Watch Skelton Yawngrave TV

Hope all casual droppers-in to my blog are keeping fine. Here’s my Skelton Yawngrave TV YouTube channel. I am hoping, to upload a chapter a day of my story Magnificent Grace during this lockdown.

I had such fun reading to children when I was visiting schools in Brighton and Sussex, I thought I would take it online, something for children with busy brains to do during lockdown. So if you happen to know of an imaginative whippersnapper in key stage 2, 9-12 years old, perhaps they might enjoy being pointed to to Skelton Yawngrave TV.

Here’s me reading the first chapter.

 

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Taking Magnificent Grace into schools

A90BE577-EF30-4610-BF72-71E75A1761B4They say it is good to leave your comfort zone, and recently I have been doing that and found myself loving it. For Skelton Yawngrave was invited to several schools to talk about Magnificent Grace during the week of World Book Day.  Instead of an immaculately-dressed skeleton man, however, the children got his alter ego: me.  Creating an alter ego is one of the things I talk about with the children — and they love the idea. 

On 28th Feb I was in Bolney Primary School meeting some strong writers. The glamorous head teacher there happens to be my wife, and we asked the children add the imaginary to something they were familiar with. My example was of adding a skeleton to a swimming pool.  In one child’s story the protagonist was riding into the nearby woods, on a bicycle that sank and sagged as it had transformed (with hallucinatory clarity) into a machine made of confectionaries. Children seem to add magic naturally.

The 3rd March saw me at Downs Junior school in Brighton, with my minder for the day Dawn Daniel. I am really indebted to Dawn who helped me to reach out to children readers as I was writing the book. My assembly included a reading of the first chapter, to which the children (thankfully) listened with rapt attention. Dawn and I then went to four classes to talk about themes of prejudice and unfairness and importance of editing.

6th March was World Book Day itself. Through relentless rain I dragged a  wheeled suitcase full of books to Preston Park station. Getting off at Balcombe I forded the running muddy stream that was the tarmac path. I received a warm welcome and a cup of tea at Balcombe School, and was told that the children had been playing indoors because of the deluge.

I spent the afternoon with two year groups in one class room, reading from the story, and talking about everything from talking dogs to racism. After trundling to Balcombe station I waited for a half an hour as it poured more. A mother and two kids were on the platform, and one of them produced his copy of Magnificent Grace which he had bought at school and began avidly reading it. A moment that was worth the whole trip. D00928AA-C84A-4068-AE52-56FD96813589

Friday 7th March was Balfour School, luckily just a few flaps of a seagull’s wing away from my house. Two readings and Q&A sessions in the gym. Full of brainy children and a warm and friendly welcome from the staff.

Then in the afternoon, I returned to Downs to sign a few more books, and offer my thanks again to Emma the English subject leader there.  As I was walking home, I passed two children from Balfour, who said hello to me and told me my book was brilliant.  Another wonderful moment.

By the end of the week I had signed so many books as Skelton Yawngrave, that I am beginning to prefer his signature to my own.

Posted in Children's fiction, Education, Prose, Readings, Skelton Yawngrave | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Magnificent Grace — now in paperback!

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Magnificent Grace paperback now available here

Few moments in life are like popping open a box of books you happen to have written.  More accurately I should say written by my alter ego Skelton Yawngrave III. Skelton was wildly pleased with himself. Though cheerful, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Properly armed with my 322 page book, I am particularly looking forward to continuing my school visits.  I was very excited and encouraged by the children’s response at two schools in Sussex, St Giles school in Horsted Keynes, and Bolney School, in Bolney. I have forthcoming visits to St Marks school next week, and Balcome School.

I’ve been really enjoying representing Skelton, and reading sections of the book. In my visits so far I have discussed unfairness and justice, prejudice and tolerance. We have looking hard at the editing process. The children were fascinated to hear how many drafts the book went through, and that I employed professional editor Charlotte Norman to review and copy edit the text.    

I discuss the use of a pseudonym, and ask children what identity they might choose, and what sort of writing they might do. This often elicits interesting answers as the children suddenly discover they might have their own alter ego waiting to express itself. One child, however, said he would write about polar exploration and his pen name would be I.C. Waters which made me laugh.

I early video YouTube experiments with a talking skeleton and visualisations of the characters by my mother Margaret Hamlin to show how I began to develop the characters. My mother’s pictures get oohs! of amazement when I produce them — which gives me a bit of a Romesh Ranganathan’s mother moment.

Having made a living as a writer for at least twenty five years, and having poems and prose published from the age of 22, this is the first time I have self-published a story. In 2020 I find this carries little stigma any more. In a time when many publishers and agents are so risk averse the idea of just getting on with it is very refreshing. I have never been much good at waiting for permission before I start something creative, so doing it this way fits unapologetically with who I am. I can tell you that whenever a child enthuses about Magnificent Grace, it is an absolute vindication.

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Powerful work from Clare Best and Matthew G. Rees

Here are a two things I have read lately, that I would highly recommend.

51573H-S9ILClare Best The Missing List 

I’ve met Clare several times, but bought this book without realising that its subject matter was in fact a memoir about child abuse, published in 2018. I discovered it to be a beautiful patchwork of impressions, of childhood memories, of telling descriptions of home movies, and a deeply human but unsentimental record of an abusive father’s protracted death.

Clare Best quietly tells us how she dealt with her father’s expectation that she should write down his memoirs, all without him ever acknowledging the appalling abuse he had foisted on her.

I was tremendously moved by The Missing List, and by imagining the cold courage it must have taken Clare to write it. It is a careful memoir, by this I mean it is aware of its readers as well as dwelling on how caring for others is full of complexity and nuance.  For anyone who is compelled to make sense of their own past, this book’s quietly understated wisdom is very welcome. 

The Missing List is published by Linen Press.

Matthew G Rees The Snow Leopard of Moscow

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As dippers into this blog may recall, I have been immersed in short stories in the horror and weird fiction genre for a while now.  One contemporary writer who I find genuinely interesting is Matthew G Rees, and I wrote about his excellent collection Keyhole here.

A recent story, The Snow Leopard of Moscow, struck me as an instant classic of the literary horror genre. The time he spent in living in Moscow clearly informed the writing of this story, which is pervaded by what, for this reader at least, is a refreshing backdrop for a horror story.

It really has it all — atmosphere, ambiguity, proper characters, and an absence of weary tropes. It was also made me think about the Jungian shadow, and archetypes of tramps and the wounded healer we encounter in dreams. Why not read it here now? 

 

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Sin Cycle in E·ratio

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Detail of Infant Sorrow by William Blake

Happy new year!  I already have enormous amounts to be thankful for this year.  Chief of these is the editorship of Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino, the editor of E·ratio Postmodern Poetry Journal based in New York. Gregory’s own work, as I have written about here is extraordinary, and challenging and should be explored.  

E·ratio itself (and the 29th issue I find myself in) is a fascinating place to visit. The magazine is crammed full of bracing work in a postmodern idiom from writers around the world. It is one of the best magazines I know.  I have been a regular visitor ever since I found the site a few years ago.

I had suspected my 24 poem sequence Sin Cycle was always going to be hard to place, especially in the UK — and so it proved. Luckily for me Gregory was happy to risk giving a platform to the unreliable, raw and disreputable voice of this sequence.

The eight line poems in this sequence emerged naturally and quickly, and I was lucky enough that three poets I greatly respect, Robin Houghton, Charlotte Gann and Sarah Barnsley read these poems as they started to take shape.  I took a good deal of advice and I should thank them again here for their brains, friendship and support.

William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience lurked in the back of my mind when I was writing Sin Cycle, and the sequence starts with a four line quote from Infant Sorrow.

I was struck by the realisation that I had spent much of my writing life subconsciously wanting to be seen as nice. On some level I realised I had always wanted people to think how clever, or sensitive or aesthetically evolved I was. In these poems I abandoned any idea of smelling of roses or of people thinking well of me. I found it very liberating.

Sin Cycle

Sin Cycle in E·ratio

 

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Exploring Janet Sutherland’s poetry

There are perhaps only a couple-of-dozen poets I find myself returning to time and again. In the last year, however, Janet Sutherland has become one of them.

Janet Sutherland Home Farm jpeg

I own her four collections from Shearsman Books, which are, in order of publication,  Burning the Heartwood, Hangman’s AcreBone Monkey, and Home Farm. Each of these books contains an embarrassment of riches, and the more I look into them, the less able I feel to convey just how much I admire this work. But in the spirit of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ll have a go here. I know it’s a spoiler, but the short version of this blog post is: do yourself a favour and simply read Janet Sutherland’s books now.

Certain themes and images recur throughout the collections. In the first of them, Burning the Heartwood, poems that refer to a Wiltshire farm background in poems like ‘an image of skin‘ are already in place. While in her second collection Hangman’s Acre we meet her character Bone Monkey, who gives its name to her third collection, Bone Monkey. This was the first of her books I read, having been told to do so by my pal Charlotte Gann. Many of the poems this collection contains are about this dark, Loki-like trickster, somehow bestial, but all too human:

Bone monkey knows himself a god
although his raddled arms, his ruined balls
and buttocks seem to say he’s less than that.

(As a God, from Bone Monkey)

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I love the freedom the adoption of a dubious and unreliable character provides. In Janet Sutherland’s hands he becomes a violent, legendary figure.

Bone Monkey swaggers through a plain of thorns
crowned with insignia of warlike deeds–
emblems stolen from the wolves
are fixed securely to his skull with cords

(Emblems from Wolves, from Bone Monkey)

It was in the Bone Monkey collection that I first became enchanted by Janet Sutherland’s lightness of touch with images.

I think of memory
like three swans that sweep
over the river’s surface

ghosts
of the aerial
and of the deep

or like the rivers’ flow
tidal and complex
at an estuary.

(His exposition on the art of memory, Bone Monkey)

The poet has no axe to grind and never seeks our pity. Instead there is alchemy. Personal experiences accrue a near mythical force, in imagery that is dewy fresh and deftly condensed. Images return hauntingly in her work, such as her repeated association of  association of snakes with water…

little adders fall
out of pitch-forked hay

into the stooks
floating the swollen river

(Memory, from Burning the Heartwood)  

This river’s a snake that opens its mouth
and sings, looping and undulating, leaving
a sloughed skin oxbow by its side.

(At Cuckmere, from Home Farm)

Culminating in the wonderful weirdness of these eels.

                                                                 …At night
white water grinds over and over through this sieve,
and in that loneliness the eels come quietly, one by one,
driven by longing for a spawning place at sea. Slither
an eye across the peep show floor. The risen dark
pools where eels still hide trapped in a storage well,
somersaulting, tumbling and unbalancing.

(The Eel House, from Home Farm)

Home Farm, published this year, contains perhaps Janet Sutherland’s most autobiographical work. Here her childhood exists in several dimensions: in the awareness of the history of the land, of villagers who lived there before, of family history, in the names of fields and beasts and flowers, and in the suggestions of fleeting human experience, and the tragedy of lost memory. And the result is… Well, just wonderful.

For some reason, she makes me want to use the word ‘ontology’ for her poetry has a complex kind of ‘being’ that has, for me, proper heft and its own strange life. At her best, Janet Sutherland has the power to make her fabulously-realised world exist in the imagination as a place one wants to continually return to.  I can admire lots of poetry, but there are few collections I genuinely love as much as these.

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Magnificent Grace, by Skelton Yawngrave

If you happen to know a child of 9-12 who likes reading, and want a tale set in the run up to Halloween and Guy Fawkes night… then I have a full length story (a.k.a. my kindle experiment) for them. It’s creepy, funny, magical and dystopian and is about trying to bring together a divided populace.

Grace is a heroine for a troubled age. The story was complete before I came to know about Greta Thunberg. Grace would love Greta.

It can be found here on Amazon. It’s on kindle at the moment — at a snip — turning into a paperback soon now looks likely.

The cover painting is by the splendid young artist Ellie Francesca Watson. Ellie happens to be the daughter of Carl, one of my oldest and best pals, which makes it doubly nice for both of us. Also I would like to thank Charlotte Norman who edited the manuscript and helped me recognise, and then eliminate, some bad habits in my prose style. What I learned from her was enormously useful, and I have carried these learnings into my short horror fictions.

Thanks are also due to my chum Tracey Middleton who, tired of my whining early this year, put a rocket up my derrière to get this done.

Being married to a headteacher is a wonderful boon too, and Lorraine’s patience, encouragement and knowledgeable guidance has been invaluable. Our friends in education Rosie Taylor and Dawn Daniel have given me essential feedback and the opportunity to go into schools and try it out on real life children.

Several years ago, my mum painted pictures of some of the characters, and this was extremely useful in focusing my ideas.

I decided to publish this story under a pseudonym. It has had an unexpected psychological boon. I struggle to promote myself, but I adore Skelton Yawngrave, however, who is a character in the book as well as its author, and I would do anything to help him.

So this is my kindle experiment. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Posted in a writer's life, Art, Blowing my own trumpet, Book Launch, Children's fiction, Fiction, Prose | Tagged , | Leave a comment