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.

Posted in a writer's life, Children's fiction, Prose, Publishing, Skelton Yawngrave | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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

Supernatural Tales 41, Autumn 2019

As a horror and weird fiction newbie, I’m delighted to have my first story The Inheritor in Supernatural Tales, edited tirelessly by David Longhorn. My tale is set in Guernsey, and draws on my childhood experiences of living in my Grandparent’s haunted 16th century granite cottage.

The story concerns the return of an exile, a burial and a the return to a haunted house (see above). You’ll be pleased to learn it all ends horrifically. I preface The Inheritor with a quote by Victor Hugo, who lived on the island.

‘Houses resemble those who dwell in them, and can, as it were, die…  These weird looking abodes are not rare in the Channel Islands; all agricultural and seafaring classes have a strong faith in the active agency of Satan.’

Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea

The table of contents has some heavy hitting horror and weird fiction writers. Chuffed to be among them.

  • That the Sea Shall Be Calm by David Surface
  • Pertrichor by Sam Dawson
  • Old Habits by Stephen Cashmore
  • The Sea Man by James Machin
  • Sorrow is the Mother of the World by Jeremy Schiliewe
  • The Inheritor by Peter Kenny
  • No Passage Landward by Steve Duffy.

You can buy your copy of Supernatural Tales here.

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The Dream Home

Very happy to have a new dark tale in the Autumn 2019 94th edition of the literary magazine The Frogmore Papers, edited by Jeremy Page. There are two other stories in this edition: A Citadel by Natalya Lowndes, and A Few Brief Words by Andrew Blair. I found both had a lovely balance of humour and pathos. A Citadel is an evocative portrait of the narrator’s Uncle Julius a lonely, hard-drinking British ex-pat in Moscow. A Few Brief Words, takes the form of a speech given at a funeral for a curmudgeonly writer who idolised Arthur Miller.

My own story The Dream Home is about insomnia, and is based on a technique I used in the past to fall asleep. The idea is when you go to bed, to imagine your perfect house. Night after night I would do this, adding to the house I was building in my imagination, and then I would nod off. In this story, there is naturally something lurking in the dream home. Like others of my recent stories, I set it in a place I have lived in. When I first moved to Brighton over fourteen years ago now, I lived in a Twitten called Camden Terrace very close to the railway station. I often lay awake listening to the rough sleepers gathered in the underpass of Trafalgar Street, and could hear them shouting and sometimes singing.

This issue of The Frogmore Press as ever has some fine poetry in it. Two poems have leapt out at me right away. One by my pal Stephen Bone, called Curry which is spicy in every sense, and another by Laura Chalar called The Nineties Revisited. This simply written poem about a lost time and lost love that got me right away. Here are its closing lines…

“Bring back

your gorgeous life and mine–never
to be merged, I’m afraid (too late for that),

but for the humbler treats of coffee
and a talk. You may of course choose to

remain silent, but I’ve always been curious–
how on earth could you fail to gauge

the depth of that love? Come back, will you? Can you?
We’re so young. A bright century is about to come in.”

Posted in a writer's life, Blowing my own trumpet, Horror, Poetry, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Glen Capra

Glen Capra, photo by Adrian Turner

Like many of his friends, I was distressed to learn of Glen Capra’s death on 29th August in Greece. I was one of a group who regularly went for beers in The Evening Star with Glen when he made one of his regular visits back to Brighton after he had settled in Kavala.

Glen was a considerate and sensitive man, who was passionate about his relationships, music, art and life. This makes the fact that he took his own life extremely hard to take. Close friends, especially Richard Gibson, were in frequent touch with him before he died. He had been depressed and disoriented after his short marriage had abruptly ended. His death was a shock for everyone, and texts I’d had from him a few days earlier showed no sign of what was to come.

I watched Glen perform on many occasions in the UK and in Greece. He was a sensitive accompanist and wonderful pianist with a particular passion for Rachmaninov.

A little over nine years ago, Glen and I met through our mutual friend the composer Matthew Pollard. Matt and I were collaborating on a project that was to become This Concert Will Fall In Love With You — later recorded with additional material as the CD Clameur and Glen was Matt’s first choice to play piano. Matt and Glen had were old friends, performing together in the Tacet Ensemble and The Rainbow Chorus for example. Matt also wrote three linked compositions called Three Portraits for Poet and Piano, which Glen and I performed in its premiere in 2012.

Clameur written my Matthew Pollard and Peter Kenny featuring Glen Capra on piano.

For me it was the start of a friendship that would endure until now. Glen was a thoroughly good bloke, who was hugely liked by a great many people. I will miss him.

Below is a YouTube video of Minotaur, one of the Three Portraits for Poet and Piano by Matt Pollard with Glen on piano and me doing the words.

Featuring Glen Capra on piano, Minotaur by Matthew Pollard and Peter Kenny

Posted in Clameur, Matthew Pollard, Music, This Concert Will Fall In Love With You | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

What You Look For

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895. The Munch Museum.

My short story What You Look For has just been published in Horla.

The story is loosely based on a house I shared as a student in Leamington Spa — with what I hope is a horrific twist. I did once see what I think of as a ghost, which appeared as I describe in this story, although the figure I saw was a woman.

After I finished this story I realise what I may have written was really an allegory for the onset of the panic attacks which started in my early twenties. I experienced debilitating attacks for at least ten years. I had what I thought of as ‘seasons in Hell’, where for stretches of two or three months I might experience as many as five or six attacks in a day.

In my early thirties I finally got help from a systemic therapist in Richmond, Surrey. She had a crumbling spine, and was in agony and spent the sessions lying on her couch. I felt a bit sheepish. She had a real problem. I was just a panicky mess. However, and somewhat miraculously, she fixed me in one session.

‘What makes it stop?’ she asked.

In all the years of attacks on planes, tubes, walking down the road, in the comfort of my own rooms, I had never asked myself this question. I was an expert at what started the terrible plunge into panic, but not on what ended it.

By focusing on what I felt like at the end of a panic attack, I was able to fast forward through the attack, and reach the end unscathed. While I have had the occasional moment of panic since that first consultation, it has never dominated my life again.

I went once more to her, and she told me never to come back again. She died a few months later. To my shame I can’t remember her name, but she gave me the single best piece of advice I was ever given.

I hope you enjoy the story.

Posted in a writer's life, Autobiographical, Blowing my own trumpet, Horror, Prose | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Home thoughts from abroad

So at last found a bit of time to update this blog, as you can see from the photo, taken by my brother, of me tapping away on a terrace in Sicily. I am here taking a break with family. I love Sicily, and the terrace is quick with lizards, and has geckos crawling about on the walls in the evenings. So good to escape the political madness plaguing the UK for a while.

Naturally, there is always time for a quick humblebrag… A poem of mine The House of Hidden Hope, on the poetry village website. This was based on my grandmother who hid things in the fabric of the 16th century granite cottage she lived in Guernsey. She was a practical person who built cupboards, but also secreted things away in case of burglary and so on. This meant wedging objects into the fabric of the house, rather in the way spells were done in older buildings.

I am also continuing with my horror craze, and have two short stories about to be published this autumn, one, The Inheritor, will appear in Supernatural Tales, and is based on Guernsey, in a spooky house also modelled on the one my Grandmother lived in, the other is a nightmarish take on insomnia, called The Dream Home, which will appear in The Frogmore Papers this autumn. I am finding horror stories a rich seam, and have written several over the last few months. I am loving it.

Posted in a writer's life, Horror, Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments