Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: May 2012

‘The Wrong Crowd’ theatre company

A play called ‘The Girl With The Iron Claws’*  is on tour.  Dates and venues are:

Manchester Royal Exchange. 30th May – 2nd June Book online or call 0161 833 9833
Drum Theatre, Plymouth. 6th – 9th June. Book online or call 01752 230 440
Harrogate Theatre, Harrogate. 14th – 16th June. Book online or call 01423 502 116
Hull Truck Theatre, Hull. 20th – 22nd June. Book online or call 01482 323 638
E4 Udderbelly Festival, Southbank Centre, London. 23rd – 25th June. Book online or call 0844 545 8282
the egg, Bath. 29th – 30th June. Book online or call 01225 448 844
Everyman Theatre Cheltenham. 2nd – 4th July. Book online or call 01242 572 573
The Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford. 5th – 6th July. Book online or call 01483 440 000
The Gulbenkian, Canterbury. 7th July. Book online or call 01227 769 075

This is a play that The Jays and I went to see at the Edinburgh Festival last summer.  It was billed as being “based on a Norwegian folk tale”, which was not encouraging to me.  We went pretty much because we were told it would definitely be suitable for children but would also be interesting to adults.  We were captivated. 

It has singing in it, but it is not a musical.  People don’t stop what they are doing and start singing for no apparent reason: the songs are part of the narrative and extend the story.  There is cunningly simple but spectacular puppetry.  If you go, I advise you to sit as close to the stage as possible and feel part of the action. 

Throw away your 3D glasses and go and see a live performance by people who really know what they are doing.  And hurry up!  The first performance in Manchester is tonight. 


* Any of you who have heard my poem, ‘Walking In Scotland’ will have heard of this play.

Book review: ‘Letting Go’ by Victoria Watson

Kindle edition:  £1.02, available from Amazon

Print length: 53 pages


‘Letting Go’ is a collection of eight short stories, or, to be more accurate, six short stories and two flash fictions.  The theme of the collection is “change”.  The reviews it has received so far on Amazon are the merest piffle.  Not only do I disagree with just about all of them, I would also say that most of the reviewers don’t get contemporary short fiction.  One of the main strands in the Amazon reviews is that the stories concern subject matter which is too harrowing or depressing.  That is a nonsensical and anachronistic thing to say about a contemporary collection.  I also reject the foolish notion that a story about a harrowing subject is harrowing to read.  A badly-written story about a harrowing subject probably will be harrowing or depressing, but a well-written story can be uplifting regardless of its subject matter – that is what art is all about, you idiots.  

I describe the stories in the order in which they appear in the collection.

Bye, Bye Baby is about a woman who has recently given birth.  The story is narrated by the woman herself.  The narrative voice is consistent and believable but I did not find the main character very likeable.  The narrator’s use of clichés such as ‘gentle giant’ was realistic but was an obstacle to any feelings of empathy I might have had for the character.  There is some good ‘showing, not telling’ in the story, but the ending did not surprise me.  This story showed some flair for writing and I thought that some craft had gone into it, but it did not achieve just that mixture of simplicity and guile which the best kind of short story has.  This next thing might sound trivial, but it also showed what I consider to be one of the collection’s recurring flaws: gross over-use of ellipsis (rows of full stops in the dialogue or narration, which are supposed to indicate that the speaker does not know what to say next).  I hate ellipsis.  I virtually never use it.  Using ellipsis to indicate that a character is perplexed or overwhelmed is like trying to show that a character is bored by writing a boring story. 

Cry Baby is about an alcoholic who is in denial.  The best thing about this story is the way the alcoholic narrator jumps from one problem to another without ever analysing or taking responsibility for any of them.  The ending, again, did not particularly startle me, but it was plausible and was well-supported by a satisfying and well-developed narrative.  This story is worth the cover price on its own.  All I would do to improve it is to take out a few semi-colons. 

I Should Have Seen It Coming is the most complex story in the collection and the one with the most unexpected twists.  It is about a female bank clerk who is made redundant and who tries giving tarot card readings to earn a little money.  There are some successfully-worked and clever ideas in it, but I wondered afterwards if it needed something to wrap it up in.  The one thing that is never dealt with is why the narrator is talking to the reader.  I freely admit that this is something I often deliberately ignore in my own writing, but this is quite a long story and, the longer a story is, the more conspicuous the lack of such a link is apt to become.  

Inside is a story which leaves the reader with a few unanswered questions.  Why was it set in the United States?  There seems to be no reason for this, other than the fact that firearms come into the plot.  The UK may have tighter gun laws than the USA but firearms do still exist here.  Also, the crucial part of the narrative journey – the epiphany – is missing.  The story read to me as an account of real life rather than a work of fiction: to paraphrase Alan Bennett’s History Boys, it was just one fucking thing after another.  

John: Home Tomorrow seems to be about self-deception and is a flash fiction rather than a short story.

Keeping Quiet began in a rambling manner similar to that of Inside, but improved as it went on.  It turned out to be a story about growing old.  It breaks one of the simplest rules of contemporary short fiction, which is that the narrative should cover the shortest possible time-span, preferably no longer than one day.  This story covers two or more generations.  I thought the breaking of the “get in and get out as quickly as possible” rule was done very successfully.  Breaking a convention and still producing a successful story is a sign of a top-class short story writer.  Again, it could be improved by removing all the semi-colons.

Maybe Baby is a flash fiction.  This exemplified two of the collection’s main themes: lack of communication in relationships and childbirth.  

The Waiting Game is a literary shaggy-dog story: a deliberate attempt to subvert the standard model of a short narrative and one which does not work in my opinion.   It also jarred with the rest of the collection.  

My conclusion is that the collection is definitely worth buying, but what Victoria Watson really needs is a top-class editor.  She clearly can create characters and situations.  But what she produces is sometimes unfinished, or missing a vital ingredient, or includes something that doesn’t need to be there.  I recently had my first experience of working with a qualified editor, and it was very chastening.  We went through three of my stories.  Each time, the editor began by asking me to explain what the story is about in my own words.  I now do this, out loud, for every short story I attempt to write.  If I can’t begin by explaining whose story it is, what happens, and why what happens at the end is significant, then I abandon the idea until another day, and move onto something else.

The defence minister comments*

I don’t know if anybody remembers this ephemeral politician.  This is something I wrote when he was in office.

I was reminded of it by a Twitter hash tag started by the novelist, Joanne Harris (@joannechocolat) entitled #CriticallyReviewedFairyTales .


Geoff Hoon MP, Secretary of State for Defence, comments on the “Three Little Pigs” dèbâcle*: 

Of course, the “Wolf” system is still at a very early stage in its trials, and let us not forget for a moment that even this prototype was in fact sixty-six and two-thirds per cent successful.  The Government has recently had very frank discussions with the manufacturer, and we are assured that Wolf Mark 2 will have an enhanced version of the “Huff-and-Puff” system with additional brick-house-busting capability. 

In the new global situation with which we are now confronted, it is increasingly difficult to predict where agencies such as little pigs are likely to build their houses.  Without wishing to raise undue alarm, I have to point out that, in the future, we must be prepared to expect not just groups of three little pigs, but increasingly sophisticated micro- or nano- little pigs, and our armed forces must be trained and equipped to react accordingly. 

As to these ridiculous allegations that there were unnecessary civilian casualties resulting from the chopping-down of the Beanstalk, this is quite a separate matter and it would be very wrong of me to comment until all relevant experts have filed their reports.  All I will say for the moment is that Jack’s Axe is a vital ingredient in the firepower needed by today’s flexible and responsive armed forces, and I am certain that there would have been greater loss of life had it not been employed in the timely manner that it was.  My condolences obviously go to the families of the bereaved and my congratulations to the brave men and women of our services who participated in the action, particularly those who live in Derbyshire.


* None of this is true.

Themes for Dreamers: WT-G appeared as presenter


The podcast is in two parts, but you should be able to download it easily.


The Wheelbarrow Principle

I have deleted this because I have entered it in a competition.

Dirty Old Town

I am about to host ‘Themes for Dreamers’ on Radio Phoenix: www.phoenixfm.co.uk and click on ‘Listen Live’.  

I have been re-visiting ‘Today’s Specials’, by ‘The Specials’. 

The most poignant track is ‘Dirty Old T0wn’.   This is a classic Irish/English track.   The Specials have re-done it from first Ska principles.  


‘Grist’ poets at ‘Wicked Words’, 7 Arts Centre, Leeds: 2 May 2012

Michael Stewart’s blog:


The organisation of the event, managed by Brendan, was efficient and professional.  Brendan made a wise choice by delegating the introductions for the ‘Grist’ poets to Michael Stewart.  

The one thing that Brendan exhibited which I would suggest that he might re-consider for future events was the tone of his banter during the rest of the evening, which was skewed to much, in my opinion, towards whimsy.  Poetry is supposed to be enjoyable, and can be at times funny, sexual, or vulgar, but it is much better if you act as if you are taking it seriously.   That need not get in the way of the enjoyment: just the opposite, in fact, because poetry is most enjoyable when the poems are allowed to speak for themselves. 

There is little I can add to the criticism that Michael Stewart has already made of the contributors to the read-round.  I would say that the first thing that the person responsible (presumably Brendan) should do is to introduce some kind of selection procedure other than picking names from a hat.  The rejoinder to that might be that it would cut down the number of people who want to read.  As long as it leaves somebody, and as long as it drives up the quality of the readings, then so be it.  What we experienced last night was a poetry economy in which anybody could draw a squiggle on a piece of paper and call it a five pound note.  

The whimsical note I mentioned earlier was carried into nearly every performer who appeared during the read-round.  I don’t understand why the emotional range covered was so apparently narrow and impoverished.  The whimsical party may be gaining some encouragement from the tittering which came from the audience.  I would suggest that this was motivated mostly by alcohol (which is fine) and embarrassment (which is not fine).  

I took 8 pages of notes (in my small notebook) during the read-round.  One of the things I do to sublimate stress is to write furiously.  I was somewhat inebriated at the time, but that made what I was writing more honest.  Here are some extracts from what I wrote. 

Guy in graph paper shirt, reading from a suspiciously fat book that looks like one of those vanity publications that a huge number of contributors have to pay to appear in.  Not a good sign.  Agh!  His intonation is wrong: too prosaic.   

This one contains the line “Go through the failover plan for when the new servers arrive.”  Am I back at work now?   

This is excruciating.  This is torture.  Aaaaaaaagh!  What have I done to deserve this?  Do anything.  Go up through the ceiling.  Descend through the floor.  But stop.  Please please please please please stop stop stop stop stop.  I’m dying.  I’m dying.  I’m dying.   

My name is Harry Palmer.

My name is Harry Palmer.

My name is Harry Palmer.

My name is Harry Palmer.

My name is Harry Palmer. 

Michael hit the nail on the head when he mentioned inappropriate rhyme.  I wrote this phrase four times among the notes. 

Somebody did a poem about the shipping forecast, which is quite a well-worked subject by now, and this was a poor example.  For some reason, the author had not quoted any of the language from the litany of the shipping forecast itself, which seemed an artificial and unnecessary handicap that the piece failed to recover from. 

The best effort during the read-round was the result of an exercise in thinking of 10 words about something unattractive or repellent and then using them to write about something beautiful.  I caught five of the key words: oppression, water-boarding, slavery, welts and rope.  This was the best evidence of craft during the read-round.  I did not catch the writer’s name, but he should be encouraged. 

None of the contributors to the read-round were women.  

The high point of the evening for me was that Julia Deakin produced the actual volume which was the inspiration for her poem, Possession: a copy of 20th Century Women’s Poetry by Faber & Faber.  I asked her if I could hold it while she was reading, to which she kindly agreed.  I gripped it fiercely when she spoke the line, Well it’s mine now, Elizabeth Scally or Scully.   This is one of my favourite lines from the whole anthology.