Children's fiction Education Prose Readings Skelton Yawngrave

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.

Matthew Pollard Music Poetry


I don’t dwell much on past projects.  I’m always focused on the next thing.  On Friday I had a few beers with Glen Capra, and this reminded me of Glen and I recording my poem Minotaur, which had been set to music by Matthew Pollard, in one take back in 2011. I made this video afterwards, using a flip camera to get a labyrinth effect walking around in Brighton.  The poem’s hero doesn’t realise he appears monstrous to others.



The Shakespeare Heptet – the greatest unknown band in the UK

The Shakespeare Heptet L to R Dipak Chanda, Rebecca Macmillan, Aaron Power,  Sylvana Montoya and Richard Gibson

And great Art beaten down was the phrase suddenly rolling doomily in my head last night. I was drinking a nice pint of bitter in a pub called The World’s End in Brighton while hugely enjoying The Shakespeare Heptet playing in the corner of a pub. As usual, their musicianship was near immaculate. This despite the fact that outside in London Road a shop alarm was wailing peevishly, and that the pub was noisy. Of course people coming in for a drink are perfectly entitled to chat and enjoy themselves. But I can’t help but marvel at how some people can be so willfully oblivious to the miraculous music happening in the same room.

This is just me being an old curmudgeon, of course, the band played with enjoyment and expertise, and those who had ears loved it.

I have written about Richard Gibson’s plan to set every Shakespeare sonnet to music before here before. Although it seems at first a madcap scheme, the results are stunning. While the music is rooted in an absolute immersion in the sonnets, the results are completely contemporary.

In his quest he has been abetted by exquisite guitarist Dipak Chanda and a band featuring Aaron Power on percussion and vocals, Nick Fuller on bass guitar, and Sylvana Montoya and Rebecca Macmillan on vocals. The music is hard to categorise – but the word that always comes to mind for me is timeless. They blend so many influences that they have their own distinct sound. These are fabulous songs and if the Gods were at their desks doing their bloody jobs right, The Shakespeare Heptet should be in the throes of a major tour with a couple of renowned CDs behind them. But instead we’re here. With groundlings like me able to watch them for the price of a pint or two in The World’s End.

I’d love to see them in a setting where those perfect words and the fabulous playing can be heard. More than that I wish I could write something that makes the world wake up to the Shakespeare Heptet. But instead I’m writing this: The Shakespeare Heptet are the greatest unknown band in the UK.

This recording of Sonnet No. 20 below is from the early days of the band, when they were known as the Shakespeare Trio. Their sound is fuller now, positively ballsy when it has to be. But I still love the crystalline clarity of Richard and Dipak’s playing in this track and Richard’s excellent voice.

Art Art and illustration Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd.

A Cancer Landscape

‘The Journey To Where?’ Michele Angelo Petrone

“The disbelief, the grief, the doubt, the flung out, the anger, the banter, the bargaining…” Personal experience enabled English artist Michele Angelo Petrone (1963-2007) reach out to others fighting disease. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 30, Petrone became artist in residence at several schools and cancer centres, and created his own arts in health foundation.

As well as Petrone’s work, A Cancer Landscape at the ONCA Gallery Brighton till 28 February also features medical images of cancer cells, and workshop pieces generated by people who have experienced the effects of cancer. It is a fitting tribute. “My journey,” Petrone wrote, “has two intertwined threads – elements which mirror each other as exactly as the two chains of a double helix. One is the medical history. The physical injury, the illness, the happening… The parallel thread is my emotional response.”

Writing about healthcare in my professional life, last year I happened to spend weeks looking at dozens of artworks by people with autoimmune diseases. I discovered that when people use art in the context of disease, they frequently dramatise pain or emotional isolation. But when art is brave and skillful enough, as Petrone’s work is, it can connect with the other patient’s feelings and show them that their emotions are not somehow freakish or unique. It can be cathartic, and I was told at the gallery that exhibition has prompted many people to share their own stories as they visited.

Each piece was accompanied by Petrone’s written description, giving something of the emotional and physical context. More interesting to me, however, was the fact that the emotional landscapes he depicted were in primary colours and had an almost childlike quality about them. This hinted that there was something more important than the disease, and were a positive affirmation of life glowing out against the backdrop of cancer. This feeling, of course, made the few sombre compositions on display all the more poignant.


Brighton Fringe – Relationship Status: Desperate

Relationship Status: Desperate
Bradley Walker, Martin McEvoy, Emily Mawer, Beth Symons, Grant Williams, Matt Swales.

In the week or so since I saw Relationship Status: Desperate I have been forcibly reminded of the sheer power of getting off your butt making something happen. Beth Symons, as well as being my new stepdaughter, is also an actress with absolutely natural comedic chops. In partnership with her fellow actor and writing partner Emily Mawer, they staged their show in the Purple Playhouse during as part of the Brighton Fringe. The play was called Relationship Status: Desperate and as its name suggests the play was about online dating. Beth and Emily’s characters having a series of outlandish dates with a series of horrific boys played with gusto by fellow students Bradley, Martin, Matt, and Grant. The girls had two good houses, did somewhat better than break even, and even picked up an encouraging notice in The Brighton Argus. The play had been their final year dissertation piece at college and here it was, a few weeks later, attracting a real audience in the Fringe.

For creative people of all kinds there are often moments when power drains away from you. As a writer it lurks in those moments when you have sent off your manuscript and what happens next is out of your hands. For actors it is waiting for the callback or just for the phone to ring, and for some of the Open Houses artists of Brighton it is waiting for one or two of the tide of visitors to turn into a purchaser.  I am a firm believer in taking control and doing things yourself. Frankly it is the only way to stay sane. The Fringe as a whole is frequently a celebration of those mavericks who are pioneering ideas and approaches to see if they fly. Naturally there are a few duds, but The Brighton Fringe is an exhilarating time – and for creative people of all disciplines it is a laboratory of where all kinds of valuable experience can happen. Just one reason why Brighton’s Fringe is so exhilarating.

Brighton Fringe Music

Brighton Fringe: The Shakespeare Heptet

The Shakespeare Heptet
The Shakespeare Heptet at the Blue Man Brighton

In the last year or so, The Shakespeare Heptet have morphed from a beguiling two guitar two piece, (with the shade of Shakespeare making up the former Shakespeare Trio) into the barnstorming Shakespeare Heptet who, in its current iteration, also features percussion, bass and banjo. The result is that their mix of blues, folk and magpied scraps of bluegrass, eastern, medieval now has added oomph and dynamics. Sparking the genteel audience at The Blue Man on Queens Street, Brighton, clapping along and contributing the odd oooh or la-la-la to the proceedings. The fact is this music is fantastic, and even if you have no interest in the Bard it doesn’t really matter.

So what of Shakespeare in all this? Setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music has been done before of course, but never with such persistent single mindedness as by band leader Richard Gibson whose highly intelligent interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets is based on several years engagement with them. The Shakespeare that emerges is no fossil. The sonnets are full of  disappointing human relationships, passion, hurt, vengeful feelings and love. In other words this Shakespeare is completely alive and kicking. It’s a heady mix for an evening out – and music this good needs to be heard.

You can catch the Shakespeare Heptet one more night at The Blue Man Queens Street Brighton at 8:30 on 17th May 2014.


I have found myself drawn back three times to The Brighton Museum and Art Gallery to look at the SHOOT THE WRX retrospective of the work of Jeff Keen (1923-2012). I hadn’t been aware of his work, before this time, despite the fact that he had lived most of his working life in Brighton. The exhibition runs till 21st April 2013.

I’ve had to revise my opinion of it. The first two times I visited, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the diversity of paintings, sculpture,  pen and ink drawings, collages, 8mm films, fabric and so on. Add two or three documentaries about his work and it was a lot to take in. My first impression was that the work didn’t seem serious somehow, but I was missing the point. Much of Keen’s work is about playfulness, and about instant drama. He talks in one interview about American popular culture, and the directness and power gained from someone just entering a frame with a gun.

Clips from the short films were enjoyable, and full of crazy action and movement. You Tube is a happy hunting ground if you want to watch some of Keen’s film work. Watch Marvo Movie here. He shot in 8mm and saw 16mm as a slippery slope towards 32mm and ‘real’ films, and conforming to the establishment.

In the Brighton exhibition is a split screen projection of Jeff Keen Diary Films 72-73. The screen is in four, with different films running in each quarter. Shot on 8mm film and edited in the camera, you are treated to a mishmash of images: Brighton street scenes, cartoon animations, home movies, arty shots such as sunlight falling on a net curtain, or of a washing line, rain falling on widows. Then images people in masks, matadors, film of Keen painting and drawing. Film of cartoon images from magazines, real action of Zombies emerging from rubbish dumps and so on. As you are watching four films at once, with films projecting simultaneously side by side, Keen’s original intention was for chance to creep in as an unpredictable editor. There is no narrative, which can be tiresome or throw up nice juxtapositions depending on your perspective.

I was particularly drawn to early work pictorial work from 1950, such as Animals Defying Gravity, and Victoria Cinema, Betty Grable, remind me of Klee, and the Neue Sachlichkeit respectively. A clearer European influence however is Jean Dubuffet, clearly discernible in his looser, more graffiti-like work.

Below Animals Defying Gravity, and Victoria Cinema, Betty Grable.

But the strongest influence, was American popular culture. Much of his work seems influenced by comic book art. Like film work, the element of time involved in the comic strip, appealed to him. He produced a series of covers for a ‘Secret Comic’ RAY DAY, a mix of collage, drawing and his own writing such as the first of these below.

The curators quote Keen from 2002, saying ‘The great thing about comics, originally they did have that kind of not exactly primitive quality, but they were outside the world of bourgeois art’. Keen shunned what he considered to be the art world.

Below Blatzon in Artwar, 1978. This in Keen’s ‘iconic’ comic book style and reflects his attraction to comic book lettering.

Below Less successful for me where the later more graffiti-like pieces.

Below I enjoyed the outsiderish Poet’s Cot, and the Art War cardigan.

My final impression was that I had seen the blueprint of a great deal of Brighton street art and graffiti. An argument can be made for the influence of Keen on a genuinely Brighton aesthetic. In short… SHOOT THE WRX is well worth a visit.

The Shakespeare Trio

Well my pals The Shakespeare Trio have just released their first CD. The band is made up of Dipak Chanda and Richard Gibson, as well as the ghost of Shakespeare of course who provides all their lyrics. Like all brilliant ideas, Richard’s notion of setting all the sonnets of Shakespeare seems to be rather a mad one at first. But with Dipak Chanda lending wonderful guitar work and with Shakespeare as their muse the project has grown from strength to strength.

I have another connection to The Shakespeare Trio, as they are labelmates of mine, or rather the Matthew Pollard & Peter Kenny collaboration of which readers of this blog are familiar on AnotherSun Recordings.

You can buy The Shakespeare Trio’s album on CDBaby. Meanwhile why not have a listen to a couple of their tracks for free here…


Pack of 3

The Marlborough Theatre Brighton again is the venue for my next thespy business on the 26th & 27th August. Pack of 3 will be three short plays. My Wrong and Betty the Spacegirl, plus Mark Gandey has an excellent idea for a pirate play, which is as yet unnamed.

As before the three actors will be Beth Symons, Mark Gandey and Callum McIntyre. I wrote Betty the Spacegirl specifically for these three, and it is great when you have pre-cast the roles, as you can hear the actors in your head saying their lines. Both Betty the Spacegirl and Wrong are comedies with dark hearts.

I am also planning a Christmas Play, and have already cast one of the lead roles. More news of this nearer the time.

Wrong at the Marlborough Theatre Brighton

After a two day trialling my play at the Marlborough theatre I am delighted with how things went. It has resulted in lots of positive outcomes. From my perspective there was confirmation that the play works and is funny. There was lots of laughter on both nights. This made me feel vindicated and happy.

Then there were the actors. Both are 19. Mark Gandey gave a powerhouse performance. I had often seen him in lead roles and was aware that he has a great stage presence was a massive asset. Beth Symons however was the biggest revelation. Whenever I have seen her act she has had to make do with fairly uninspiring roles. I had always suspected that she had real comedy talent, but I had my expectations greatly exceeded: she is fantastic. Her timing is impeccable and she has a physical comedic presence that can make people laugh with just a change of expression. You can’t teach that kind of thing, and everyone was full of praise for her afterwards, and I felt really pleased I had created a platform where she could shine.

Our first half was a collection of short sketches we used a piece written by Mark Gandey. This is his first performed piece as a writer, and it was done excellently by Callum. I think Mark has real potential as a writer, which is good news as he is off to study comedy writing in the new academic year.

I am a control freak when it comes to my artistic projects, but this time I let go and by trusting the young cast they felt an empowered ownership which produced excellent results. Perhaps even better, the theatre manager talked to me afterwards about putting more work on there. So watch this space. Learnings all round then, and a real confidence boost for me.

Below: the programme.