Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: November 2018

Review: Where The Road Runs Out, by Gaia Holmes, Part 2: The 7 Reasons

It was always my intention with my earlier review of Gaia Holmes’s third poetry collection that I would need to revisit it, as the appreciation of the poetry developed in my mind.

When I posted the link to the earlier review on Facebook, I said I could think of at least 7 reasons to buy the collection.  Michael Stewart has since asked what the 7 reasons are.  Some of those in the following list have already been touched on in the previous review.

  1. It represents a much better treatment of poetry based on place than one is used to seeing.  Furthermore, the place in question is part of Scotland, which I regard as notorious, along with Yorkshire and the Lake District, for prompting mediocre poetry of place.  Holmes has not allowed the location to put her technique off balance.  Too many stanzas in poems of place might as well be struck out and replaced by the words, ‘It was amazing.  You should have been there.’  This criticism does not apply to any of the poems in WTRRO.  Holmes at all times applies the same craft to conveying the location as to any other subject. 
  2. The cover, by Hondartza Fraga, is a masterpiece, which suits the content of the book, perfectly.
  3. The treatment of the subject of dying, which is dealt with honestly and sensitively, but without sentimentality.  Holmes gives the feelings related to dying a personal identity, which is vitally important.  Feelings about death are useless if they are impersonal.  If I want to gain insight into how it feels to have a parent who is dying, then I want to read the impressions of another, real person: I want to know how you feel, to give me a bearing on how I might feel.  Anything which attempts abstraction is going to sound like a Hallmark sympathy card and be, at best, cloying, and at worst, oppressive.
  4. Even if you take away the body of poems of place, and poems about dying, there is a substantial range of other subjects.  The breadth and balance of subject matter is one of the collection’s outstanding features.  I am not going to try to convey this in a review: if you want to appreciate it, buy the book.
  5. It is yet another Holmesian masterclass in how to build the treatment of complex ideas out of the details of everyday life.  I am not merely repeating item 3: Holmes does this throughout. 
  6. The sheer skill and ingenuity in the use of language.  When a poet reaches the stage of publishing a third collection, and when the blurbs on the back are written by Sara Maitland and Helen Mort, it is easy to overlook how the poet does the simple things.  In spite of the fact that Holmes generally uses a wider range of vocabulary than I do, there are pieces in which she produces something quite remarkable out of next to nothing.  An example of this is ‘Leaves’. 
  7. Accessibility.  There are about 60 poems in the collection.  As I read them, they affect me in a variety of ways.  Not one of them has made me say, ‘What the hell was that about?’

Review: The Damned United by Red Ladder, Cluntergate Community Centre, Horbury, 17 November 2018


This was the first time my wife and I had been to Cluntergate Community Centre (CCC) since it was extensively renovated. The last time we were there, we were performing, together. We did ‘Welcome To The Mad’, our joint performance about how we met, with prose, poetry, and photographs. That was part of Wakefield Litfest 2017.

The Damned United is a play, based on the novel of the same name, by David Peace. This has already been adapted for cinema (2009). David Peace comes from Ossett, which is next to Horbury. I spoke to him at Huddersfield Literature Festival in 2011. This production is by Red Ladder, the same company that produced Sex And Docks And Rock ‘n’ Roll, which I have also reviewed.

This was a homegrown, intimate production: a play about my football team; staged at my local community centre; by a theatre company run by people I am acquainted with; based on a novel by an internationally acclaimed, local writer. The big room at CCC has a stage, but Red Ladder didn’t use it. The actors were at the same level as the audience, only a few feet away from the front row of seating. During the scenes when Brian Clough is berating players in the dressing room, members of the audience are picked on as if they are players. It just so happened that, when the player in question was Billy Bremner, Clough addressed him as ‘William’, and he was pointing at me.

The staging was minimal, but ingenious and engaging, at the same time. Apart from a 1970s chair, two occasional tables, a phone with a curly cord, a bottle of Bushmills, and a glass, the staging included several tall, narrow storage units made of galvanised wire mesh. One of these held a hand-axe. The dominant feature was a giant screen, at the back, which seemed to be made of the corrugated plastic that is used to keep rain off driveways. The images projected onto this were synchronised with the action and the dialogue. Most of them were in monochrome, and sinister. Members of the Leeds United team were identified by having their names, in white, on their jerseys. The fact that they names were always visible indicated that they were facing away when Clough was talking or shouting.

The screen is also used to convey text. Some of the scenes are preceded by which day of Clough’s 44-day tenure at Leeds is about to be examined. This is one of those plays where, like a Greek tragedy, the audience already knows how it is going to end, but that only increases the tension and drama.
This version of the adaptation has five characters, but only three actors. I cannot find their names: this production has a different cast from the one at Leeds Playhouse. One actor plays Brian Clough, another plays Peter Taylor, and the third plays Sam Longson (chairman of Derby County), Manny Cussins (chairman of Leeds United), and a coach, called Sidney. The projection screen serves another purpose in keeping the actors out of sight while they are picking up or discarding props, or changing costumes. The degree to which the same actor, with minimal time for changing, managed to project three different personas, was remarkable.

For those who are not familiar with the story, this is not a play about football. Football is the background, but not the story. The story is about hubris, obsession, envy, love, and betrayal. It is also a powerful portrayal of the 1970s, when football players ate steak and chips, and the managers of top clubs had sometimes grown up in households that didn’t have a refrigerator.

Apart from the imaginative staging and consistently convincing acting, another excellent feature of this production is its length: it is a single act, lasting 65 minutes. It delivers a more concentrated version of the story than either the book or the film.

The tour continues until 31 December 2018. Highly recommended.

Review: Where The Road Runs Out, by Gaia Holmes

ISBN 978 191097 445 2

GBP 9.99

90 pages



Where The Road Runs Out is the third poetry collection by Gaia Holmes.

In one respect, this review is easy to write, because it is such an outstandingly good collection.  There is Gaia Holmes’s accustomed craft, and her ability to choose a completely unexpected word or phrase, while reinforcing the meaning of a poem, and not bewildering the reader for the sake of sounding poetic.  There is a secure foundation of universal themes, and a range of overlapping subjects which is very well balanced.  There are lines, and stanzas, and whole poems which will give individual readers back something of themselves and their own experiences, or make them realise that they have just read an articulation of something that has been bothering them for years.

On the other hand, this review is very difficult to write, because Gaia Holmes is one of my oldest writing-related friends, and some of the pieces in this collection are ones of which I have personal, prior knowledge. I have written a companion poem to at least one of them.  Even though I have not yet managed to attend any of the launch events, I have heard Gaia reading some of them, live.  But those personal associations only lend additional strength to my appreciation of this collection, because the collection is so good in the first place.

The themes the book opens with are the setting of the Orkney Islands, particularly Shapinsay, and the fact that the writer’s father is dying.  The subject of mortality is one that Gaia Holmes handles with a combination of honesty and acute observation.  There is an unfailing courage which is completely un-self-conscious, and is the kind of courage which is manifested by facing up to one’s fears.  There are details: lots and lots of important details.  Gaia Holmes is a more figurative poet than I am, and so some of these details refer to things that only exist in the imagination, but they are no less important or powerful for that.

I won’t tell you what the other themes are.  The collection continues beyond its starting point, which is poetic in itself.  The narrative voice throughout is feminine; acutely observant; somewhat overwhelmed and put upon, but fed by her own, quiet determination.  If you love contemporary poetry, then buy it.  If you don’t understand or think you do not like contemporary poetry, then buy it, because it is a superb set of examples of how contemporary poetry can demonstrate artistry and craft.