Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: March 2014

New publication: Escape Kit

Grist Books 2014

37 pages

ISBN: 978 0 956309945

GBP 5.99

My new publication is the first printed book in which all the writing is by me, rather than being a contribution to a collection.   It is a novella, and is also by far the longest piece I have so far had published.

This is one of three works selected for publication from the entrants to the recent Grist chapbook competition.  The other two are ‘Cowboy Genes’ by Wes Lee, and ‘A Call In The Night’ by Gabrielle Leimon, both collections of short stories.  You can read a review of the three works by Jim Greenhalf of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus here:


You can order ‘Escape Kit’ from here:


The launch party was held at Queenie’s Coffee Shop in Huddersfield, near the Lawrence Batley Theatre.  It was hosted by Rebecca Legg, and was a resounding success.  Gabrielle Leimon and I read extracts, and Michael Stewart read on behalf of Wes Lee. 

I thank the editorial team for their speed and professionalism: Michael Stewart, Jayne Edge, Sarah Milne, Kate Pearson, and James Whitely.


Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (content warning: rude words)

Stewart Lee reached new heights in the last episode of ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ on Saturday 8 March 2014 on BBC 2.  However, he missed at least one trick.

And what about the Battle of Britain eh?  Those bloody Poles, and bloody Czechs, and bloody French pilots COMIN’ OVER ‘ ERE and taking jobs from our fighter pilots, those that hadn’t been killed.  COMIN’ OVER ‘ ERE and talking Polish, and Czech, and French all the time, and being told off by Air Marshal Dowding for not speaking the fucking language.  And then, when the struggle was at its most bitter and intense, those bloody Poles, shooting down more enemy planes per capita than any other Allied nation in the conflict, and taking more casualties.  They bloody CAME OVER ‘ ERE and took jobs from our pilots that we didn’t have in sufficient numbers but that’s not the point and they didn’t speak the fucking language and then, while they were being all Polish, and all foreign, they CAME OVER ‘ ERE and they  LAID DOWN THEIR LIVES FOR OUR CAUSE WITHOUT QUESTION OR HESITATION.  Bloody Poles, and bloody Czechs, and bloody French, COMIN’ OVER ‘ ERE, pitting everything they had to try to save Western civilisation from the otherwise inevitable downfall of humanity that was Adolf Hitler’s ultimate goal.  COMIN’ OVER ‘ ERE and, bloody succeeding.   And for what, eh?  For what?  They CAME  OVER ‘ ERE just so that we could have this bloody conversation, against a background of civil government which, no matter what its specific shortcomings with regard, for example, to recent events surrounding the Stephen Lawrence investigation and creeping privatisation of the NHS, still preserves independent institutions which hold the potential for a rejuvenated, modern democracy if only members of the public, empowered as they are by new and widely-available forms of mass communication,  could be encouraged to ask more questions, put those institutions to work, and engage with them.   Bloody foreigners.  COMIN’ OVER ‘ERE.  We’ll fight our own battles in future, and instead of filling vital shortages of personnel, skill, and morale with fanatically-motivated people who regard themselves as our natural allies, we’ll fall back on a sclerotic class hierarchy, xenophobia, and a mythologised and grotesquely-misplaced belief in our own self-sufficiency.

Review: ‘Staying Afloat’ by Sue Wilsea

Published by Valley Press

ISBN: 978 1 908853 127

156 pages

GBP 9.00




I bought this book at a reading hosted at The Leeds Library.  Jamie McGarry, the editor-in-chief at Valley Press, was on a promotional tour with some of his authors.  The evening featured readings by James Nash, Michael Stewart, Matthew Headley Stoppard, and Sue Wilsea: each author read his or her own work.  

The book contains 19 stories.  Most of them are about 7 or 8 pages long, making them on the “short” side of a short story, in keeping with the current fashion.  The blurb on the back describes the collection as being about “men, women, and children, and the ways in which they keep their heads above water.” I would have said instead, “and the ways in which some of them keep their heads above water, and some of them drown.” 

 Before I get carried away, I will set out everything negative I can think of about this collection.  The story, ‘A True Vocation’, while well-written and containing dramatic tension, is comic and, in my opinion, jars with the rest of the collection.  This story is like finding an orange segment in a salad: it is not that I do not want to consume it – on the contrary – it is simply that I would have preferred it separately.  Most of the subjects dealt with are dark, and a few of them are terrifying.  This comic story seemed like a deviation from the main theme of the collection.

 I also have a few minor, technical reservations about some of the narrative voices.  I spotted what I would consider to be minor inconsistencies, particularly when the narrative mode is third person with limited omniscience.  This, as I keep saying, is in my opinion the most technically difficult of all conventional narrative modes.  This is more a criticism of whoever edited the collection rather than of the author.  I also admit that this is technical nit-picking at its meanest. 

And I’m not mad-keen on the title.  ‘Staying Afloat’ is fine as the title of an individual story, but I think the collection as whole deserves something that, while apt, is close to being unique.  There are umpteen books called ‘Staying Afloat’. 

 Apart from that, this is probably the best collection of short stories I have ever read by a living author.  That assertion will sound exaggerated unless I explain in some detail why I make it.

 This collection is an outstanding example of what is possible in contemporary short fiction when the writer gets the simple things absolutely right. 

 The first thing that Sue Wilsea does faultlessly is to start in medias res.  There are no preambles.  The first word of the text is the first word of the story. All you get is the story.    That might sound obvious, but it is something one does not always see, and here it is a major contribution to the addictively page-turning quality of the collection. 

 The characters in all the stories are powerfully depicted.  After reading each one, I felt as if I could have written a companion story featuring the same protagonist because, in just a few pages, I knew who the protagonist was – no matter how conflicted, exhausted, broken-down, or insane, and no matter how different the character’s background and circumstances were from my own. 

 The stories are all stories – not just bodies of words.  There are hooks, inciting incidents, story beats, climaxes, epiphanies, and (contemporary) resolutions.  In short: there are beginnings, middles, and ends.  The subject matter and the style of these stories is contemporary, but the structure of them would have been familiar to Aristotle.  In keeping with contemporary fashion, the endings mostly “get out quickly”, Raymond Carver-style.  The exception to this is the last in the book, ‘Dabblers’, which is set over a span of many years, and is technically not a short story but a very, very short novel (but no less well-written and entertaining for that).  Not once in reading this collection did I get to a last line and think, “What was the point of that?”  Sue Wilsea has assiduously applied one of Kurt Vonnegut’s maxims: the one that says, “Use the time of a complete stranger in such a way that he or she will not consider it to have been wasted.” 

 Those are the basic things.  There are many other things to be commended. 

 One is that several of the protagonists are, as the blurb suggests, children.  The age-range of the characters is from the unborn to the cradle to adolescence to adulthood to senility to the grave.  This lends the collection a universality which one seldom sees so powerfully.  This universality is strengthened by the themes dealt with: conception, childbirth, infidelity, bereavement, self-deception, self-realisation, loss, survival – all depicted through characters and details, strictly according to the method of “show, don’t tell”. 

 As one would expect in a contemporary collection, characters in various states of mental extremis – nutters, if you prefer – feature largely.

 The collection has a sense of place.  The cover illustration, featuring a stylised depiction of the Humber Bridge, indicates Sue Wilsea’s connection with the East Riding of Yorkshire, and its coastline.  In this, and other subtler ways, the personality and genius of the author becomes evident as the stories progress.

Review: Front Lines, edited by Dan Formby.

Published by Valley Press

ISBN: 978 1 908853 10 3

56 pages

GBP 7.50


‘Front Lines’ is a collection of short stories by writers under 25.  It is edited by Dan Formby, who also wrote the opening story, ‘Dead Stone’.  There are 6 stories, each one between 6 and 10 pages long.

 The stated theme of the book is ‘modern society’.  I bought the book in spite of, not because of, that billing.  When I was in my early 20s, an age at which I had the aspiration to be a writer but no idea how to go about doing it, I was interested in writing fiction which had a social or political message.  Everything I wrote during that era was garbage.  Since then, I have grown to loathe didactic fiction.  I am not saying that fiction cannot or should not have a message.  I am saying that the basic rules (show, don’t tell; create convincing characters; depict an engaging setting; load the dialogue with sub-text) have to be observed.  The characters, the inciting incident, the twist(s), and resolution should come first, and the message, if there is one, should come afterwards. 

 ‘Dead Stone’ by Dan Formby begins with a quotation from another work.  As I often find, the quotation gave no insight into the story the first time I read it, and seemed scarcely less opaque after I had read the story.  The first three words of the story are ‘I heard tell…’ which sounded alarmingly archaic.  I looked in the rest of the text for a reason why the narrator’s voice sounded like this, but did not find one.  The protagonist admits in the first half page that he is an idiot.  There are stories which are engaging, in spite of having a dislikeable protagonists (an outstanding example of which is ‘Doctor Jack O’ Bear’ by Richard Yates).  There are, more frequently, stories which are supposed to have an empathetic protagonist, but which don’t succeed in generating the empathy.  ‘Dead Stone’ is in that category, in my opinion.  This is a story about a self-involved character who makes a bad life-style choice for no good reason.  The ‘modern society’ theme that is examined is homelessness, and the ways that the homeless and the not homeless regard each other.  The story erupts into violence towards the end. In spite of this, most of the impression I was left with was dissatisfaction with the narrator’s voice, which uses far too much telling and not enough showing. 

 ‘Stop Gap’ by Felice Howden is, like much of my work, a modern version of ‘Little Red Riding-hood’ (“If you go into the forest, do not talk to the mysterious stranger”).  It is narrated in the third person, and concerns a protagonist called Roger.  The handling of the third person narration is competent, but I think it would be better if Roger were a first person narrator.  Roger has eighteen hours to kill before he catches a plane.  He goes to a pub, meets the mysterious stranger, and is then taken to a squat.  Alcohol and drugs are a factor from then on, and the story becomes a stream of consciousness, written from Roger’s point of view.  This is quite a vivid and convincing description, but it reads as one thing after another, rather than a set of story beats.  I got to the end of the story without seeing an epiphany, nor anything to indicate why there was no epiphany. 

 ‘Viral Marketing’ by David Whelan is the second story which begins with a quotation.  The quotation is something to do with greed, or mindless consumption.  Again, I saw no reason why the story needs the quotation. 

 This story is narrated in the third person, is 10 pages long, and yet contains four section breaks, each one with a change of protagonist.  It therefore breaks the rule that you should not change the narrative point of view until the character and voice of the first narrator has been properly established.  It also breaks the rule that you are allowed to break a rule if it is for a worthwhile reason. 

 The final section of the story, about half a page long, is an apocalyptic about a (conventional) war between the USA and China over water resources which are being strained by rising population and global warming.  I dislike apocalyptics as a genre: I have yet to read one which I find scientifically and socially plausible (even including ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ and ‘Brave New World’).  This section was ludicrously short for the breadth of the subjects it touched on.   

 ‘This Hopeless War’ by James Mcloughlin sounded from its title that it was going to be a anti-war story, but is in fact about self-delusion and mental illness.  It indirectly recapitulates the earlier theme of homelessness, and the fact that it does so indirectly is a good thing.  This is the best story in the collection, mainly because it is the one that treats its disturbing subject while sticking to the rules of short story writing: the protagonist, while insane, is empathetic.  There is a twist near the end.  There is no epiphany, but there is enough to show the reader why there is no epiphany. 

 ‘Climb’ by Ryan Whitaker is narrated consistently in the first person by a single protagonist.  Unfortunately, I do not like the narrator.  I find the subject matter uninteresting and I do not see what this story has to do with the theme of the collection.   

 ‘Patrick’ by Nathan Ouriach is an evocative depiction of a relationship between the narrator and his pregnant partner.  This story breaks most of the rules.  There is characterisation, but there is no detectable inciting incident, or development, or climax, or epiphany, or resolution.  The timeline of the action of the story is very short, but contains reminiscences about how the characters met.  It reads like a piece of life writing rather than a short story, but does have page-turning quality.  Nathan Ouriach can therefore be congratulated for breaking the rules but still producing a readable and engaging piece of writing.  There is no didactic point in this story, but it maintains the theme of ‘modern society’ because of the life-style of the characters. 

 In the ‘ABC’ philosophy of creative writing (Art – Business – Craft) this collection does have things to commend it.  The main thing I admire about it is the business element: the fact that it was published at all.  Valley Press is one of the most dynamic independent presses that I know.  For these six writers to get their work into a Valley Press printed book (produced with Valley Press’s accustomed high quality) is no mean feat.  To do that before the age of 26 is outstanding.  I hope to see more work from these contributors, preferably in collections which are open to writers of all ages.  In order to continue to be published, I believe that most of them will need to pay much greater attention to the craft elements of writing, and cultivate the ability to write about edgy and contemporary subjects without breaking too many of the basic rules of story-telling.