Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Review: Strix #5

Strix is a magazine that features poetry and short fiction, published in Leeds, West Yorkshire. 

Issue #5 is the first one I have read.  I was surprised to hear that I get a free subscription to the magazine by virtue of gaining a place in the Northern Short Story Writing Academy 2019. 

This issue contains the work of 40 writers, approximately 19 of whom are female (going on the names, only).  The print version is in an unusual format.  The pages are the same height as A4.  When I spoke to Ian Harker, one of the editors, he told me that it was A4 folded in half, but it is wider than that.  It is still narrow enough to fit in the inside pocket of my coat, and so I have carried it around West Yorkshire for several days, to and from work, to and from pubs, on buses and trains, gradually getting to know it.  The pages are stapled, and placed inside a loose, brown paper cover.  The cover art is stylised, monochrome lino cuts. All good.   

The problem I have with nearly all literary magazines is that I don’t understand them, and they don’t understand me.  I understand most of issue #5 of Strix, and, more importantly, it understands me. 

Two of the contributors, I know personally.  A third is Wes Lee, who lives in New Zealand.  Since 2012, Wes Lee and I have been entering competitions run by the Grist venture, run by the University of Huddersfield.  In the short fiction competition in 2012, Wes Lee came first, and I came second.  I don’t mind coming second.  Except for the fact that Wes Lee’s story doesn’t have a recognisable narrative arc.  Be that as it may.  We were both published from the chapbook competition in 2014.  Wes Lee’s chapbook is called ‘Cowboy Genes and Other Stories’.  Mine is called ‘Escape Kit’, of which I have copies to sell. 

As to the content of Strix #5, I have not read every page, yet, but I have read most of it, and it is very good, indeed. 

The contribution from my friend, Joe Williams, I have heard him perform, live.  And so I cannot comment on it, except to say that it reads almost as well off the page as he performs it. 

Matthew Hedley Stoppard is someone that I have performed alongside.  I am still trying to make him out.  He is either a complete charlatan who is preying upon the working class, and the underclass, or he is a poet who is writing about people in marginal situations.  I have not made up my mind, but I incline towards the latter. 

What follows relates to writers I do not know, personally.

Arji Manuelpillai has two poems which articulate what it is like to be South Asian in the UK.  They are called Curry night at Brewers Fayre and Watching the game.  These pieces are succinct and hard-hitting. 

Rebecca Sandeman has a piece of short fiction called ‘Semiplume’.  That opaque title sits atop just about the most remarkable piece of writing of this short length that I have ever read.  I would describe it as an anti-fairy tale, but don’t let that put you off.  A piece of short prose which takes off with its own exuberance and never lets you know where it is going. I can generally tell when a classic story is being re-told (because I do it myself).  I know – only after having read it – what the story is, in this case, but I am not going to divulge it.  You will have to read the magazine, and decide for yourself. 


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.

Review by Mike Harris of Something I Need To Tell You

I am indebted to Mike Harris for the following review, which he posted on Facebook.  He has spelt my name incorrectly, but that doesn’t matter.

On this occasion

I applied for a job on Monday.  I had to check a box that said I was eligible to work in the United Kingdom.

I applied for two jobs on Tuesday.  I had to check a box that said I had experience of working with the General Data Protection Regulation, and provide a scanned copy of my driving licence.

I applied for three jobs on Wednesday.  I had to check a box that said neither I nor any member of my family was currently employed by the Civil Service, provide a scanned copy of my passport, and compose a 5-minute presentation on the life-cycle of fleas.

I applied for four jobs on Thursday.  I had to check a box that said I had experience of managing annual budgets over fifty thousand pounds in value, provide scanned copies of all my examination certificates, compose a 10-minute presentation on the South Sea Bubble, and give an undertaking that I was willing to commute to Birkenhead, 5 days a week.

I applied for five jobs on Friday.  I had to check a box which said that I had no unspent criminal convictions, outstanding county court judgements, and was willing to undergo a full-disclosure search for my criminal record, provide scanned copies of my parents’ birth certificates, compose a 15-minute presentation on the life of Andy Warhol, give an undertaking that I was willing to commute to Folkestone, six days a week, and undergo a full medical.

I applied for six jobs on Saturday.  I had to check a box which said that I had never lied, stolen, nor made anyone cry, provide a scanned copy of everything I was thinking at that moment, compose a 20-minute presentation that would make every member of the audience enjoy every presentation they would ever experience again, as long as they lived, give an undertaking that I was willing to commute to Murmansk, seven days a week, undergo interrogation under conditions of complete sensory deprivation, and agree to go back in time and attempt to assassinate Hitler.

I slept in on Sunday, read a book, watched a film.

On Monday, I received a lecture at the Job Centre on the importance of undertaking job-seeking activities every day.

They terminated my claim.

Five dice into a teaspoon

I am an expert in metrology.  It was something that featured largely in my PhD.  Maybe this was a reaction against the stupidity of my parents, who should have known better.

When I was about ten or eleven, a discussion arose about the conversion factor between millilitres and cubic centimetres.  Even at that age, I had read several books on the subject.

‘1 millilitre equals 1 cubic centimetre,’ I stated.

To cut a long, repetitive, rambling story short, I will say that my mother had used a plastic spoon, graduated in millilitres, and had measured the capacity of the teaspoons in our cutlery drawer, and found that they were all 5 millilitres.  This, at least, was not in dispute.

I attempted to explain to my parents that “millilitre” meant “one thousandth of a litre”, and a litre was equivalent to a “cubic decimetre”, i.e. a litre was a cube 10cm × 10cm × 10cm.  Hence, 1 millilitre was a cube 1cm × 1cm × 1cm: a cubic centimetre.  That was when the trouble started.

My father presented the disintegrating element.  He protested that a 1cm × 1cm × 1cm cube was a “dice”.  You could not fit five dice into a teaspoon.  My mother agreed.

I said, and please bear in mind that I was ten or eleven at the time, that that was true as far as it went, but the assertion was irrelevant.  If you insist on an equivalence between “dice” and teaspoons, what you should do is to make five containers, 1cm × 1cm × 1cm, but open at the top, fill them with water from a pipette, and then transfer the water into a teaspoon.  You would then find that five 1cm × 1cm × 1cm cubes are equivalent to a teaspoonful.

The argument raged on.  I cannot deny that I became somewhat riled.

My father said he would check in various reference books (as if two authoritative reference books might say something different about this vexed and ambiguous question).

While he was faffing about, I exclaimed that I didn’t care what he looked up, 1 cc equalled 1 ml.  As soon as I had uttered the words, I knew I had made a mistake.  Not metrologically, but morally.

There then followed a joint lecture about keeping an open mind which went on for several years.

This was useful in one respect, because it demonstrated to me, with absolute clarity, that my parents were stupid.   They weren’t “having an off day”: they were STUPID.  They were both educated people, which proves that educated people can be stupid.  It has made me wonder about the extent of my own stupidity.  I do not claim to be able to avoid stupidity, but I do hope to know where it lies.  The First Battle of the Somme was caused by educated people who, while taking great pains, were being stupid.


Dear Mr Fascist

Dear Mr Hypothetical Fascist:

Why do you feel so vulnerable?  I get globalisation, and the constant changes in the job market, and I have to put up with all that, but it doesn’t make me hate other people.

I don’t hate gay people.  The fact that gay men exist doesn’t mean that they want to bugger you, personally.  You are probably nowhere near their league.  And, as for gay women – you might as well be building a base on one of the moons of an as-yet-to-be-discovered exo-planet.

Polish sausage in supermarkets, with the legend in Polish – this sausage is on sale AS WELL AS, not INSTEAD OF other sausage.

I have been to four universities, and I am unemployed.  But I am not trying to blame other people.  I listen to reggae and ska musik.  I cook South Asian food.  I converse using French and German quotations.  This cultural diversity has not yet secured me another job, but it has still done me a lot of good.

The concepts of Britishness/Englishness/Masculinity/Employment are all being challenged.  What else would you expect?  I would start by saying that you do not have to be British to be British.  You think that sounds like sophistry or gibberish?  The person I have in mind in Mayala Yousufzai.  She was born in Pakistan, but she is British.  And not just because she was treated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Birmingham.  “Shot in the head for campaigning for female education?  Kept going?  British.”

So if you want to demonstrate how British you are, you are going to have to do something more constructive than merely being bright pink and wearing a silly, St George T-shirt.

Book launch: Something I Need To Tell You, Leeds Library, 11 July 2018

The launch of my debut short fiction collection, ‘Something I Need To Tell You’, will be at the Leeds Library (not the Central Library – the one on Commercial Street) from 7-10pm on Wednesday 11 July 2018.

There will be a small number of short readings.  Short, I said.


Refreshments, including beer and wine, will be available.

You can pre-order the book:  http://www.stairwellbooks.co.uk/product/something-i-need-to-tell-you/

The Leeds Library happens to be celebrating its 250th anniversary, this year.

Poem: Water Molecules

Water Molecules

 Each one is a little, spiky thing,
looking like something the police 
might scatter on the road to burst the tyres
of a stolen car.  They are in the exhaust 
emitted by the car.  They are in the exhaust
emitted every time you exhale. 

They suffer from bipolarity and are 
sick beyond treatment, unable even to admit
they have a problem.
This condition makes them stick to their neighbours,
faster than leeches,
faster than Triads, the Mafia:
faster than that chap you met at the freshers’ fair
who had seemed all right at first.

Seventy per cent of him was made of them.
They were trying to stick to you then, like they 
are sticking together now, inside you, 
in your blood, your bones, your brain. 

If it weren’t for the insane grip
of these little tetrahedrons, 
there’d have been no Pyramids,
no Hitler, no Internet,  no mobile phones, 
nothing carved into the Stanza Stones.