Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Review: 20 Stories High, by Michael Yates

ISBN 978-0-9934811-8-5

Armley Press

GBP 8.99

This collection contains some experimental pieces, including one which has no human characters, and others in which some of the characters are human, but also dead.  There is a story set aboard a stranded spaceship, in which two of the characters are inscrutable robots with seemingly diametrically opposed moral purposes.

There are some references to what the Open University calls ‘sensitive material’ (substance abuse, violence, sex – particularly sexual impropriety) and a healthy amount of swearing.

I enjoyed this collection in two, separate ways.

The experimental stories intrigue me not so much in how the weirdness of the story is set up, but more by how it is resolved.  These resolutions, without contradicting any of the set-up, often emphasise the more basic elements of character, motive, and desire.

This leads me to the second way I enjoyed them, which was to dwell on Michael Yates’s own biography and career as a provincial journalist in the days before word processors and the smoking ban.  Whether set in a sub-editor’s office or a spaceship, Michael Yates’s most convincing characters are male, middle-aged, and have a chip on their shoulder about something they may or may not admit to.  The chap who might try to bore you to tears in a golf club or railway station bar is somebody we never want to meet, but I do like to read about him in Michael Yates’s stories.  Michael, like any good writer, can make a character who sounds as if he has had a boring life come clean about the one part of it that makes a good story.  An extraordinary person, telling interesting stories, will soon get boring.  An ordinary person, telling just one story, as if his life depends upon it, can be fascinating.

I will not divulge which among the collection is my undoubted favourite.  I will just say that it uses a borrowed title, a first person narrator who is clearly out of his mind, and it has no section breaks.


Review: Tom Allen, Theatre Royal, Wakefield 3 February 2018

The theatre was packed.  The moment Tom Allen arrived on stage, I could only hear Lord Peter Wimsey’s voice in my head, talking about Mr Willis from Murder Must Advertise.  “And he wears, I deeply regret to say, a double breasted waistcoat. That is the most sinister thing about him.”

That is by no means the most sinister thing about Tom Allen.

The support act was provided by George Lewis.

When Tom Allen came back, he did a stint of interacting with the audience, in an ironic way.  He asked people what they were called, what they did for a living, another question about what they did which was calculated to confuse them, and then said something mildly disparaging.  This is a formula that works very well, and Tom Allen does it to a tee.  He asked somebody, as a follow-up question, ‘What is your favourite council tax band?’

He identified Terry, and then James, who happened to be sitting next to Terry, and they turned out to be married, to each other, and had been together for 22 years.

When he gets going, Tom Allen’s delivery is fast, supremely skilful, and it pauses in unexpected places, but for reasons that become clear. Tom Allen generates comedic tension not just from what he is saying, but from the way he is saying it, as well.  When you get the two things together, you know you are listening to a real stand-up comedian.

Tom Allen does what stand-up comedians have to do, which is make a believable world which is about them, make everything important about them.  Tom Allen’s world is a place that has problems, but which many of the audience, including me, would have liked to inhabit.

This is rather a short review, because I was too busy listening to Tom Allen’s act to make many notes, and, when I did make notes, it was too dark in the Theatre Royal for me to write clearly.


iamhyperlexic: New Year’s Resolution

2017 was a bad year, with more people on zero hours contracts, and other exploitative working arrangements; people in full time work who are reliant on food banks; the continuing creeping privatisation of the NHS, and other scandals.

What I want you to do in 2018 is complain, in writing.

If you are middle class, then dust off that degree certificate, and put it to some use.  Articulate.  Decide what it is that you don’t like, identify whose responsibility you think it is, and write to them, on expensive paper.

Keep writing to them, until they give up.

If you are working class, then you don’t need to dust anything off, because any letter you write will come with a complementary thunderbolt.  You have the capacity to scare the hell out of the ruling elite, at your fingertips.

The complainer’s handbook is Whitaker’s Almanack.  You can find it in your local library (if it’s still open, of course.)  You can buy it from Waterstones, but it costs £90.  It contains, among other things, the address of every government department, every local council, and every other organisation that might be considered to be an emanation of the state.

If you are living with a disability and need more access or support, complain.  If you are being discriminated against, complain.  If you are on low pay, or unemployed, complain.  If your housing needs are not being met, complain.  If you are worried about environmental issues, complain.   If your transport needs are not being met, complain. If your health needs are not being met, complain. If you can’t get access to education, complain. If you work in the arts and can’t get funding, complain.  If there is a humanitarian crisis that you think requires our effort, complain.  If there are other people in your community who are experiencing injustice and who can’t advocate on their own behalf, complain.

Complain, complain, complain.  In writing.

In the era of paper-based offices, desks would usually have two trays on them, “In” and “Out”.  Let’s make 2018 the year of the tray labelled, “Oh, Bloody Hell.”


Review: The Bleeding Obvious Christmas Party, The Red Shed, 16 December 2017

First up was Helen Rhodes. (You can follow her on Twitter: @ThinkingChimp )  She is based in Wakefield, but this was the first time I had heard her.  She began with an anti-fairy tale.  I do like a good anti-fairy tale (search on this blog for Fairy tale, if you don’t believe me).  It was well-crafted, with rhyme and metre effectively used, but not according to a rigid scheme.  She did a poem about self-doubt, and two political ones.  You may have heard me saying before that I do not usually like political poetry.  Politics, and self-doubt, are very frequent subjects in contemporary spoken word, and they are also frequently mishandled.  Poems about self-doubt have a tendency to implode in a way that makes the audience think, “Yes, you aren’t very good at this, are you?”  Poems about politics tend to produce a lot of sterile shouting about things that the audience already gets, or they inadvertently convince the listeners that the person speaking doesn’t know what they are talking about.  All Helen Rhodes’s pieces worked.  The self-doubt poem had the audience nodding with recognition and approval.  The political poems used poetic technique to make them stand up, rather than a mere, selfish appeal to the audience’s sense of justice.  Helen definitely left the audience wanting more, and I will be looking out for her next performance.

Helen, wife of The Bleeding Obvious’s Jess Rowbottom, began selling raffle tickets in the interval.  This was for the benefit of Mermaids UK, a charity which supports transgender children, and their families.  I bought two strips.

Next up was the inimitable (and I use that word advisedly) Lee McHale, from Castleford.  Those of you who are familiar with the ‘Mr Gum’ series of children’s books by Andy Stanton may be interested to know that Lee McHale looks uncannily like Mr Gum, himself.  It’s a combination of the beard, the cap, and the wild-eyed expression.  I have never yet seen Lee stick a picture of a scary shark on his beard to make himself look more frightening, but it would not surprise me if he did.

Lee started with ‘Ted, the Teabag’.  He then picked up a ukulele, which appeared to have been made out of a cigar box, with the bit of cord that Compo Simonite used to keep his trousers up with, instead of a strap.  The cord, and its unpredictable behaviour, were an unscripted contribution to the act.  He started a musical version of  ‘Jeremy Kyle Is A Wanker’.  I am familiar with the unaccompanied version, but not this one.  Lee can certainly play the ukulele, but he gave up on the instrument two verses from the end, because the unreliable trouser-cord was giving him gip.  He returned to reciting, unaccompanied, without any diminution of the effect or the audience enjoyment.

His last piece was announced as, ‘a hobby poem’, again set to the ukulele.  It was called, ‘I Like To Kill’.  The audience laughed out loud, though some people looked a bit uncertain at the injunction to “J O I N  I N !”

Whereas Lee did words with musical accompaniment, Louis James, who I mentioned in my last review, did guitar playing accompanied by singing.  Louis has a highly accomplished, complex finger-picking style, which includes a lot of moving his hands onto and off the strings, so that he can do things like strike the sound box, or play harmonics.  (If you don’t know what harmonics are, ask somebody.)

His first three pieces were his own compositions.  While his instrumental technique is breath-takingly sophisticated, I don’t really get his songs.  He is too young, too thin, and not sweaty enough for my taste.

Almost as if he were reading my mind, Louis finished with a cover version of ‘Ace of Spades’.  It was innovative, and it worked.

A late addition to the programme was Jasmine, from The Black Horse Poets.  She appeared under her pseudonym, which I didn’t catch.  She did a piece called ‘Spiderwoman’, which delighted the audience, including the bit where she stuck two fingers up.

As Geneviève Walsh was getting ready to go on, Helen Rhodes and Lee McHale had to go out into the cold, to travel to The Snooty Fox, for another benefit gig, a Christmas food drive.  “I’ll try not to take it personally,” exclaimed Geneviève, as they were leaving.

It was another effortlessly accomplished set from Geneviève.  Most of the pieces I had heard before, but I enjoyed them all the more for that.  The intro to ‘Contradiction’ (the piece about the beautiful woman in the library with the recalcitrant child, called Bradley) said that she was performing it in recognition of the casting of the new Doctor Who as a woman with a Yorkshire accent, and, so I was told, a male assistant, called Bradley.

The main thing I took from this performance of Geneviève’s was from the intro to ‘Dance Of A Thousand Losers’, and it was, “Life is about finding your kind of weirdo”.

The headline act was, of course, Jess Rowbottom in her guise as The Bleeding Obvious.

For those who have never yet enjoyed the blessing of visiting The Red Shed in Wakefield, it is, literally, a shed.  The – for want of a better word – “auditorium” is a room that has to be extended by opening a folding partition.  It tends to attract people who are looking for the bar and open the wrong door; it has 1970s-style, fireproof ceiling tiles, a self-assembly wardrobe in one corner, a granny carpet, and a laminate dancefloor and piles of stacked chairs, which give it the air of a low budget wedding reception.  Jess made it feel like Madison Square Garden.   Just about every seat was taken.

I am not going to go through the whole set list of 14 songs.  The performance began with some keyboard playing which reminded me of how Animal from The Muppets plays the drums.

One of my favourite pieces of unscripted banter was, “I didn’t used to be like this: I used to identify as a software engineer.”

I did not realise, the last time I heard Jess perform, that her instruments all have names.  I didn’t catch all of them, but the melodica is called Sven (which I always thought was the name of a Swedish hit man).  The gold keyboard with the shoulder strap is called Judith.  Don’t ask me why.

Louis James returned to the front, with his guitar, for a song called (I think) ‘Gender Babylon’.  They engaged in what I believe is known in some circles as, “getting down”.  It was very good.

The 13th song was ‘Keith Chegwin For A Day’, which Jess said she had written in 1991.  When Jess announced this as the last one, there were howls of protest, and so she finished with ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’.

The raffle was drawn, and I won the naff Christmas compilation LP (yes, a vinyl LP) that had recently been contributed after a trip to a charity shop.

As I was on my way home, there were two middle-aged lesbians in the taxi office. One of them asked me about the record. “I love vinyl, me. What’s that? Christmas songs? I wish I had that. I’d love that.” I gave her the record.

When you have been unemployed as long as I have, the opportunity to attend an event devoted to self-realisation, with well-crafted music and words, in the company of people who are mostly familiar, does you a power of good.  The things I took from this event are that we are who we are, and anyone who doesn’t like it can fuck off, and that the exercise of talent, especially in an atmosphere of human warmth and solidarity, can keep austerity and prejudice at bay.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Review: Killing the Piano, by Joe Williams

ISBN 978-0-9957642-1-7

Half Moon Books

26 pages


I heard Joe Williams performing his poetry, and I met him, before I read this.  I think it is his debut collection.

This review is particularly difficult to write, for two reasons.  The first is that Joe Williams does not come from Leeds, but lives in Leeds, whereas I do come from Leeds, but I now live in Wakefield.  Westgate Studios, in Wakefield, is one of the places I have heard Joe Williams perform.  Hyde Park Book Club, in Leeds, is another.  Matt Abbott recently observed that he himself chose to write about Blyth in Northumberland, rather than Wakefield, because he was too close to his place of origin to see it.  Matt has written some poems about Wakefield, but that is not the point.  Joe Williams writes not just about Leeds: he writes about my Leeds.  And that makes the review more difficult.

Many poets try to write about, or evoke, a sense of place.  When you make a reader feel conflicted or regretful about the way you have evoked that place, that means you are doing something right: at least you have engagement.  The way Joe Williams has evoked Leeds will not just appeal to people from Leeds: it will not just appeal to people who come from the industrial, university cities in the North of England: it will appeal to anyone who feels attached to a certain place – all the more, if that feeling of attachment is conflicted.

The second reason is that the subject matter of Joe Williams’s work is similar to my own.  I once had a rather unsatisfactory conversation with Kirsten Luckins in which she asked me to describe my poetry in one word.  I said, “urban”.  She said, “Does that mean you are a rapper?”  I said “No.”  She said, “If you describe your work as urban, that means you are a rapper.  Why do you describe your work as urban if you are not a rapper?”  I said, “I describe it as urban because it is more likely to be appreciated by people who live in cities.”  She said, “Name one poet that you would describe as urban, who is not a rapper.”  I said, “Brian Patten.”  She reluctantly admitted that I had a point.

Joe Williams’s work is urban, in the Brian Patten sense.

The three fundamental questions that I ask myself about the work of a new poet I encounter are: 1. Who is speaking?  2. What are they saying?  3. Why might it be important?  I already had the answers to these questions, from Joe Williams’s performances, before I began to read, ‘Killing the Piano’.  My reading of ‘Killing the Piano’ shows that Joe Williams has not just found his poetic voice, but has cultivated it to the point where he can use it to portray more than one persona.  In this collection, he depicts a wider range of voices than I did in ‘Throwing Mother In The Skip’.  The furthest I get from my own ego in my debut collection is in ‘Eleven Colours of Loneliness’.  Joe Williams creates situations which are completely hypothetical, but very compelling, in ways that I haven’t, yet.

I hesitate to use the word, “surreal”, because it has become a neologism for “a bit unexpected”.  But some of Joe Williams’s work is surreal in the sense that it deliberately blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality, in such a way that sane people might appear mad, and mad people might appear sane.

My first reading of part of this collection was while I was in the telephone queue for a call centre.  Yes, I had the phone in one hand, and the book in the other.  It is a book which understands things like being on hold on the phone, but without clichés.  The hands we are in, in this collection, may be, at times, timid, or experimental, but they are safe.  Where Joe Williams deals with situations you have read about, before, he does so in a way that is new.

He is just about the only Western writer I know who writes haikus which don’t make me feel nauseous.  This is because of his mastery of tone: there are times when it is impossible to tell if he is being serious, or taking the piss.  But he knew what he was doing, when he wrote the piece.

There is exactly one poem in the collection that I didn’t like, but I am not going to tell you what it is.  You will have to read the collection, and work it out, for yourself.

Stand down Margaret

Jason Holloway is the prompt for this post.  He lives in the United States.

I am a paid-up Labour Party socialist, of a kind that one seldom meets, even nowadays.  I believe in the National Health Service, nationalisation, redistributive taxation, and all the old-fashioned virtues.  I believe in pursuing tax avoiders to the furthest extremes of longitude.

Jason Holloway is a hard-line (anti-Trump) American Republican.  The only subjects we can discuss rationally are food, and music.

The Beat aka The English Beat is my favourite band.  ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’ is my favourite album.  ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ is my favourite track.

When Jason came to England, he landed in Birmingham, where The Beat comes from.  I gather he likes the city, as I do.  We got on much better face-to-face than we had done, on-line.  Since then, I think we have reached an accommodation, based on food, music, and sport.

I am going to take Jason Holloway to a professional rugby league match, if it is the last thing I ever do.  It might be in Canada.  I don’t care.

In the meantime: Stand Down Margaret.  I see no joy.  I see only sorrow.  I see no chance of your bright, new tomorrow.



I grew up in North Leeds, and my parents were lawyers.  That might sound like privilege, and, of course, with regard to food, clothing, education, housing, it was.  But morally and philosophically, it was hell.

Jesus cannot save the atheist/non-conformist children of North Leeds.  They are on their own.

My parents believed in two fundamental things. They believed that the justice system was capable of working, as long as every individual within it on the states’s side showed the required degree of integrity. (What about The Guildford Four and The Birmingham Six? Never mind.)  They also believed in engagement.  They believed that every incidence of wrong-doing should be reported by everybody, everywhere, forever, without exception.

A working justice system has many ingredients.  But engagement is the most fundamental of these ingredients.

Somebody has to say, ‘I have suffered a wrong.’

That is the main reason why I hate Savile.  He used his status to set up a power structure that would have absolutely appalled my parents.

The only rational, sane, just reaction to ‘I have suffered a wrong,’ is, ‘What wrong have you suffered?’

Not, ‘Well, you see, he raises a lot of money for this unit.  If he comes round, it may be a good idea to pretend to be asleep.’


The most valuable commodity in the world is justice.   Would I rather starve than have justice?  If I don’t have enough food, then I don’t have justice.

Let’s start with reporting of the violent and exploitative wrong-doing of privileged men, and then we’ll go on from there.

Who knows where that might take us.

Review: Catch A Falling Star at Cluntergate Centre, Horbury 13/10/2017

I arrived late, at about 5 past 7, when a young man with a guitar was singing and playing.  I took him to be Louis James.  He began a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.  There was a fairly long and tinkly guitar intro, which led me to believe that this would be one from the  Jeff Buckley school.  And so it came to pass.  I am absolutely allergic to bad cover versions of ‘Hallelujah’, by Leonard Cohen.  They make me come out in terrible running sores, all over my bozzolikons.  This was a good cover version.  When he sang ‘All I ever learnt from love / was how to shoot at someone who outdrew yer’ the hair stood up on the back of my neck.  It sounded like an impersonation of Jeff Buckley, but it was a very good impersonation.  Louis James (if I have got your name right): why don’t you try a freer version?

A splendid build-up, in the Cluntergate Centre.  I get to walk to this place, from where I live.  I may be an outsider (I come from bloody Leeds) but this is my centre.

The next performer was Halima Mayat.  I know Halima from, among other things, the Black Horse Poets.  Halima is part of the spoken word scene in Wakefield.

She opened with a poem that she said had been written during a workshop with someone called ‘Gen’.  I have sent my spies out throughout the north of England, and the best they can come up with for a suspect called ‘Gen’, is Geneviève Walsh, of, among other things, Spoken Weird in Halifax.  It was a poem about bi-polar disorder, called, ‘Tin of Hot Dogs’.  It was a very good example of how to use an everyday object as a metaphor for mental states.

Halima’s next set of pieces were based on fairy tales: Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood.  These were modernist treatments of classic stories.

‘The Dark of The House’ was a chilling poem.  ‘Betrayal’ was an angry poem.

As a listener, I still find Halima’s poetic persona tantalising, but, from this performance, I learnt a great deal about her.  It was an excellent performance.  Halima held the room (there were 40+ people there – that is a serious room).  Her microphone technique was very good.  She got tumultuous applause, as well she deserved.

Stefan Grieve and Ralph Dartford appeared under the name ‘Specky & Specky’.

Stefan and Ralph performed 8 pieces.  Ralph did a piece about domestic violence, and relationship breakdown, which began, “There’s indentations in this chipboard wall…”  Stefan rhymed “Fill ya” with “thrill ya”, and “dyspraxic” with “sarcastic”.

Stefan also said, “Don’t let your pain be a stranger to those who can help,” which is a summary of the whole evening.

Ruby Macintosh wears spectacles and an A-line dress.  She evokes the 1950s.  She can really sing.  She plays an amplified acoustic guitar.  She has excellent technique in both hands.  That is not something that I say, often.

‘Raspberry, Strawberry, Gooseberry Jam’ was a tour de force.  Never mind the vocal and instrumental technique, in perfect unison.  The subject matter of the song is about life choices.  It is a kind of poetry that I would normally associate with Brian Patten, Roger McGough, or Stevie Smith.

Ruby Macintosh is as good as Eddi Reader.  Possibly, better, because she doesn’t have a backing band.

Nathan Birkinshaw did a routine that was partly about repetition.  He was telling a joke about a man who walks into a bar.  It involved a certain amount of lying on his back on a table, and shouting.  I am not keen on shouting.  There was a barmaid.

His funniest line, in my opinion, was, with reference to this chap in joke land, and the barmaid, “It’s later in the night, and they’re in bed.”

[There is an old 15 amp plug socket on the ceiling of the main hall in the Cluntergate Centre.  Don’t ask me how I know that.]

The last act on the bill was Jess Rowbottom, as The Bleeding Obvious.  She was, among other things, promoting her show, ‘Rainbow Heart’.  But this evening was all about the moment.

As a fan of Augustus Pablo, I am appalled at how Jess used the melodica.  To hell with that.  I am not appalled: I am encouraged.  There are new uses to which the melodica can be put, and The Bleeding Obvious is finding them.  More of that, please.

I am going to list some of the pieces that Jess performed, if for no other reason than I want her to know that I was listening:

  1. Life is Never As Straight as it Seems
  2. Not Dead, Yet
  3. Family Gathering
  4. Outside v Inside
  5. Wallflower
  6. Me, Myself, and I
  7. One Foot In Front Of The Other

It was #6 that did it, for me.  There was a sample from the old-fashioned speaking clock.  It went a bit Pet Shop Boys.  It went a bit Momus.  Jess briefly lost her place with the melodica, and had to count herself back in.  That was lovely.

If I have to crawl there on my hands and knees, I will put a blue plaque on the wall of Cluntergate Community Centre.  “13/10/2017 Jessica Rowbottom, rock star, performed here.”

It was partly about the keyboard playing.  It was partly about the vocals.  It was certainly about the hair.  But, mostly, it was about Jess.  With the playing, singing, and persona, she told us she was going to take us to a different place, and we acquiesced, and she did.


Stepping into Rickaro Books on Bookshop Day, 2017

The wife of my high school English teacher is a long time friend of the proprietor of my local, independent bookshop.

Christina James, crime novelist

Rickaro Books 2 Rickaro Books, Horbury

Yesterday was UK Bookshop Day, the annual event which celebrates the huge contribution made to civilised life by all British bookshops, especially independents.  It also marks the beginning of the current year’s ‘Books Are My Bag’ [BAMB] initiative for the run-up to Christmas and beyond.

The whole BAMB drive was conceived of and masterminded by the UK Booksellers Association, which now administers it.  Authors and readers alike are very fortunate to have, working on our behalf, this imaginative, dedicated, hard-working and amazingly small team of people led by Tim Godfrey, its long-term CEO.  I was lucky enough to attend, on 11th September, the BA’s annual conference and there to get a sneak preview of some of this year’s BAMB marketing material, which includes beautiful mugs and book bags designed by Orla Kiely.

I always visit at least one bookshop on Bookshop Day.  Yesterday I headed for…

View original post 496 more words

Welcome To The Mad: Wakefield Litfest, 2:45-3:30pm 1 October 2017


My wife, Valerie Anderson Gaskill, and I will be performing as the double act, Valliam.  The title of the show is Welcome To The Mad.

The venue is Cluntergate Community Centre, in Horbury.  We are appearing as part of an all-day event, called Wakefield Rising.

Tickets are £6 (£3 concessions) for the whole day, or £1 (£0.50 concessions) per event.

The line-up of this year’s Wakefield Litfest is dazzling.  It includes Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kate Fox, John Hegley, Geneviève Walsh, Matt Abbott, Gudrun’s Sisters, and many others. It starts on Saturday 23 September 2017.