Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011 in three words

A hashtag has appeared on Twitter, #2011in3words.  I am indebted to my Twitter friend @HutchinsonDave for bringing it to my attention. Here are mine.

I fight on.

You can buy Dave Hutchinson’s e-book, As the Crow Flies, from here:


Made-up tutor 3

Truk Ven Ut Ngo is one of the foremost Vietnamese writers working in Britain and one of the OU’s oldest academics.  He was born in 1934, and witnessed the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, between French colonial forces and the Viet Minh.  This was an experience which was to have a profound effect on his work. 

His early writing is lyrical, poetic, and introspectively philosophical.  It includes short stories (Dreams of White Lotus, The Lamps of Solace, Sapphire Visions) and a stage play (How Much Longer Does This Go On For, Daddy?)  He eked out a meagre living by writing short pieces while working on his magnum opus, Ascending Mount Gabrielle.  This is a book not about characters, but about forces, and refers to the French name of a feature of the terrain of the battlefield at Dien Bien Phu. 

His further work went gradually south:  Ascending Mount Beatrice, Ascending Mount Anne-Marie (in two volumes, reflecting the fact that there are twin mounts), Ascending Mount Dominique, Ascending Mount Claudine, Ascending Mount Eliane, and finally Ascending Mount Isabelle.  By this time, he had mapped, both figuratively and literally, the whole battleground. 

Since joining the OU, he has written three retrospective works of short fiction, Did I Ever Mention I Was At Dien Bien Phu?, The Bloody Battle, and Will You Ever Shut Up About That Bloody Battle? 

When asked to characterise his approach to teaching creative writing, his reply demonstrated both his philosophical outlook and his mastery of British colloquialisms: “If any of those twats can’t write, why expect me to do owt about it?” 

write-invite result announced

I came third in the ballot (that is, last). 

The league table for 2011 is now complete and I came 12th.  If I were the literary equivalent of a football pundit, I would call that “mid-table obscurity”.  

This year, I entered the competition 30 times, and was short-listed 3 times.  In 2010, the first year I took part, I entered 11 times and was never short-listed.  I will attempt in 2012 to be short-listed 3 times as soon as possible, and then go on from there.  This is an approach that might have been taken by the great football manager and philosopher, Howard Wilkinson. 

Only one person in the final table above me is male.  One writer also above me (you get a point for entering and and point for voting each week) entered 41 times and was never short-listed.  I admire her (as Arnold Bennett put it) “fixity of purpose”. 

The prize for coming first is currently 12.5 times the weekly entrance fee.  It would be nice to finish 2012 in profit, or at least to break even. 

I fight on.

Ten pence, please

This piece has been entered in a competition.

Kirstie has the last laugh

I have been outwitted by a friend who has given me a hand-made tie for Christmas, and a book by Kirstie Allsop for my girlfriend.

The tie is of knitted green yarn, and reminds me of some of the ties that my late father, who wore a tie every day, even for digging in the garden, wore.  It does not look home made, and I will wear it gladly. 

My favourite present is a Dymo label printer.  I have begun to label everything in the house.  Chair.  Table.  Knife.  Fork. Spoon.  Salt.  Pepper.  Cat1, Cat2, Cat3, Cat4.  Boy.  Woman. 

Next week: verbs.  Instructions.  Admonitions.  Pleas.  The possibilities are endless.  This is only the beginning.  I wonder if any-one has ever written an entire short story on a Dymo.

’90 Bisodol (Crimond)’ by Half Man Half Biscuit

I suspect that in this posting, I am talking to an audience of people aged about 40 to 45 years, who were living (and probably at university) in the UK in the late 1980s.

‘Half Man Half Biscuit’ are back.  The new album is immense.  It definitely bears comparison with ‘Back in the DHSS’ and ‘Back Again in the DHSS’.  The vocals are still by Nigel Blackwell.  The record is still released by Probe Plus.  There is still the wandering, bluesey, guitar, bass and drums backing with occasional keyboards and other instruments (including, now, violins) which always manages to sound both tight and under-rehearsed at the same time.

I hate to make predictions, but I can tell you that if there is still a civilisation on this planet in 100 years, it will be listening to this album by ‘Half Man Half Biscuit’.   Why?  Why should anybody waste time listening to a bunch of disillusioned blokes from Merseyside whose careers peaked 25 years ago?  In a word: originality. 

There is material in here that has not been done before, certainly not in this form, in this manner.  You can stuff “nothing new under the sun”.  This is not the sort of album you hear everyday.  And, let’s face it, most of what the music industry has produced over the last few years has been more and more and more and more and more and more and more and yet more of the same, tepid, turgid, sterile, over-sentimental, over-rehearsed, commercialised droning. 

Don’t buy this because your mother and father wouldn’t approve: buy it because Simon Cowell can’t make anything out of it.  Let’s get back to basics: when being in a tiny minority was cool, and to hell with whether there were hard cases who wanted to kick your head in for doing it. 

If you don’t believe me, ask John Osborne.  Follow him on Twitter @JohnOsRadioHead

Poetry update

The editor of the ‘Grist’ poetry anthology tells me that he has accepted three of my poems: ‘Sweet Nothing’, ‘Throwing Mother In The Skip’, and ‘Dear Jared’.  ‘Dear Jared’ is a companion poem I wrote to ‘Dear George’ by Claire Jones.  Both ‘Dear George’ and ‘Dear Jared’ are viewable on Claire Jones’s website www.thehungrypoet.co.uk

The three will appear in an anthology to be published in 2012.  I don’t know yet when the publication date will be, but I expect it will be around March or April.  I am presuming that there will be a launch event in Huddersfield.  I will post more details, including the name of the anthology, as they transpire. 

Other news to do with poetry is that I have been invited to appear as a guest on the fortnightly programme hosted by Gaia Holmes on Phoenix Radio.  This is a local radio station broadcast from Halifax and accessible via the Internet from www.phoenixfm.co.uk   Gaia’s programme goes out every other Sunday from  16:00 to 18:00 GMT.  It is an eclectic mix of music, poetry, personal reflections and literary discussion.   I found when I started listening that the choice of music (unpredictable, challenging and inspiring) and the emphasis on quality of content rather than slickness of presentation recalled The John Peel Show.  From me, there could be no greater recommendation for a radio programme. 

The provisional theme for the programme is ‘renewal’.

News on write-invite.com and 2011 gains

By this point in the week, I would usually have posted the previous Saturday’s entry to write-invite.com (or “Write On-site” as the competition’s proprietor’s call it).  

This week, I have been outwitted: I have been forestalled.  This has come about because entry has been short-listed.  I won’t post it until after the result has been announced on Saturday afternoon (that’ll be Christmas Eve, babe). 

This is only the third time out of about sixty attempts that I have been short-listed.  On both the previous two occasions, my entry was chosen somewhat to my surprise, and probably because I had managed to put an unusual slant on a difficult prompt.  At least half a dozen previous entries have been better than those two that were short-listed.  However, this time, the piece is one that I felt confident about as soon as I had written it. 

There is now a ballot among all those who competed last Saturday, except the three who have been short-listed (I can’t vote for myself).  This is done on the basis of one-competitor-one-vote, and first-past-the-post.  You usually have to get about 40 per cent of the vote to win.   There is a single prize of £50 (the fee to enter each week is £4). 

All voting is supposed to be anonymous, which is why I don’t want to post the story itself until after the result. 

My takings from art-related activities so far this year amount to £310 and a bottle of white wine.  This comprises:

Prize money for coming 2nd in the ‘Grist’ short fiction competition: £250

Prize for winning “Most Chins Stroked” award at the open mic poetry event during Huddersfield literary festival: £10 and a bottle of white wine

“Contribution fee” for appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Brain of Britain: £50

(For those reading this from overseas, £ means GBP.)

The history of the bottle of white wine perhaps bears re-telling.  My prize was awarded last among those that evening.  Michael Stewart and David Gill, both friends of mine and writers who work for the University of Huddersfield, had with them a mixed crate of red and white (I think it was Jacob’s Creek).  By the time they got to me, all the red had gone, and so I had to have white.  Fine.  The pub where the event had taken place was just in the process of closing.  It was that time of night when one stands outside the pub in the freezing cold, waiting for the rest of one’s party to finish dithering on the threshold, or taking so long in the toilet that one becomes convinced that a friend is a secret drug-taker and has had an overdose.   I was talking to Michael Stewart about, as it happens, my hardening resentment towards the judges of write-invite.com.  While this was going on, the bottle of white wine was taken out of my hands by a person or persons unknown.   It was momentarily handed back to me so that I could take a swig out of it.  Considering the bitter cold of the night, the wine was remarkably warm.  About five minutes later, I received the empty bottle, which then had to be unceremoniously deposited in a litter bin outside Huddersfield railway station with a ‘clunk’ that echoed through the crisp air.  Fine.  Absolutely bloody fine.  I bet Julian Barnes doesn’t have to put up with things like that. 

I fight on.

Why I can’t stand Kirstie Allsopp

I am becoming less and less interested in what Kirstie Allsopp has to say.  She invaded the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning with an interview about The Most Boring Subject In The World: house prices.  The current generation of prospective house-buyers in the UK is facing the prospect that the house may not appreciate in value.  Woop-di-doodle-doo.  Get over it.  You will find that the same subject is analysed, with vastly greater insight and intellectual rigour, in The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson. 

Or, if we must have an interview about it, somebody say something radical, for pity’s sake. Let’s nationalise housing.   Let’s abolish the housing market and have the price of every property in the land fixed by a tribunal.  Any-one found selling a property for an amount other than the prescribed one will be subject to the confiscation of the proceeds of sale. 

As well as being the world’s most boring programme, Location Location Location has the most boring title.  From now on, for every episode broadcast, another occurrence of Location should be added to the end, to be used in full in all TV schedules, announcements, and during the programme itself. 

Kirstie’s Handmade Britain is less mind-numbingly tedious than Location Location Location, but just as irritating.  First of all, the title of this one is, for the modern era, an historical contradiction in terms  – in my opinion, a contradiction of appalling ignorance and stupidity.   The whole reason for Britain’s current political, cultural and economic position in the world is because of industrialisation and its after-effects.  The reason why we managed to beat Napoleon was because of machine-made goods.  The reason why we managed to beat Germany in World War One and  Hitler in World War Two was because of machine-made goods.  Bombarding people with the notion that “handmade” equals “superior”  demonstrates a narrowness of mind and an ignorance of the world in general which takes my breath away.   “I made you a handmade notebook out of some old leather handbags, cartridge-paper and a shoe-lace.” Mm.  Next time, can I just give you the money and you can get me a Moleskine, which will fit on the shelf next to my others and which is the right size to fit into my jacket pocket? 

Like Strictly Come Dancing, Kirstie’s Handmade Britain is a programme that might make you wonder if the 1960s never happened.  I don’t know why the producer doesn’t go the whole hog and film it in black and white.  In my world, childishly enthusiastic monomania went out in 1962, never to return, other than as something to be parodied by Harry Enfield.

I dislike it on aesthetic grounds as well.  The bags and garments made of needlepoint just look like something that my girlfriend’s cats would want to destroy.  The jars of jam and chutney with circles of gingham cloth round the top make me want to scream, “CAN’T IT JUST HAVE A LID?”   Everything she makes looks to me as if it is going to start falling to pieces half an hour after you start using it.  It would be Blue Peter for grown-ups, except that that format doesn’t work, because some adults realise that a self-evidently impractical proposition does not become true, or even sound true, just because the person saying it is on television.  

Finally, Ms Allsopp, if you are reading this, there is a grammatical error in the second sentence of paragraph three of your bio page: “Growing up, my parents were constantly renovating the houses we lived in…” means that it was your parents who were growing up.

Keeping Track

This is last week’s entry for write-invite.  It came in the top 10.  I fight on.


‘Have you seen my medals, Polly?’

‘No, Dad. I haven’t.’

‘Jonathan, have you seen them?’

‘No, Grandpa, I haven’t seen them, either.’

‘Mm. I wonder where they have got to. Now, where did I have them last?’

‘Perhaps just after you had come back from Mesopotamia.’

That was rude of Jonathan. It was Malaya, not Mesopotamia. I know he’s my son, but I am ashamed of his behaviour sometimes. He is at that age now when he thinks being rude to people is clever and grown-up. My father is always looking for something or other, nowadays. This evening it is his medals. Last week it was some old diaries. Before that, photographs, an old pair of brogues, a bow tie and dinner jacket (what on earth he would have wanted a dinner jacket for, I don’t know). The one thing (if that isn’t too-not-nice a way of putting it) that he never asks the whereabouts of is my mother. Her name is never mentioned in this house anymore.   Well, not by anybody except my dad. 

‘Have you looked in the loft?’ asks Jonathan, and he exclaims when I flick him with the tea towel. He is being deliberately obnoxious. He knows that his grandpa can be goaded into climbing the step-ladder into the loft and he also knows quite well that he would probably break his neck and both his hips if he did.

My father faffs around in drawers and cupboards and the over-stuffed writing desk. He scatters six bills on the floor, picks up five of them and tries unsuccessfully to get the roll-top lid closed.

He goes out to look in the garage, out in the freezing cold. My husband will go mad if dad upsets a tin of paint and it lands on the bonnet of the car, like last time. I can hear him clanging about and moving things. The noise sets my teeth on edge.

He comes back in with a glistening drip hanging from each nostril, and a bayonet.

‘Look. I’ve found it.’ This was not what he was looking for, but it soothes him for five minutes to have some object in his hand to prove that he was in the army and is not quite the buffoon that Jonathan makes him out to be. It seems unnatural sometimes that Jonathan is no longer proud of my father’s military service, as he was when he was little and not old enough to know the dates of wars or the fact that a lance corporal was not a very high rank.

‘I like to keep track of things,’ he explains, even though no-one is listening. ‘Important things. Some things in life are important. You need to keep track.’  He pauses, looks reflective, and I have a nasty sinking feeling that I know what is coming next.

‘I’d have liked to be able to show this to Margaret, but of course, I can’t, since she’s passed away.’ He dabs the corner of his eye with a grubby handkerchief, conspicuously not using it to attend to the awful state that his nose has got into.

I can’t take this anymore. I don’t know why, but I just can’t. I don’t know if it is the snot, or the gas bill lying on the carpet behind the writing desk, or the anxiety of having to go into the garage to see if he has knocked anything over. I try to stop myself, but something inside me realises that, however inappropriately, I have to tell him the truth.

‘Mum isn’t dead, Dad: she left you.’ He looks at me, and for a moment, I have never seen my father look so child-like, so lost and pathetic. I can see it in his eyes. The one question he has been trying to avoid all this time. ‘Yes, but why?’