The Power of the Word

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It’s almost the middle of February already and I feel like my feet aren’t touching the ground still. However, this week saw me get through a load of work, events and catching up that I’d been planning for and trying to get through for months. Firstly there was a warm welcome in Leeds at Wordspace , which is a Leeds Trinity university led regular open mic, compered by the incredibly talented Hannah Stone. I’d been invited to be the guest reader by Oz Hardwick who, as ever, was the epitome of kindness and dry humour. It comes at a time (ongoing) where my confidence in myself as a writer as well as in just about every single area of my life has suddenly dropped away like an ocean shelf, and whilst I know from past experiences that pushing through the inevitable anxiety that accompanies these confidence drops is worth it as it helps me see myself as others might see me, and not just how to that awful voice in my head sees me,  it was still really tough. There were several points where I didn’t think I’d be able to get up in front of an audience and read and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how I might have done this before. My husband drove us over to the venue in Leeds which is roughly two hours going and an hour and a half back (due to less traffic) and I’m always so grateful for that little kindness that he does for me. When I’m overcome with this sort of anxiety it makes it very difficult to think and focus properly, which means it’s probably a bad idea to drive. We got there with enough time for me to get a nice hot cup of tea in and for Chris to start sampling the gorgeous craft beers available at The Hop Shack . It’s a really lovely venue, stylish and warm and with enough space for everyone to have a seat. The quality of the open mic was incredible, and the atmosphere was one of enthusiasm for poetry. There was a real mixed crowd of people: students and non students, younger and older, all there for the power of words. I’d met a few of them before at other events.

The thing that happened that made it one of my highlights as a poet was that Oz introduced my work, and not me. There was a blurb on the print out which was available to everyone, so anyone could read that I’d had this and that published, worked here and here…competitions etc, all of which look brilliant on my CV but somehow fail to satisfy this terrible thing inside me that is always telling me how shit I am. Instead, Oz described what he felt when he heard me read, what the poems felt like to him. He said I wrote poetry that you could ‘climb inside’ and that it was like an “earthed tuning fork, a concrete tuning fork, listening to the world”. It meant so much to me, at that point especially, to hear someone whose work I respect and who I respect so much as a person, to describe my work like that, and it allowed me jus enough breathing space from the shitty low self confidence to actually get up and read poems from the new collection. The new collection is brutal in its representation of my experience of death, and with how much I have hated my body and my self, and how the death of my daughter compounded that, how I live with that. It is not a barrel of laughs. Since writing it I’ve felt that I have moved through a part of grief that had me pinned down with guilt and some sort of desperate need to atone for some imagined thing that I did wrong and caused her to leave me, and with the desperation of writing to her and never getting a reply. I feel like I have moved through that now, I’m out the other side, but it is still hard to actually get those poems out and open that experience up and share it. However, it is my honest belief that poetry is an important art form and that connection between people, that mode of emotional communication that allows others, and myself, to say ‘yes, this, this is it, this is what life is’ that’s an important thing. Poetry is not just observation, you do climb inside poetry, and when you do give that cist, that you-shaped den over to someone else to climb inside, it’s terrifying. The poems went down really well. I had a half of beer afterwards and was able to enjoy the rest of the evening, but sadly had to jet off at half nine to make sure we got back to the dog before midnight. Chris and I chatted all the way back about our memories of embarrassing stuff we’ve done, and we laughed, nand we talked about our courting days and about the way our marriage is far more weighted towards the beautiful, good things that have happened, rather than the terrible things, and they really were terrible. I wish I could explain the value of poetry being out in the world. It’s not about therapy, and even when it is, it’s still important, and open mics and regular events where you get to read your work, they are important, not just for entertainment, but for communication.

After this is was only a two days before Chris and I were heading off to Flintshire in North Wales to Gladstone’s Library where I’d been invited to run a workshop by the Manchester Women Writer’s Group for their annual creative day. They very kindly paid my expenses, no mean feet for a small group and for me to come all the way across the country; a journey of seven hours, and obviously we had to stay over otherwise we’d never have made it. I’d been excited about this gig for ages, but the sudden slope off of my confidence made it very challenging. We were knackered when we finally arrived, but my goodness, buoyed by the beauty of the place.  What a wonderful building, so tranquil and beautiful. I sort of felt a bit too working class to be there, like I might dirty the seats or stain the books with my presence, which is just what that inner voice tells me a LOT. We went for a drink in the village and had a really lovely dinner at The Fox and Grapes accompanied by a good, sharp cat’s piss and gooseberries Sauv. blanc and then went back to the library where we read our books in the beautiful common room.

Then to bed. My favourite sound in the world is the wind through trees and there were trees right outside our window, which I found very relaxing, along with the gentle bells from the church chiming the hour. However, the anxiety made it impossible to sleep properly and in the morning I actually had to find a chemist to get something to help settle my stomach I was so nervous. I was checking and rechecking notes, checking and rechecking my appearance, over and over and was just thankful when the time came to go down and meet the group and get going. I hate how anxiety dominates my life like this, but I have to say, it’s not usually as bad as this, I don’t know what’s going on with me. Perhaps just a bit run down. Anyway, the group were absolutely lovely, a real mix of genres and experience and all incredibly enthusiastic. I pushed a lot of exercises into the session, because I wanted them to really get pen to paper and break through the invisible barrier of the FEAR. The fear inhabits a blank page or a blank computer screen and is so powerful it can stop you writing. But such is the power of the word, that one is able to defeat this foe by just writing without purpose of fear of judgement. At the start of the workshop I was falling over my own words, but once I got interacting with the group and sharing the work, it went well.

I think they enjoyed it, they seemed to. And I really enjoyed it. I forget that there is a reason that I do this for a living, that I chose to be a full time writer, mentor, workshop facilitator, and it’s not because I’m shit at everything else, it’s because I’m good at this, I’m good at what I do. I forget that bit about the journey that I’m on.

We left almost immediately after the workshop to get across the country home. There’d been a storm over night and I was quite worried about flooding round our area, which usually knocks train times out and causes delays. The last thing you want on a seven hour journey is delays. I love travelling on the train, though, and it was just wonderful to go through my favourite northern cities and to revisit the Calder valley which looks like a beautiful art animation through a train window. But I missed seeing Suzannah Evans who’s new book I was hoping to get signed. She was running a workshop in the afternoon and I think is going to be a resident at the library for a whole month too.

I’d also been thinking about the play, writing the play. It’s become somewhat obsessive. I’d decided against crowd funding to make time to write the play. I’d decided, instead, that I would push back against the lack of confidence, which I felt was being exacerbated by feeling like I couldn’t get away from ‘work’ to write, by doing the thing that I advised my mentees and course attendees to do, which is to MAKE time, and not try to ‘find’ time. It’s so much less passive. So I had been getting up early, aiming for a half four/five in the morning start in order to get chunks of play writing done. On the first day I sat down to do this I was extremely surprised when an entirely different play to the one that I had spent months planning and working out the plot for, appeared on the screen as I was writing, and into which I fell heavily, like falling into a fast flowing stream. It was wanting to be written, and I am happy to say that the first draft is now actually written. I’d worked out that it needed roughly 200 hours of work on it to get it to a place where it would be ready to submit, and I had seen an award prize that I wanted to submit it to, which closes on Sunday. This had seemed impossible, just an impossible mark to aim for so that i would come in knowing I’d achieved something, even if I didn’t make that date, but some how it is burning into being and I’ll probably put a good twenty-thirty more hours in before Sunday to get it ready. It feels like a beautifully furious type of writing, a little like it did when I poured myself over my collection when I was a bit mad last year writing it. I feel less mad, but just on the cusp of euphoria with it all. Might be a good idea to have a few days off after I finish it. The play feels like it is good writing, but of course it’s almost impossible to tell if it is or not and I don’t want to say what it’s about, only that, whilst it draws on some of my experiences in life, it is NOT ABOUT ME. Which is brilliant. I’m not in this one, it’s not my story, and that is a freeing position to be in after the pure personal quality of the last ‘project.’

In the meantime the new course ‘Poems to Save the World’ is going very well. The course attendees are writing about Trump, Brexit and personal feelings around politics and doing an incredible, brave amount of writing. it’s a really supportive little group again and I feel like I have gotten to know a few of them quite well now, but it’s so lovely to have new people jumping in too. It’s a real pleasure to run these little workshops. I’ll be re-running The Wild Within in March, it was a very popular workshop last time, so you might need to book early if you want a place this time. Look out for details tomorrow.

Thank you for allowing me to waffle on, apologies that it was mainly about my jittery nerves.

 

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Milkman by Anna Burns- a mini review

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It’s taken me an entire month to read this book. It was worth it.

Milkman is the Booker Prize winner from author Anna Burns. It is a dense, powerful, thrilling, frightening narrative about a community living under long term pressure and violence and how normality warps under such pressure. Although the town it is set in is not named, and the time it is set in is undefined, it is clear to see that it is set in a town which mirrors Belfast in the seventies, during the troubles. There are other themes here too, sexism and misogyny, spousal abuse, romance, and self identification, self awareness all play a part n the over all structure, but all are layered up and woven in with the oppression of a whole community.

When I describe the book as ‘dense’ I am describing not only the tight, thick, break-less pages, the careful, multi layer construction of dialogue and internal thoughts, but also the density of the situation. The town depicted is relentlessly rule driven, except the rules change constantly. Nothing is as it should be, this is a society in extremes, except, of course, even in extremes people have lives, people get on with stuff and in this case the society has twisted itself into a shape in which violent murders and paramilitary activity are the norm. One of the most powerful aspects of the book is the way that things remain unnamed. People here live on the edge of loss, so seem to avoid that loss by never committing to owning anything, not streets, not towns, not husbands or wives, in fact the people in this story avoid losing the people they love by settling for the people they don’t love and resenting it their whole lives. Children are not named, they are simply denoted by their placement in the family order, as if, like a snack machine, one might be pushed out into death and replaced by the next in line. Community members are denoted by their actions, everyone has a nickname which implies their place in the herd, with the outsiders, the ‘beyond the pales’ in the dangerous predicament of being on the outside of the herd, where they could be picked off at any point. In this way it has a feel of The Handmaid’s Tale to it, it has the same level of frantic anxiety, tied down and restricted beneath the guise of a  normality put in place by an oppressive force, and this makes it intensely chilling.

The main protagonist, the eighteen year old ‘middle daughter’ avoids the political state that she lives in by keeping her head in 19th century literature, not even looking up from said books when out walking about. She runs for pleasure, but is monitored when she does; she drinks with friends, but only in approved drinking places and her friends are pre ordered into political and non political friendships. This is how it is here, there are kangaroo courts, and death on every corner. She begins to be labelled as ‘beyond the pale’ and also begins to attract a high profile paramilitary, the Milkman, but being a woman she is powerless to assert any choice in the matter.

This is a brilliant book. It isn’t a book that you can swallow whole in one sitting, but it is beautifully, intricacy, carefully, cleverly and wryly put together. The choice of language, of style, is so perfect, so ‘beyond the pale’ that it is striking, real, something about it rings utterly true in a frightening, realistic way. It is almost dystopian, like looking down the lens to the future, but it is also the past, and also the present. I look forward to reading more from Anna Burns.

The Return of the Tax Return

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

The above image illustrates almost exactly how much I earned as a writer this year.  Yes, it’s the most magical time of the year, when the self employed have to face the music after procrastinating over it for twelve whole months. There is always much panicked printing of bank statements, marrying up of invoices and of course the last minute flurry of searching for receipts which you are sure you left in a plastic bag under the desk but then remember tipping them into a box so you could use the bag and then remember tipping them into another bag so that the cat could use the box until, like a natural part of the earth’s cycle, the receipts have disappeared into the caverns of cluttered guest room and are logged officially as ‘gone’, only to resurface two days after you press ‘send’ on the tax return. At this time of year there is a lot of swearing on social media by the self employed, and if you bump into a fellow writer you end up rocking backwards and forwards, commiserating with them as you both panic. There are many, many google searches. I have asked the WWW to define so many tax related terms that I think I could probably write a really boring book about it.

But it is done. And I am determined, again, to not have this panic next year. The strangest thing is that actually, when I get sat down and start sorting it out, I really enjoy it. It gives me a chance to listen to all the stuff I’ve missed on Radio four.  I listen to the entire series of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman while I was printing PayPal receipts and worrying about how to prove stuff from the receipts that had mysteriously disappeared. I would heartily recommend How to Be a Woman, by the way, it’s funny, moving, brilliant writing and delivered perfectly. I felt a real connection there.

I’ve realised that my tendency to procrastinate is not really part of my process at all, but rather an automatic knee jerk fear of failure, which seems to effect quite a few areas of my life. The fear is so strong that I end up putting things off to avoid what my brain tells me will be inevitable failure. I’m working on it. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of these people that don’t worry that they are a bit shit at everything and everyone else has it all sorted etc etc, but I AM able to recognise that the feeling of tackling something head on is so much more pleasurable than the days, weeks and even months of low level anxiety at the back of the mind which tugs away at anything pleasurable because your brain knows that FAILURE IS IMMINENT . So, new year, and new habit forming: the accounts are getting updated every day and I will be joining a few professional bodies because now I am able to class myself as a full time, professional writer. I did it. I earn a pittance, but I did it. The year of accounts that I have just concluded was the year in which I began to move away from the small animal care business that i had set up when I left my job as a microbiologist, after Matilda died and after the investigation into her death, and maps the time when I took the plunge and decided to build my presence as a writer, and not just a poet. It was a learning curve. At the beginning of that year my planner is full of dog walks, horse parasitology, cat visits, and bunny boarding. It brought back so many memories, lots of nice ones and feelings of pride, but also memories of how many hours I was having to put in to make a living, alongside my PhD! Animal care and writing are both appallingly low paid professions, but the over heads as a writer are a lot less, and there is a broad range of pay scales in the writing world, where as you do tend to struggle to increase rates in the animal care world and people expect a great deal from you for less than five pounds per hour. I feel much more in control of my own earnings as a writer, and confident too, in my own skills. There is a point in my accounts where I start doing the industry journal abstracting, which was my first real regular writing job, and I remember the utter pleasure of being able to not wear waterproofs to work, to sit at a desk in the warm and drink my coffee and watch the birds. I gave up the dog walking part of the business not long later. I did not regret it. After that I was able to secure my regular column at Yorkshire Life and began to drop some of the bunny boarding jobs. And then the work dried up and I had several months with very little money and I remember that as being just awful, selling possessions to get through the month, and trying desperately to keep the faith. But then I started to have more articles accepted, I began building on the mentoring part of my work and started running my online courses and found a way to do lots of small jobs that would constitute an over all income which is, I am surprised to say, liveable. I gave up the industry journal abstracting because it was woefully badly paid for the hours I put in, and haven’t looked back. This year I increased profits on last year, again. It is a steady and slow rise, but it is a rise.

This twitter thread on the difficulties of making a living just a writer says everything I want to: Rebecca Schuman. The hard fact is, I would find it impossible to pay my mortgage with just writing on its own, and that was quite a steep learning curve for me, but I climbed that bloody hill and made it over the top. All of this meant that when I did hand my tax return in, although I hadn’t earned enough to pay tax, which will give you an indication of how hard it is to make a living in the creative arts, I felt really proud of myself. I worked hard, it’s paying off. And actually, without the PhD taking a big chunk of my earnings and adding and extra twenty – thirty hours on my week, I am happy and balanced and enjoying my life. I love working for myself and I love the work that I do. I have surprised myself by how much I actually enjoy working with people. And I am determined to build on that. However, there is still no room in my days for my own creative work in the form of writing the play, which is the project I am trying, trying to work on. After much discussion with good writerly friends, I am considering a kickstarter to buy the time I need to write it, but I’ll save that for another post.

And now for a quick round up of tis week’s crazy work load:

On Saturday I went to the prize giving ceremony of the Set Riding Festival of Words poetry competition which I had judged with the super lovely James Nash and Matthew Headley Stoppard who wasn’t able to come to the ceremony. It was a hugely positive and life affirming event, with so many poets attending. James one of those quiet, unassuming poets with a very powerful undercurrent of emotion and I really valued the couple of hours I got to spend with hi, his enthusiasm is contagious. James hadn’t looked to see who the winners were (judging was anonymous) until the last minute, but I can’t bear to not know, and had looked as soon as I got to North Bridlington Library (which is an excellent library, incidentally) I was really happy to see some known faces. However, the winners didn’t know who had won either, so there was a real ‘Oscars’ feel to the event. I was very grumpy when I set off for the event because I was still in tax return Hell, but felt light as a feather when I left, and full of the enthusiasm that people have for poetry, from beginners to the experienced, and how it is still a means of communication, poetry is still relevant, is even more relevant than ever.

The next day I headed over to York, to According to McGee where Dream Catcher 38 was launched and the editorship officially handed over to myself. It was a smashing event, loads of very talented readers and a lovely buzz with three generations of editor there. We are open to submissions, incidentally and I would LOVE to see some new blood from all the talented poets that I have come across on social media and in real life. We’re still on paper submissions right now but watch this space for more news of email subs taking place. In the mean time, get sticking stamps on envelopes and kissing them into the post box for me and make my day with your wonderful poems and stories: Dream Catcher Submissions

by the way, here’s a little video of the gallery, I am so proud as editor of DC to be associated with such a vibrant, energetic art space: Video

My pictures are a bit crap, I was all of a jitter preparing myself to do a reading and trying to give a good impression. It was a bitterly cold day, but a wonderfully warm event with loads of energy and it was great to see some familiar faces and to have poetry and prose friends reading.

 

The rest of the week was spent critiquing poems for my just ended course: How to Write a Poem and preparing the notes and prompts for the next course, which you could still just slink into if you are quick: Poems to Save the World . I was also coming to the end of a fantastic four week mentoring period with a lovely poet who was working on a fascinating pamphlet. I love how her work has developed, how she has expanded her idea and taken some risks which have paid off and I am hoping she’ll be picked up quick. She deserves to be. If you’re interested in mentoring, have a look at the testimonials and drop me a line: Testimonials

Then finally the tax return, which fluttered off to HMRC with a whole day’s grace, meaning I could finally allow myself a day off. It was lush. I swept my patio and spent time with my guinea pigs, took the dog for a good long walk and watched a film that I knew my husband wouldn’t want to watch – Roma which is a beautifully filmed, beautifully plotted film about women, hierarchy and day to day life in Mexico. One of the things which struck me about it was the soundscapes, and it reminded me so much of when I was in Mexico, how vibrant the sounds were, how different. Beautiful film. Little spoiler because I know there are a few people who have suffered stillbirths who read this blog, it does have some scenes of baby loss in it. It took me by surprise and on occasions when this has happened in the past (though not on this occasion, which is progress) I’ve felt quite shaky and upset and have been dragged back to the hospital and my own baby’s death (PTSD) so wanted to give a little warning. Don’t let it put you off though, it is such a wonderful, wonderful film, do check it out.

And that was that. January is finally over and February is shaping up to be slightly less chaotic, thank goodness. Speak soon!

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Poems to Save the World

 

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Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

The new online workshop/course is open for bookings, places are going very fast. But you can still book onto it by following this link: Poems to Save the World

 

This week an anonymous donor sponsored two places so that two people who might not otherwise be able to spare their hard-earned £10 could join in on the course. It was such a kind, thoughtful way to give back and I am truly grateful. it also sparked a flurry of others wanting to do the same. WHAT A GREAT IDEA.

If you’d like to anonymously sponsor places on this course, or any other course I am running, please do get in touch. It could make a huge difference to someone, and your generosity might enable a person on low-income to go on and make a success of their writing.

Thank you!

New Year, New Challenges

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

I hit the new year with my head up and my hands busy as I had so much work on. Between running the latest online course, mentoring a wonderful mentee, writing my regular column for Yorkshire Life, writing  a couple of small freelance articles, trying to find time to catch up on my book work so that I can submit the dreaded tax return and judging the Bridlington poetry competition, I have been feeling a bit run down. This was not helped by catching a bad cold which affected my sinuses and made sitting at the computer a real pain, at a time when I had scheduled back to back seven-day weeks until I was caught up. Sadly, as a freelancer I don’t get paid for sick time and any deadlines I miss directly impacts on the money that goes in the pot for bills, mortgage, car repairs (which seem to be every other week at the minute) which is a tad stressful.

Despite feigning nonchalance over the Arts Council England Grants application I made nine weeks ago, I had also worked myself into a state of nervous anxiety waiting on the results and when I found out yesterday I’d been unsuccessful again it really was a bit of a blow. I know full well that rejection is the name of the game in the writing world, but it’s still quite hard. I’m a full-time writer, a professional writer, but I don’t make enough money from my own creative writing to live off, so my main income is via running workshops, mentoring and running online courses. I’m very passionate about helping people to develop their writing skills and developing the confidence to write, and in my neck of the woods we are a fairly low average wage, so it’s also important to me to provide the services I do at a rate that people on low incomes can afford or at least have a chance to save towards. I work mainly online with clients because  it makes it easier for clients to do coursework and homework around their own lives. Most people I work with have family and work commitments and would struggle to afford travel etc, I know this because I struggle to afford to travel and I can’t afford expensive courses or retreats.

My main project at the minute is  my stage play, which looks at friendships between classes and the drinking culture of of a northern seaside town, the sort of town that I come from. The funding would have helped me to work on it to completion; allowing me to be able to pay my bills and focus for a couple of months on researching the topics I was writing about and actually sitting down to write. It would be incredible to be able to sit down at my desk and just write, just be a writer with no extra pressures to do any thing else. Awards which allow writers the time to write are a godsend. I’ve seen a few snarky social media comments about the TS Eliot prize and how it’s a ridiculously large amount of money, but for someone like me, and most professional writers are very much in a hand to mouth situation, it would provide two years of serious writing time, probably enough time to write a novel, or to research and write a full collection of poetry. That’s why prizes and awards are so important. Which is also why it’s a bit of a blow when you don’t manage to reach that goal and get the funding. I had a bit of a meltdown, because it naturally brought out quite a lot of feelings of not being wanted, of not being good enough, of not being successful enough to warrant the gamble from an organisation like the ACE, that is giving me money to work on my own creative endeavours. Readers, I had a junk food and wine night and a really good long cry. But my mood was boosted by some messages of support I received, especially from someone whose work I really admire, who had been successful with the ACE funding. Her project sounds absolutely brilliant, in fact looking at the list of projects that have been successful, they all sound relevant and necessary and the people who have won the funding are all talented and filled to the brim with potential, so there’s certainly no sour grapes here, I just feel disappointed that I aren’t able to make the step forward in the way I would like, it’s become harder again and I’m quite tired.

But I ain’t no quitter, and I know lots and lots of people who are having a crappier time of it than just the frustration of being turned down for a grant. I’ll just have to find another way.

In other news, the current online course is going brilliantly, I’m so impressed with those attendees who are really challenging themselves with sonnets and sestinas and actively considering how they are making their free verse poems work for them. The FB closed group is a hive of activity and I am seeing some genuine moments of support there, which pleases me and I’m pleased to be involved with this group, they really are a good bunch.

Which leads me to my next plug – I’m going to be running another month-long course/workshop in February, this is one of my ‘daily prompt’ courses, and you can find details Here it’s just £10 for the whole month and that includes access to the online closed group, where I am generally about on a daily basis to offer a little bit of support and guidance, though I can’t offer full critique on your poems with this one. These online courses are quite popular so book early to avoid disappointment. February’s course is Poems to Save the World and I hope that, in the current climate especially, it will provide a poetic vent for frustrations around the state of politics, the environment, the world at large etc as well as celebrating the good stuff in life. I hope to see you there!

Finally, I have a couple of readings coming up:

Readings

 

Fancy coming to see me and some other fabulous poets read? I’ll be doing a short set at Bridlington library on Saturday 26th January where we’ll be announcing the winners of the competition. I’ll be reading with fellow Valley Press writers James Nash and Matthew Headily Stoppard so get yourself down there, 11-12.30

And do you fancy coming and seeing what Dream Catcher Magazine is about? Then get yourself to According to McGee in York on 27th January, where we’ll be launching issue 38 with readings from contributors and the editors. There’ll be three ‘generations’ (we’re a bit like Dr Who) of DC editors present and there will be WINE. 2pm for 2.30 start

 

Catch you on the flip side

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What I read in 2019: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

 

A Mini Review

The Essex Serpent

by Sarah Perry

Published by Serpent’s Tail

ISBN: 978-1781255452

When I first picked this up, drawn to it by the beautiful cover illustration and the fact that it was the Waterstones ‘Book of the Year’ 2016 and shortlisted for the Costa novel award 2016, I had high hopes. I thought it sounded engaging and thrilling with an interesting concept that excited me. I have a fairly eclectic taste in books but I was looking for something I could really get my teeth into and fall in love with. Unfortunately, as soon as I started reading The Essex Serpent, it started to irritate me. Now, this is entirely subjective and a completely personal opinion. I actually asked on social media for other reader’s options of it and got a mixed response, but there were a lot of people saying how much they loved it, how beautifully written it was how it was definitely one of their favourite books. I try very hard not to read forewords or author’s notes before I read a novel, because I like to make my own mind up about it, I like to be surprised and I like to go on a journey with a book and, for me, that involves not knowing it before hand, except through short reviews and recommendations. However, in this case I actually wish I had done, because I found the book so hard to place in a historical context without knowing the intentions of the author. There were not enough definite markers for me that would help me to place it, I couldn’t quite recognise the style of dress, housing or transport, even though all of these things are mentioned many times.  I had it anywhere from Georgian right up to the 1950s, but it turned out to be a ‘Victorian novel’.  I have now skimmed through the author notes and can understand what the intention was (to recognise that nothing much changes in people’s actions and the problems and superstitions which prevail in society) but for me that didn’t quite come through enough without some definite place markers.

Although I found the characters interesting, I never quite fell in love with any of them, I felt that I didn’t really know them well enough to do that. The book is written in such a style that it opens each chapter in a very scenic way, zooming in on the characters, as if starting a new story, I kept seeing the chapters opening up like a film, films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Shape of Water come to mind. But for me this stylised method of telling the story meant that the characters got separated far too much, causing me to keep checking to see where they fit in relation to other characters. I also felt it was a bit too romanticised, and there were scenes where I rolled my eyes a bit. For example, without wishing to ruin it for anyone, there’s a scene in a slum area of London where some upper middle class types are being shown round to highlight the housing crisis and we turn to see an urchin girl child smoking a cigarette in a torn and raggedy dress while wearing beautiful feathered fairy wings. One of the feathers floats down to land in a puddle as she flicks ash out into the street. I’m paraphrasing or paraphrasing the scene at least. It is like an Athena image of a poor child, the pedant in me insists that a girl in rags would not have own beautiful feathered fairy wings. There were quite a few scenes where I felt that way.

 

Having said all that, and I do feel bad because I wouldn’t want to criticise an author’s work, I did in fact stick with the book, right through to the end because I wanted to know what happened, and that’s a real skill for a novelist to have, to be able to suck someone in enough that even when they have doubts about their own enjoyment, they actually want to finish the book. I loved the idea of the serpent and the constant guessing, the manipulation of reality and imagination, and towards the end, in the last chapters when the characters are put to smaller tests of character and morality I felt they came to life a bit more, I started to feel sad on their behalf.

It’s not like anything I’ve read before, really, partly I guess because it does cross genres and maybe that just makes it difficult for my brain to contain it. Perhaps that’s why it is an award winner and so very popular. I would definitely recommend reading it for yourself and I would love to know your thoughts on it.

 

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My 2018 Bests

 

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Photo by Sebastian Hietsch on Pexels.com

I thought it would be nice to round up the year with what I’ve enjoyed in the arts from people to films, art exhibitions to poetry. So here goes, if you don’t feature, by the way, it’s not because I didn’t like your work, I’ve enjoyed countless books, films, events and exhibitions this year, so thank you for enriching my life!

Best Novel

A tough one, I’ve read many this year. The one that stuck out for me was The North Water, by Ian McGuire, published by Scribner. You can buy it here. This is a terrifying, dark story. I read it almost in one sitting it was so gripping, but more than just a fast, electrifying, gritty plot line is the style of writing, both elegant and satisfying. I’ve just lent it to my husband and am already itching to get it back and re read it.

Best Full Poetry Collection

Again, a tough one. But the collection I’ve just read, Girls are Coming Out of the Woods, by Tishani Doshi, published by Bloodaxe Books, is one that I will keep coming back to. In fact I have only just finished reading it and I am re reading it. You can read about it here. What did I like about it? Powerful, unapologetic poems on difficult subjects, told without prevention. It blew me away. Go read it, go!

Best Short Collection

It’s got to be Liz Berry’s The Republic of Motherhood published by Penguin. You can read about it here. If you’ve not heard of this collection you’re missing out. Liz Berry has a light touch and a wonderfully transportive style and these poems are doing what poetry does best, challenging perception through personal narrative. Brilliant, brilliant collection.

Best Film

Film is the medium I turn to when I need to unwind. I like films that are layered, interesting but also aesthetically pleasing. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri does all of these. It is dark, funny, brilliantly acted, brilliantly filmed. It’s moving and wonderful. Go watch it. Here’s an article about it in The Guardian.

Best Play

I saw Jess and Jo Forever at the wonderful Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, I reviewed it for The Stage. It was phenomenal, a true masterclass in gentle, humorous story telling. Great use of stage, great acting, there was nothing to fault. Bring hankies.

Best Art Exhibition

Another Scarborough experience. This was the Sylvia Pankhurst exhibition at Scarborough Art gallery. You can read about it here. The paintings are moving in their simplicity, and presented elegantly, with space to think. It’s something of a revelation, in the context of the suffragette movement, and made me think about the different ways in which we protest. I believe some of these paintings are now heading to The Tate, but it would be brilliant if you could go and support a small, but brilliant, art gallery in Scarborough!

Best Museum

The last time I was in Manchester was for the Northern Soul awards. While we were there I was dragged to the National Football Museum by my Derby County loving husband. I expected to be bored stiff, but it’s actually one of the best museums I’ve been to. It’s interactive, fun, interesting, historical and the staff were bending over backwards to present items and answer questions. A really great experience. Read about it here.

Most Admirable Poet

I’ve talked before about Antony Owen before, his work as a peace poet is something I admire so much. Here’s what I’ve written about him before: Antony Owen

Most Admirable TV Personality

David Attenborough, who is using his life to bring attention to the state the world is in. He could be enjoying a lazy retirement, but instead he’s out and physically spreading the message. I loves him. Read a bit about what he’s doing here.

Best Cookbook

I’m still in love with the Thug Kitchen books. Honestly, great recipes, lots of swearing. What’s not to love? Read about them here, mother forkers.

Best Cookery Blog

Less of a blog, more of a resource, I love drooling over the video recipes and have just bought their book: BOSH

Best Poetry Blog

Another tough one. Lots of poets blogging about poetry, about being a poet, about where the creative impulse comes from. Roy Marshall’s blog and website is one of those that covers everything and does it eloquently and thoughtfully. Read it here

Most Hardworking Editor

Has got to be the champion of the North: Helen Nugent. i watched her put together the Northern Soul Awards and am in awe of her abilities and stamina.

Best Instagram account to Follow 

There are many, but one of my favourites is natgeo – gorgeous pictures.

Best Twitter Account to Follow

Ian McMillan – worth following for his early morning strolls alone, as well as his gentle, friendly humour and passion for poetry. @IMcMillan

Best Poetry Magazine

I can’t really vote for Dream Catcher Magazine, being as I’m the editor. So I shall choose another fab magazine, this one is an online magazine which makes it accessible to all, something us poor poets appreciate! Ink Sweat & Tears are consistent in both quality and passion. Get yourself over there.

And that’s that. I hope you enjoy these as much as I have.

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