Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: January 2017

Review: Unity Words 25 January 2017

I arrived at Unity Works after having a bad day at the dole office, and still suffering from the residual effects of the respiratory infection which has threatened to kill me throughout the month of January, and from which I am still dying on alternate days.

Ralph, darling, and Simon, darling, can you please not bollock me as soon as I step through the door?  I know you mean it in a laddishly affirmatory way, but we who like to pretend when it suits us that we have Asperger’s syndrome don’t take to that sort of thing.

The compere was Geneviève Walsh.  Whoever is compering is introduced by Ralph Dartford, one of the originators of the event, and The Compere-Finder General.  Ralph is very keen on obtaining an enthusiastic response from every audience, and so his arrival on stage sometimes has to be done twice, in order to reach the required decibel level.

Gen’s hair is still in its bouffant, blue period.  She conducted herself with her accustomed style and vigour.  Gen also hankers after an enthusiastic response from the audience, though in a more negotiated, rather than imperative, manner.  Information recently received via Facebook reveals that, “William does this amazingly deflated ‘yay’ at every single Unity Words.  I enjoy it so much, I want to set it as my text message tone.”

The programme for the evening was: support poet, Pandemonium Poets, the first of 2017’s mentored poets, headliner. There was no music slot, this evening, and I did not miss it.  Some of the musical performances in 2016 were great, but I believe that spoken word does not need music in order to provide a rich variety of entertainment.

The support slot was performed by Kieren King.  Despite his long CV as both performer and compere, this was the first time I had heard him.  I enjoyed his lament about the subordinate cultural position that Salford has to put up with in relation to Manchester.  I enjoyed his piece, ‘She Talks To Pigeons’, which he wrote as an escape from the memory of when he was forced to take a job as a PPI cold-caller.  I was interested in two pieces he did which were pastiches: one about Alan Turing, which was a pastiche of computing terms, and another which was made of parts borrowed from fairy tales.  He recited a poem called ‘Party’s Over’, that had been written by his father, who used to be a spoken word performer.  He finished with a piece in which he addressed himself at various ages that he has passed through, not in chronological order.  This is the kind of confessional, consolatory subject that I write about.  I would have preferred it delivered with more swagger, and a bit less self-deprecation.

The sounds during the intervals were provided by DJ Sharon Shepherd.  It was all good.  I particularly enjoyed the brass band version of ‘Sexual Healing’.

The evening’s Pandemonium Poets were: Sarah Leah Cobham, Stephen Harrison, Darinka Radovanovic, Matt Tully, and Susan Wainwright.

Sarah Leah Cobham is someone I work with as part of the Writing Wrongs project.  She has only started performing spoken word recently.  She says she gets nervous, which I am sure will wear off, soon.  When Ralph Dartford returned to the stage to introduce the next performer, he was fanning his face with his notebook, as well he might.  It was filth, but it was subtle and erudite filth: not just filth for the sake of filth.

Stephen Harrison’s pieces were well-crafted, and one of them contained yet another gag about Matt Abbott’s recent TV advert.

Darinka Radovanovic gave what was billed as her first ever spoken word performance, a piece about her Balkan roots, called ‘My Father’s House’.  She delivered it very eloquently and movingly.

Matt Tully performed a piece about a dislikeable character watching porn on a train.  This contrasts with the other piece of his I have heard, so far, which is about finding peace and solace in a sex shop.

Susan Wainwright performed a piece entitled ‘Could Be Upsetting’.  It is about child sexual exploitation, and murder in self-defence.  She delivered it with gravitas enhanced by a touch of understatement.

Hannah Batley is one of 2016’s Pandemonium Poets.  This is a poetry and performance tuition scheme, run by Ralph Dartford, in which a number of emerging poets (usually five)  pay a fee of GBP 5 each, to have 2 hours of intensive training with members of A Firm Of Poets.  My wife, Valerie Anderson Gaskill, was one of December 2016’s Pandemonium Poets, and she describes it as, ‘A proper shot of adrenalin’.  Ralph has decided to take this a stage further in 2017, and offer longer courses of one-to-one training.  This has been blessed with funding from the Arts Council.  Hannah Batley is the first beneficiary of this scheme.

She did a 15-minute slot, featuring four relatively long pieces.  The first three she delivered standing up, from memory (Hannah is a tall woman).  The last one, sitting down, read from a fragment of a recently-rediscovered notebook.

I wrote 4 pages of notes in preparation for this review.  As Hannah was getting up to go on stage, I wrote, ‘Hannah Batley’.  While she was giving a brief introduction, I wrote ‘4 pieces’.  That’s it.  I didn’t write anything else,  because I was too busy listening.  If you want to know what her work is like, go and listen to her perform.  If the event is ticketed, and you have to pay, then pay.

The headline act was J. B. Barrington.  From his name, I was expecting a nineteenth century explorer.  What arrived on stage was a bloke from Salford.  Another one.  The second of the evening.

He used a few props, as I did, when I did the support slot in December.  One was a genuine Woolworth’s record department bag.  You don’t see that every day.

I have somehow ended up with J. B. Barrington’s hand-written set list.  (And no, I did not steal it, you defamatory bastards.)  He did: ‘You Had Me’, Spanish ‘Things Me Mam Used To Say’, ‘Grapes of Wrath’, ‘Posh Nosh’, ‘Spanish Dolls’, ‘There’s A Reason’, ‘Don’t Look Down’, ‘The Bingo Queue’, ‘She Holds His Hand’, ‘Sunglasses’, ‘When I’m Gone’, ‘Motosave’, and ‘Shampoo, Cigs, and Shit Roll’.  He writes in partly joined-up block capitals.

I have managed to get this far in a review of a programme that contained two contemporary Salfordian performance poets, before mentioning the John Cooper Clarke metrical machinegun.  Both Kieren King and J. B. Barrington used it.

The most remarkable thing about J. B. Barrington’s set was that the political poems were the best.  As I said when I reviewed Luke Wright’s performance at Unity Words, usually, when I hear political poetry, I just want it to stop.  I agreed with every word that J. B. Barrington said about the obscene fact that basic, humanitarian provision increasingly has to be funded by charity rather than from taxation.

It was a great pity that J. B. Barrington had had to drive to Wakefield, because I would have loved to take him on the traditional visit to the Inns of Court to have a few drinks and talk about poetry.  I would love to talk to him about every aspect of it: how he chooses what to write about, rhyme, metre, delivery, the relationship between poetry and social class, and how he justifies charging seven quid for a stapled pamphlet (Woodchip Anaglypta And Nicotined Artex Ceilings).  Yes, I know Suggs has read from it live on stage, but it is still stapled, not glued.

New hope for England

It is hereby recorded that, on this day, 25 January 2017, there was agreement between William Thirsk-Gaskill and Martin Edwards.

William Thirsk-Gaskill is a doctrinaire socialist of a kind that one seldom meets, nowadays. He believes in the diversion of resources towards the most basic requirements of humanity, particularly child health, infant nutrition, female literacy, general female education, and micro-finance.

One of the human development causes that William supports is Leeds United AFC, with its world-wide presence, and extensive youth development programmes.

Martin Edwards is some bloke that I first encountered in the high street in Chiselhurst. He supports Millwall. He buys meat for Sainsbury’s (a job I would quite happily swap with him). He has some improbably beautiful daughters.

But he is mean-spirited, including in ways that are contrary to his own interest.  You might want to stand next to him at a party, in case he said something offensive.  I still cherish the hope that, inside this carapace of right-wing clichés, there may be a glittering humming bird, ready to fly away in the most unexpected direction.  The evidence for this, so far, is not encouraging.

Nevertheless, at this point, we agreed that nobody knows what is going to happen next with regard to Brexit, and we blame Cameron.

We are not just arguing about football, ladies and gentlemen: we are healing the North-South divide. Believe me: if a Northerner can consciously live peaceably on the same island as Martin Edwards, then we are getting somewhere.

None of this would have been possible (or necessary) had it not been for Valerie Anderson.


I deliberately refrained from writing a review of S4E1 and S4E2 immediately after they were broadcast, because it took me a rather long time, and several viewings, to decide what I thought of them.  Now that Series 4 has finished, it is easier to write about all three episodes, taken together.  

The main, as it were, transactions of Series 4 are that Mary Morstan got killed, and Sherlock was told by Mycroft that they had another sibling.  The dramatic purpose of both of these was to enable the examination, more and more deeply, of the characters of Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft, and the relationships between them. 

 Throughout this adaptation, the writers have thought big, and tried, not just to rectify the obvious shortcomings of the original characters, but to take the whole narrative in directions that Conan Doyle could not have imagined.  This is only to be expected. 

 ·         Conan Doyle did not have a name for Sherlock’s weirdness.  Sherlock refers to it as being ‘a high-functioning sociopath’.  I call it hyperlexia (the addiction to symbol-based problem solving and a flow of coherent data).  Mycroft, one of the new characters, and, possibly, Moriarty, are also hyperlexic.  The differing degrees of this condition is one of the things at stake in S4E3. 

·         Making Moriarty an elderly mathematics professor was a non-starter. 

·         John Watson has to be his own man.  This has been fixed in just about every modern adaptation.  I don’t know which was the first.  A sycophantic and bumbling Watson was certainly a defect in the Basil Rathbone adaptations, but it had been fixed by the time of the Jeremy Brett adaptations. 

·         Mary Morstan makes a lot more sense as a secret assassin than she did as the wife of a provincial GP.  Val McDermid protested when she became narratively challenged.  That protest happened to be before Mary Morstan continued to appear in the story. 

·         Mrs Hudson makes more sense when she is telling people who want a cup of tea, ‘The kettle’s over there,’ and, ‘I am not your housekeeper’. 

·         Conan Doyle was a fool to deal with Irene Adler in a single story.  The best characters beat on the door and demand to be let in, or, better still, pick the lock and just appear on your sofa. 

·         Molly Hooper is a work of genius.  The only material in the original stories that informs Molly’s character at all are the times when Watson censures Sherlock for taking drugs, and when Sherlock relies on Watson for medical expertise.  Putting this, and many other things, into a character who is an intelligent and highly-qualified woman is brilliant. 

·         Mark Gatiss has allowed his own creative ego to speak through the character of Mycroft, which is all to the good.  The more we get of Mycroft, the more we get of Sherlock.  In this adaptation, it is also possible for Mycroft to interact with Watson without Sherlock’s presence.  The more properly-developed characters there are, the more inter-relationships there are.  This has vastly enriched the narrative. 

 From S1 to S4, Sherlock has progressively become less of a deduction machine, and more of a fallible human being.  Fallibility has not merely been limited to addiction to hard drugs.  Those Who Ask Those Sorts of questions have, during S4, asked when all the weird stuff was going to stop, and Sherlock was going to get back to solving the usual sort of case, based on a conversation with a client sitting in a chair in 221B. 

 This adaptation has made it quite clear that Sherlock regards the chair in 221B as a nuisance.  He doesn’t want humanity: he just wants the facts, the full facts.  Kurt Vonnegut said that every character must want something, even if it is only a glass of water.  Wanting just the facts is a dramatically very productive thing for Sherlock to want, because there is no way he is ever going to get it.  If you are as hyperlexic as Sherlock, you either do what Mycroft does, and live in an oak-panelled, insulated bubble at the heart of a hypothetical British government, or you do what Sherlock does, and collect blood samples and cigar ash and memorise the map of inner London.  But, in Sherlock’s case, your data will be forever contaminated with mumbling, rambling, irrelevance, repetition, and lies. 

Kurt Vonnegut also said that a writer must be cruel to his characters.  That has certainly been tried in this adaptation.  What we have found is that the Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is a warmer, more empathetic character than we were first led to believe.  Personally, I find that mildly disappointing.  Nevertheless, I am compensated by the extraordinary development of the relationships between Sherlock and Mycroft, and Sherlock and Watson, and Sherlock and Molly Hooper. 

These writers are stronger than I am.  By now, I would have had Sherlock and Molly in bed together, naked, even if they didn’t do anything.  Contriving reasons for why this would have to happen, other than because of love or sexual desire, is one of the things I think about when I go to sleep.   

This adaptation is to Conan Doyle’s original what Sleaford Mods are to Lonnie Donegan.  Conan Doyle’s genius created the concept of the consulting detective.  It takes genius of equal magnitude to give that a life of its own in the digital age.  My mother considered that Basil Rathbone was the finest piece of type-casting she had ever seen.  I think Benedict Cumberbatch is better.  He is my favourite Sherlock.  Martin Freeman is my favourite Watson.  Una Stubbs is my favourite Mrs Hudson.  Mark Gatiss is my favourite Mycroft.  Amanda Abbington is my favourite Mary Morstan.  Andrew Scott is my favourite Moriarty.  Rupert Graves is my favourite Lestrade.  There has never been a Molly Hooper before, but Louise Brealey has to be the best Molly Hooper there will ever be.   

A set of S4 awards may follow, once sufficient time has passed to permit plot spoilers.