taught Yorkshireman specialised in realistic, slightly unsettling nocturnal scenes – which features on the cover of my paperback copy of M. R. James’s Collected Ghost Stories. Sometimes as I enter that last stretch I picture myself as the painting’s lone figure, dwarfed by the darkness.

So, wandering in the Necropolis at dusk – even with the ghost of a snowstorm in the offing and ghosts in my head – I didn’t find the surroundings frightening. Indeed, the stones, with their solidity and timelessness, seemed to extend a kind of comfort to me. I felt worn out and undone and, at that moment, if I had been offered the chance to step inside the bars of the mausoleum and to take an unending sleep within its walls, I might well have chosen the memory-wiped relief of that option. But the stinging wind had gathered pace and was pushing me onwards, along with a darkling winter thrush – a redwing that skittered up in front of me from a leafless tree.

Towards the lights of the city, towards the lights of the living.


[1] I’m not sure anyone else does a graveyard with quite the grandeur and solemnity of the Scots. Edinburgh, too, is riddled with impressive assemblages of dark-stoned monuments to the departed, in kirkyards like St Cuthbert’s and, particularly, Greyfriars. At the latter, the maudlin Skye terrier Bobby supposedly sat in mourning by his master’s grave for a fourteen-year stretch in the middle of the Victorian century – the canine embodiment of the public grief of the monarch for her lost husband, with which the lone dog’s vigil coincided.

[2] I was lured into joining my local church choir through the promise of its midweek games club and various exciting-sounding day trips out – not because of any religious devotion on my part (or of that of my parents).

Thursday 27 January 2022

My PhD in Creative Writing: "You'll Fall Through All Those Boys"

 By Alyson Morris

About me

As a young woman, I travelled around Asia and settled in Australia for ten years. In those early days, I temped in offices and made clothes for market stalls. In my spare time, I wrote poetry and dabbled in storytelling. When I returned to the UK, I was thirty-four when I graduated with a BA in Teaching, Design and Computer Studies. For the following eight years, I lived in London working for a publishing company. After that, I did a TESOL course, which led me into university lecturing. I taught English before running my own course, a BA in English and Creative Writing. After studying for an MA in Creative Writing, I never imagined myself doing a PhD. However, in 2015, I took an idea to Jonathan Taylor at the University of Leicester. Then I spent six years studying for a PhD in Creative Writing, while continuing my work as Course Director. In January 2022, at the age of 63, I graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy. 

About my PhD

My PhD is a family memoir, and the thesis is on truthfulness. I found time to study by having a non-teaching day each week. Then, every two months I spent hours in a café talking to my supervisor about memoir, research, and how to write a truthful portrait of my parents before I was born. 

The memoir explores the effect of war on my parents, and starts in 1943. I alternate the chapters, so their stories run alongside each other until they meet in 1949. The structure reveals their differences, and how their experiences and losses led to a hasty marriage. My young father, a Coldstream Guardsman, is posted to Germany. His mission is to repatriate Displaced Persons (DPs), mostly Poles, and send them home. He also escorts POWs to trial, and guards the German borders, stopping anyone trying to escape Stalin and his troops in Poland. While in Germany, he falls in love with a woman and has a child. Meanwhile, in North Devon, my mother, like many women during the war, falls in love with a GI. The US army are training in Woolacombe. Her story follows this affair, and time spent at her grandmother’s luxury hotel.    

My PhD explores truthfulness in life writing. In the memoir, I am a ghost from the future, following my young parents, observing their behaviour and narrating their stories. However, immersing myself in their stories, at a time before I was born, goes against the grain of much nonfiction writing. For me, though, my mind travelled backwards in time, and I experienced scenes, people and emotions, as if present. My spectral presence tapped into a different kind of truthfulness I was unable to find through writing a more traditional type of memoir. I could explore the 1940s like a time-traveller. My mind became a movie of my parents’ young lives. I found my ghost narration flowed naturally, unravelling memories that appeared obscure but true. 

I found all this puzzling until I read about the concept of Postmemory. Postmemory is when children acquire the memories of their parents, which become embedded within their own memories. Through ghost narration, I was drawing from my postmemory experiences as a child. I grew up with my mother’s constant retelling of her wartime experiences, and my father’s silence about his, which resulted in his violent behaviour.  

I called the memoir You’ll Fall Through All Those Boys. My great grandmother said this to my mother when the GIs first arrived in Woolacombe. My mother was a sophisticated seventeen-year-old at the time. And the title works for my father’s story too, as a soldier in the Coldstream Guards.  

Below is an extract from one of my mother’s chapters in the memoir. 

My Mother, Elizabeth Worthington, c. 1946

From You'll Fall Through All Those Boys

The grandfather clock chimes twice in the hall. We hear it from the porch at Combeside, where I wait with my mother. This afternoon, she is wearing a blue velvet dress with a white collar. The day is warm, and her coat is lying next to us on the bench. 

‘Hey, Bet!’ we hear Bud shout, as he runs up the steps. ‘Beautiful day.’ 

He removes his cap and blushes. To cover it up, he points to a jeep parked across the road. 

‘Hope you don’t mind,’ he says, ‘it’s the best I could get.’ 

His words stretch out like a Southern-American folk song.

‘It’s fine,’ says my mother with a big smile, ‘but only if you let me drive.’

I am now in the back of a jeep, bumping up and down, and sideways too. We pass the toilet block at the top of Mortehoe Hill and see the roof has been blown off.

‘Apologies, ma’am,’ shouts Bud. ‘We had a little accident yesterday.’ 

Why are toilets such a popular target for the US army?

The jeep’s canvas has been pulled back, and I laugh to see my mother’s hair blowing about. She clings to her hat with one hand, while driving with the other. 

This is fun, I think.

Ilfracombe, ten miles north of Woolacombe, is full of GIs too. Military vehicles are lining the streets here, and soldiers clog up the pavements. It is worse in the evenings, when buses arrive full of the soldiers based in Woolacombe. Everyone heads for the George and Dragon, which is where we are now. 

Bud and my mother chat away all afternoon, at ease in each other’s company. From a little window at the back of the George, I hear waves crashing against the rocks below. My mother seems happy. Perhaps the happiest I have seen her since she first met Bud, and skipped all the way back to her grandmother’s hotel ...

My father, Clive Morris, c. 1946

Wednesday 26 January 2022

Lucie McKnight Hardy, "Dead Relatives and Other Stories"


Dead Relatives and Other Stories is Lucie McKnight Hardy’s debut collection of short stories, and was published by Dead Ink Books in October 2021. Her first novel, Water Shall Refuse Them, was published in 2019, also by Dead Ink, and was shortlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition and longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award. Her stories have appeared in Best British Short Stories 2019, Black Static, The Lonely Crowd, The New Abject, and as a limited edition chapbook from Nightjar Press, and in a variety of print and online publications.

Lucie grew up in west Wales and is a Welsh speaker. She has also lived in Liverpool, Cardiff, Zurich and Bradford, and has now settled in Herefordshire with her family. She studied English at the University of Liverpool, Journalism at Cardiff University, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her website is here.

About Dead Relatives and Other Stories

Not for the faint-hearted, Dead Relatives invites you behind closed doors, and leaves you wondering if it’s better that they’re kept shut and firmly locked. In the title story, we meet Iris, who has never left the big house in the country she shares with Mammy and the servants. When The Ladies arrive, she finds that she must appease her dead relatives. Other stories in this collection explore themes of motherhood and the fragile body, family dynamics and small-town tensions, unusual traditions and metamorphosis.

You can see more details about Dead Relatives and Other Stories on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read an extract from one of the stories. 

From Dead Relatives and Other Stories, by Lucie McKnight Hardy

The Ladies are coming today and Cook is beside herself with worry. 

‘I’m beside myself with worry, Iris,’ she says, and the blade strips the darkness from the backs of my eyes. ‘Do not just sit there, Iris,’ she says, turning the corpse over on the wooden board, spreading the legs just so. ‘Go and find your mammy and ask her what jobs there are for you to do.’ She drops the knife and her hand goes out for the cleaver. 

But I don’t go and find Mammy. Mammy – I know because I saw her, and her sherry bottle – is in her bedroom, having one of her rests, and so I stay sitting on the stool. The skin around my thumbnail is sore and tastes of coins. I hate Cook. I hate her lazy eye and her mean way with the gravy. I hate the way her bosom fills her apron, and I hate the way she looks at me, all pitying but still angry.

Cook brings the cleaver down on the neck – chop! – and the head comes off neatly, like slicing through blancmange. It’s the feet next – chop-chop-chop-chop – and they fall away, dainty as a babby’s. The next bit is my favourite. She hooks her fingers around one of the legs and pushes on the stump of bone with her thumbs. The leg just slips out – pop! – like taking off a jacket. She works her way around the corpse, easing and tugging and pulling, and then, when all the legs are out, she gives a God-almighty heave and the whole skin comes off in one piece. It’s like one of the Ladies taking off her fur coat. A fur coat with a red silk lining. That makes me smile.

Cook slings the scraps into the bucket and pushes aside the plastic strips that make a curtain through to the pantry, her fat arse slap-sliding all the way. I grab one of the tiny furry feet and slide it into the pocket of my pinafore, and I’m out of there, through the back door, quicker than a whippet from a trap.

Friday 21 January 2022

Petrus Borel, "Rhapsodies, 1831," trans. John Gallas and Kurt Gänzl


About Petrus Borel, Rhapsodies 1831, trans. John Gallas and 
Kurt Gänzl  

‘Borel was the sun,’ said Théophile Gautier, ’who could resist him?’ Indeed, who? A lycanthrope, necrophile, absurd revolutionary, Paris dandy with a scented beard, flamboyant sufferer: a man with no grave and no memorial.

His once celebrated red mouth opened briefly ‘like an exotic flower’ to complain of injustice and bourgeois vulgarity; of his frustration in love and reputation; of poverty and blighted fate. Then he withered in the minor officialdom of Algeria, where he died because he would not wear a hat, leaving a haunted house and a doubtful name. ‘And now,’ says his eccentric biographer Dame Enid Starkie, ‘he is quite forgotten.’

Rhapsodies includes all the poems Borel wrote when he was twenty and twenty-one. At the time he sported a red waistcoat, wide-brimmed hat with ribbons, black cloak thrown over his shoulders, and was followed about by admirers. The poems, he said, are ‘the slag from my crucible’: ‘the poetry that boils in my heart has slung its dross.’ It is a fabulous, fiery, black-clouded dross: captains and cutlasses, castles, maidens, daggers, danger; calls to arms, imagined loves, plaints and howls of injustice. ‘Never did a publication create a greater scandal,’ Borel said, ‘because it was a book written heart and soul, with no thought of anything else, and stuffed with gall and suffering’. It was not reviewed. Now it is back.


Borel, Rhapsodies: Why & How, by John Gallas

My first book of translations for Carcanet, The Song Atlas, featured one poem from each country of the world, according to the (then – and since updated) Official United Nations List. Six years of finding poems, discovering and persuading first-draft translators, and then, myself, re-poeming the results, persuaded me that translating was both deeply enjoyable and deeply worthwhile. 

How else would English-reading folks ever get their glorious glimpses of Mango (Guyana), ‘2 Termite Skyscrapers’ (CAR), or the poetry of Ojars Vacietis (Latvia) or Gonzalez Prada (Peru)?

The method for The Song Atlas is the one I have always used: a native-speaker translates the poem, once found and usually chosen by them, into a word-by-word, line-by-line English version, which I then ‘re-poem,’ using any notes provided hinting at, or describing, tone, rhyme, gravity (or not), metre, and anything else they think relevant. As a language-free New Zealander, with only a sprinkling of Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic, and an almost complete lack of other-language-learning aptitude, my reliance on others is happily total.     

It’s said that the poems of The Song Atlas and 52 Euros often ‘sound like me.’ Any poet/translator, working at a poem with their full bag of skills and commitments, must, I think, perforce produce something like and of their own kind. I have no theories about the translation of poetry: only that it is a good thing when well done. For a poet (of 10 Carcanet books and 15 others elsewhere of my own poetry) translating is a fascination: freed from providing the ‘original’ emotions, thoughts, feelings, ideas and some elements of personal style, the performance becomes an exercise in a kind of different sameness, a meticulous making of something ‘other’ that requires all the efforts, skills and sympathies usually put to work for one’s ‘self.’   

Kurt Gänzl, my brother, was the French-native-speaker for the Song Atlas translation of Belgium’s entry - ‘Spade,’ by Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) - as well as for several other French-language poems in the book. We particularly loved the Verhaeren poem, and when it came to putting together 52 Euros (also Carcanet: a translation of 52 European poets, being an A-Z of male and female writers, each represented by a selection of their poems), we collaborated on 10 of his poems for ‘V is for Verhaeren.’ 

Kurt is a prompt and meticulous worker, and a clear-headed indicator of the ‘kind’ of poem he is translating, which information and ideas are much appreciated at this end (he in NZ, me in Leicestershire). Being brothers, we understand what we are each getting at, and often At Speed. 

So on we went, translating a selection of Florian’s Tales, carefully rhymed and metred, as well as poems by Genet (published in The Long Poem magazine), Baudelaire (‘Cat,’ Guardian Poem of the Week), Paul Eluard, Marie de France, Irène Hamoir, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Jules Laforgue, Maeterlinck, de Nerval, Suzanne Renaud, Renée Vivien, Marguerite Yourcenar (all in 52 Euros) and then …

... up popped Petrus Borel. 

Well, we were looking for a new challenge, at first simply for enjoyment’s, and perhaps a small contribution to a magazine’s sake. Borel seemed unknown, and apparently untranslated into English, and the text of Rhapsodies was available online. So we began with ‘Prologue,’ ‘Benoni’ and ‘The Olden Captain’ and, pleased with the results, agreed we would try a few more. 

At this point I found Enid Starkie’s biography of Borel. I bought it, and read it with some trepidation, hoping not to find some description of his style hopelessly at odds with what we had produced. Not only did this not happen, but it became clear that Petrus Borel’s life was patchily known, and thus Enid Starkie’s book was padded out with contemporary matters in nearly every second chapter. Why did it matter? It is somehow more satisfying to a translator to at least in some degree ‘discover,’ and be first with their subject and their matter. So we continued with a certain excitement, Enid Starkie’s apparent judgement being (a) that Borel was worth a book, being her biography, and (b) that he was a major-minor, or minor-major poet. Perfect. Such poets and their poems often make for translating at its best.  

Here, Carcanet, Michael Schmidt, and PN Review gave us a happy kick. Editor Michael Schmidt liked the poems thus far, and urged us on. We were, quite suddenly, looking at the whole book. Kurt was doubtful: there was a ‘bit of a play’ in there, and a long Preface, and some strange, whirling poems that seemed on the lunatic side. But we gamely decided we would do the job entire. 

Slowly but surely – over two years – Petrus Borel and his Rhapsodies took shape in all their mad, posturing, sensational, gut-wrenching, self-advertising, cod-revolutionary, egotistical brilliance. Even the ‘bit of a play,’ a well-rhymed Gothicky melodrama, and the Preface, a splendid rant of self-importance and undoubted commitment, were hugely rewarding. As Kurt fell more and more out of love with M. Borel himself, and his strutting self-pity, I found his confused and frustrated emotions, ‘safe’ revolutionisms, sensational plots, super-added populism+egoism, and radical carelessness mixed with desperate concern to sell, make money, and be liked, more sympathetic. At the same time, of course, Kurt became more and more admiring of Borel’s style, method, originality and ‘swing,’ which I could do nothing else with but try my very best to reproduce with Kurt’s guidance.  

In the end, Preface and Play, the long and the short, we did the whole book. Here it is, in all its wild whirl, as a Carcanet Classic, with the (we think) wonderfully apposite tag-line – ‘It’s back.’ It is that kind of volume. 

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

From Rhapsodies, 1831

For Jules Vabre, architect

To my dear friend, Jules Vabre:
excellent marrow!
with your little spyglass
on the Fat-Well-Off and their big-bald chins –
you and I must be Martians
on this pale and ordered Earth!
Ah, we must be emmets,
doing what we will, here,
in this pithless Paris,
hither and thither like haywisps on water,
like tonic eddies
through a fly-blown swamp.
Ramblers sans rooves, pewless and
popped from our containers
to live! live slaphappily
like sparrers dancing
on chimneytops!
Wildcats waiting in the wings,
the goggling crowd,
and then, up-curtains please! 
we cross
the light-lit stage of Life. 

Friday 14 January 2022

Martin Figura, "My Name is Mercy"


Martin Figura, photograph by Dave Guttridge

Martin Figura’s collection and show Whistle was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and won the 2013 Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show. Other prizes include the Poetry Society’s 2010 Hamish Canham Prize and runner up in the 2017 RSPB/Rialto Poetry Competition. Shed (Gatehouse Press) and Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine (Cinnamon Press) were both published in 2016 and a new edition of Whistle (Cinnamon Press) in 2018.  The spoken word show Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, was shortlisted in the 2018 Saboteur Awards. He lives in Norwich with Helen Ivory and sciatica. Together during lockdown, they began hosting Live from The Butchery Zoom readings with leading guest poets, winning the Saboteur Best Regular Spoken Word Night 2021 Award. In 2021, Martin was Salisbury NHS Writer in Residence, resulting in publication in The Guardian, inclusion on the Poetry Archive and a pamphlet with Fair Acre Press. His next full collection As Far as I’m Concerned is due out with Cinnamon Press in 2023. His website is here

About My Name is Mercy
The Salisbury NHS Trust commissioned award-winning poet Martin Figura in March of this year to interview staff from across the Trust, exploring how it felt to be at the frontline of the pandemic response. This has resulted in an emotional collection of poems, titled My Name is Mercy, also the title of a poem based on one of the series of reports that BBC’s Mark Urban produced for the Newsnight programme.  
The life and work of staff in an out of the hospital form the subject matter of the poems, including experiencing Salisbury during lockdown and using horse riding to help cope with the stress and mental challenges of the pandemic, and the poet’s own experience undertaking this project.

Oscar-winning actress, and patron of The Stars Appeal, Olivia Colman, has read two of the newly-commissioned poems. Olivia Colman reads the poem "Fifth Season" that is based on a patient's true story and "Nightshift," which has recently been chosen by Poetry Archive Now as one of the poems of 2021. The poem "Ridge Line," read by the poet Martin Figura, reflects on the very personal experiences of one staff member, Lizzie Swift, and her horse Drum. You can listen to these poems here, here and here
Stacey Hunter, CEO of Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust said: "We all truly have been through an experience like no other in the history of the NHS. The emotional and inspiring poems in My Name is Mercy capture the psychological challenges that our staff faced in working through the pandemic and coping as best they could at work and in their personal lives."
Martin Figura said: "Thank you to everyone who made this project happen. I am especially grateful to those who gave me their time to be interviewed. The lasting impact of the pandemic on their lives was palpable and deeply affecting. I hope the poems go some way towards honouring the experiences and sacrifice of the staff, those they cared for and their loved ones."
The project was made possible with funding from the hospital’s League of Friends and The Stars Appeal charities.
You can see more details about My Name is Mercy on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read two poems from the collection. 

From My Name is Mercy, by Martin Figura

On Being Interviewed by a Poet

How was it for you, this past year, was it: 

river swimming in lead diving-boots 
or walking in snow, blizzard blind, 
was it the Mojave Desert with an 
empty map, was it a cumbersome 
suitcase and a broken lock, was it 
line-dancing in purple crocs, a flock 
of sea gulls at a chip shop bin, was it 
windowless and continuous, a mouthful 
of salt, was it burning car tyres, pliers 
and teeth, was it blood dripped into milk, 
an alien abduction from a New Forest 
glade, sackcloth, shackles, ashes and shale, 
was it a skeleton clock, a pickaxe, a mule, 
a gilded mirror in flames, was it déjà vu 
after déjà vu, was it Nova Scotia in fall, 
an abandoned mineshaft in Wales, was it 
Easter lilies left to rot, bloodhounds barking 
in a parking lot, was it a cold metal bridle?  

Tell me in your own words was it difficult, 
are you exhausted, what are your hopes, 
what do you do to unwind?  

My Name is Mercy

Morning my darling, my name is Mercy
I'm your nurse for today, how are you?
Today is the nineteenth of January,
the sun is breaking through.

I'm your nurse for today, how are you?
The outlook should be positive,
the sun is breaking through.
Your wife knows you're here, she sends her love.

The outlook should be positive,
you're doing well, you’re safe, you're really safe.
Your wife knows you're here, she sends her love.
Would you like us to phone your wife?

You're doing well, you’re safe, you're really safe,
if you can hear me, squeeze my hand.
Would you like us to phone your wife?
It is difficult, I understand.

If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.
Today is the nineteenth of January,
it is difficult, I understand.
Morning my darling, my name is Mercy

Monday 10 January 2022

Kate Durban, "The Creative Writing Dissertation"

If you’re reading this now perhaps you are seeking wisdom and advice about how to approach your upcoming dissertation. I can’t promise any magic solutions, but I can offer my own insights into facing the fear and finding a route to actually enjoying the opportunities that writing the dissertation can offer. So here is an account of my own writing journey, together with some tips I picked up along the way. 

My name is Kate Durban. I’m 54 and I’ve recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Leicester. As well as writing, I work part time as a Specialist Cancer Nurse and I am Mum to Rudi (25) and Tasha (23) and wife to Philip (60). I started writing in July 2015 when my first husband, Angus, was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of leukaemia. I wrote a blog to communicate what was happening to our friends and family. I quickly discovered that the act of writing itself became a means of self-expression, a therapeutic escape as well as a creative act in its own right. People started saying they thought my writing was good.  

Tragically Angus died in the December of that year and as I wrestled with grief, writing continued to be an outlet. I signed up for a course, and then another until eventually I found myself applying for the MA at Leicester. I did it partly for Angus: before he died, he encouraged me to keep writing. After his death I wrote about grief and hope and carrying on. 

Four years later, as I made my way to the university campus that first day, I was terrified. I’ve always wanted to write but, like many others, I’ve struggled to believe in myself. I love reading but the gap between the work of ‘real’ writers and my paltry efforts felt vast. Nevertheless, I was determined to improve and to see where the MA took me. I took heart from the generous encouragement of my tutor - and the fact that a life in nursing was a rich source of wonderful and inspiring stories. Meeting my fellow students, who came from a variety of personal and academic backgrounds and diverse writing experiences and interests, was a joy. We were in this together. 

There was an unexpected distraction in the Autumn and Winter of 2019. I met and fell in love with Philip, and I ended up juggling the first two terms of the MA with a whirlwind romance which culminated in a wedding in February 2020. And then came the pandemic. Nevertheless, I loved every moment of the course and I was determined to persevere. The first assignment, amidst wedding plans and Christmas, was so scary. I had no idea whether I would pass or fail. But I did pass, and more importantly I learned a lot in the process. As each semester sped by it was exciting to experiment with different genres whilst benefitting from the insights and feedback of all the tutors and fellow students, and at the same time learn about Creative Writing theory. In no time at all, it was time to start planning for the dissertation. Again, I was filled with trepidation. 15,000 words seemed daunting. So how did I tackle it? 

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses 

I think the key for me in writing the dissertation was in looking back at what I had learned throughout the MA, particularly knowledge about my strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge was essential in determining my approach. 


Strength: What to write 

From the very beginning I knew that I wanted to write memoir about my experiences when Angus became ill. I also knew I wanted to write about the conflict between my professional identity as a nurse and my identity as Angus’s wife as he was cared for in the hospital where I worked. I also wanted to write about my nursing career - the people I’ve met and their stories, entwined with my own, and to explore the concept of nursing and what I believe good nursing is. It’s something I’m passionate about. And so I had a lot to say. This was a strong source of motivation and helped me build and sustain momentum. 

Strength: Voice 

Throughout my MA, I received feedback to say I had a strong voice. I knew what I wanted to say and the impression I was striving to make on my readers. Creating the right tone - one of poignancy without clichéd sentimentality - was a fine balance, and took time to achieve. In order to do so I learned to challenge my tendency to over-write. 

Weakness: Over-writing 

This is a challenge for many new writers. The temptation to use five words where two will do is always strong. I love words - all of them - and paring down my prose feels like I’m losing meaning. But what I’ve learned is that a writer needs to trust their readers; let them fill in the gaps. A stripped-back narrative with the lightest peppering of imagery and a disciplined use of adjectives and adverbs is so much more effective in creating a memorable impact. Nevertheless, I love poetic and lyrical prose and that led me to think about form. 

Strength and Weakness: Form 

When considering form for my dissertation I made the decision, with guidance, not to be too experimental. This might sound like I was playing it safe but, in making that decision, I considered my aims. My first writing priority is to write a memoir that I can potentially publish. There are many other things I’d like to do too, but, in the end, I decided that the dissertation was an opportunity to develop the opening of my memoir: to give it wings. At first, I considered writing a mixture of prose and poems – but ultimately I decided that I was too inexperienced as a poet to risk experimentation. That is a journey for the future. Central to achieving my aim was mentorship. 

Strength: Supervision 

Having Jonathan as my supervisor was an extremely empowering experience. His guidance and experience were invaluable, not least having written his own memoir, Take Me Home, about caring for his father who had Parkinson’s disease. He was able to recommend many resources, and I felt that he really knew me and my strengths and weaknesses. He was always responsive and generous with his time and advice. By starting quite early I was able to get the maximum benefit from the relationship. One thing he helped me with specifically was my struggle with structure. 

Weakness: Structure 

Throughout the MA I found it a challenge to achieve balance in my writing: between scene and summary, and between description and moving the story forward. And so I read. With guidance from my tutors, I read what writers said about structure, and what teachers said about it. I read lots of other people’s memoirs - particularly those by medical professionals - to see how they did it. And I read about the art of memoir – its challenges both structurally and ethically in terms of the pursuit of truth - and its value. I was worried that I didn’t have a clear structure and plan from the beginning. Jonathan suggested writing scenes to start with - they could be knitted together later. This worked and felt so much less daunting than writing one long piece all at once. Gradually a structure emerged which interspersed the story of Angus’s diagnosis and illness with memories from our family life and my nursing career, providing a backdrop and a context for the story - my story and Angus’s story - that I wanted to tell. I learned that structure can evolve and to trust the creative process in allowing it to emerge, rather than having it all planned.  

Strength: Hard work and perseverance 

There’s no doubt it was hard work. But in the end the experience gave me great confidence, which grew as the piece developed. The critical reflection seemed to evolve as I read and wrote. I kept a record of resonant quotations and references around which to weave the reflection. In the end it almost seemed to write itself. 

What next 

You’ll be relieved to know that I passed. As was I. The challenge has been to keep going. I have to admit that I’ve hardly written anything over the last few months. But now that I’ve had the result and some very useful feedback, now Christmas has been and gone and we’re into a new year, I’m ready. I have ideas for new chapters and a way forward to the end. So, I hope to finish my memoir. And maybe, just maybe, it will be published one day. 

As you approach what seems perhaps a daunting task, try to think of the dissertation as an opportunity. Write something you feel passionate about, play to your strengths and work at your weaknesses, and get every bit of support you can from the supervision process. Read, read and read some more. Work hard and try to enjoy it. Good luck. This time next year it will all be over! 

Friday 7 January 2022

Katy Wimhurst, "Snapshots of the Apocalypse"

Katy Wimhurst’s first collection of short stories, Snapshots of the Apocalypse, is published by Fly on the Wall Press. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including The Guardian, Shooterlit, Cafe Irreal, Ouen Press, Fabula Press, and Magic Oxygen Literary Prize. Her visual poetry has been published in The Babel Tower, 3am, Ric Journal, Steel Incisors, Trickhouse Press, and others. She studied social anthropology (and Mexican Surrealism at postgraduate level) and has worked in teaching and publishing. She lives by a pretty river, adores trees, and suffers from the neuroimmune illness M.E. Her website is here.

About Snapshots of the Apocalypse 

In these dark, witty short stories, Katy Wimhurst creates off-kilter worlds which illuminate our own. Here, knitting might cancel Armageddon. A winged being yearns to be an archaeologist. Readers are sucked into a post-apocalyptic London where the different rains are named after former politicians. An enchanted garden grows in a rented flat. Magical realism meets dystopia, with a refreshing twist.

More about Snapshots of the Apocalypse can be found on the publisher’s website here. Below, you can read an excerpt from one of the stories. 

From Snapshots of the Apocalypse, by Katy Wimhurst

Min despised the Tate Art and Refuge Centre. It contained little art and more refuse than refuge. She’d been approached by pimps in the café there, had witnessed fist-fights over chocolate, and had once seen an artwork used as a frisbee. But today, staring at the empty food cupboard in her squat, she knew she’d have to go there if she wanted to eat.

“Shit,” she muttered, slamming the cupboard door.

Cursing the guy who’d yet again failed to deliver the bootleg goods, Min grabbed her bag and slung on her black PVC cape and beret. She then padlocked her squat’s front door and marched down the long staircase.

On the ground floor, the sign on the wall read: THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF  URGEONS. If anyone asked ‘what she did’ these days, she said she was an ‘urgeon.’ A reasonable word, she thought, for how she kept urging herself on despite the relentless crap around – and indeed within – her. Fortunately, few asked her ‘profession’ these days. Had it really taken an apocalyptic world to end small talk?

The former Reception area was dusted with cobwebs, its blue carpet muddy with footprints. Min still recalled her first visit to this place years ago as a medical student, but she tried not to think of the past. That was a different era, before the floods and chaos, and she’d never finished her studies, anyway. It’d been how she’d known about this place though, and why she’d come here to hide when her flat near Tottenham Court Road had burnt down in a riot ...

Thursday 6 January 2022

Simon Elson, "Pitch Perfect: Make Money From Your Writing"

Simon Elson is a Freelance Features Writer. His articles have appeared in over a dozen national magazines including Best of British, Britain at War, Derbyshire Life and Writing Magazine. He also writes for the popular cycling website and has been a guest blogger on The Huffington Post.  His self help health book Sugar Beat was a top-10 bestseller on Amazon. His features have covered subjects ranging from transport to history to fitness. His new e-book is Pitch Perfect: Make Money From Your Writing. You can see his online portfolio here.

About Pitch Perfect, by Simon Elson

I’d been writing for years; unfinished novels lay neglected in a bottom drawer - okay, actually, nowadays they sit on a flash drive in a coffee cup in a display cabinet. After abandoning the fiction (for now), I started blogging, following a shout out on a cycling forum. Then I started my own blog. A large online newspaper followed that. When they accepted several of my pieces, I thought I’d made it as a blogger. Then the realisation dawned: they were earning money from adverts on my posts, but I was being paid in kudos. As much as I appreciated the exposure and links to my own blog they permitted (traffic to my own site did go up when I wrote for them) I was getting jack-all for my toil.

I decided to start writing for magazines and I wanted paying for my work. Some websites will pay for your words but not many. Without a degree in anything, only a GCSE in English Language and a day job in sales, I wondered how to convince magazines that I was a serious features writer and get paid for my writing output. 

I managed through a few simple steps to become accepted in this competitive market. In this book I take the reader through the easy process I came up with, to become a successful freelance features writer - from blogging, through prize letter-writing, to honing your skills, to your first feature article and the dreaded pitch to an editor. Looking professional and taking your own images to accompany the articles are also covered in depth.  

From Pitch Perfect

From Chapter One – Honing Your Writing Skills

If you're reading this I assume you can write blog posts and articles. But ask yourself truthfully: are they any good? They may be, but asking your Mum or Auntie Edith to read the website you’ve created is often useless. They will be your biggest fan - you could take the shopping list off the fridge door and post it online and they will love it, or say they do, as that is what they think you want to hear.

You need an editor to reject articles or ask for alterations to make them editorially tighter or punchier. You can’t be your own editor. Trust me, it doesn’t work because you will either be over-critical and bin/delete everything or, on the flipside, it will all seem excellent and perfect.

So how do you get an editor? Easy, you borrow one. As I said in the introduction, I’ve written for other people’s blogs. There are lots of websites out there that are crying out for content. Find one on a subject that interests you and offer your services to them. I answered a request on a cycling forum from a fellow member requiring content for a new website he was launching. I answered the call and became a regular contributor to it. Over the years, he gave me advice on style and technique. On the odd occasion he gave me a commission, a subject he wanted covering would drop into my inbox. I happily wrote the articles and submitted them. He became my first editor. He helped my writing confidence enormously by making me write an ebook on Type 2 diabetes and cycling based on an article I sent in, and then editing it for me. It became a bestseller on Amazon. 

Blogging for someone else can give you tremendous confidence. When the cycling website finished several years later, I approached the Huffington Post. They were a bit different; they didn’t offer advice on content but did reject more ruthlessly than the cycling blog. I was happy to write for them for free because of the readership - hundreds of thousands of page clicks every day and syndicated to other countries. A post on staycations went viral, all over Twitter, but unfortunately it still didn’t earn me a penny. It was time to approach the magazine market ...