Good news from the writing shed

June 2022

Pleased to announce that my new work of long fiction, Notes From the Superhorse Stable, was published this month (June 2022) by Saron Publishers, and my fourth story collections, Five Go to Switzerand, will appear from Cockatrice Books this autumn.

Here’s a piece about the first that I wrote for the Western Mail daily newspaper.

Blimey – is this what I envisaged when I started out?

That’s the question I asked myself when I finished writing my latest book, Notes From the Superhorse Stable. It’s a sort-of novel (explanations in a bit).

The answer to the question was an emphatic No.

That’s because I recalled the origins of Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, about a spiritually-destitute architect and womaniser who finds moral redemption in the Belgian Congo. Greene claimed that its inspiration was unlikely and unpropitious: from the deck of a boat on an African river he’d seen a white man in a white linen suit entering a hut on its banks. Just that. It’s where his novel began.

Most writers will recognise the scenario. Something simple, some thought, sight or vision, seems to possess enticing but hidden connections that suggest a whole bigger than the sum of what will turn out to be initially disconnected parts.

Writers respond to the need to make something of the bigger picture, to react to what Greene clearly recognised as a beckoning voice. It’s obsessional.

Notes From the Superhorse Stable is narrated by Francis Taylor, a ‘resting’ actor working pro tem in a Forest of Dean care home. His theatrical career, such as it is, was halted when he was attacked by a pig while making a TV documentary about medieval life. He probably knows that his ‘resting’ will be permanent. One of his first roles was as the lead horse, Nugget, in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus.

In fact, the non-human animal kingdom seems forever to be knocking at the door of his story, as if auditioning for parts. A vicious pig, horses blinded by a disturbed teenager with a metal spike: both roles were non-speaking parts, and I realised only after completing the book how significant that was, maybe a justification for 430 pages of a memoir finally incorporating tragedy.

While ‘resting’, Francis joins the Ancestry website and discovers a distant, virtually unknown relative living in retirement near Brighton: Harold Taylor, a former South Wales coal miner, is seriously ill and being urged by a friend to try an unconventional remedy. Francis also has an unstable partner, a writer. As he tries to re-construct the past, the present is fragmenting, as his loyalties divide, his partner’s sickness worsens, and Harold further declines.

So why a ‘sort-of’ novel?

First, a confession: when I read Pride and Prejudice, I wondered who was telling me the story. Jane Austen, yes; but I didn’t mean that. I meant the third-person narrator. How could she – she? – remember all those conversations verbatim. How could she be privy to the thoughts and intimacies of others? How could she know so much detail and why did she re-live events with such formal exactitude and elegance?

That, of course, is the stuff of fundamental literary theory concerning the nature of language, the province and significance of meaning. Its claims can be exorbitant and are rebuffed by suspension of disbelief: what happened in Pride and Prejudice happened and ours is not to reason how or why the author’s account came into being.

But if I were still worried about such matters, I could find solace in first-person story-telling. The problem with that is not disbelief – what the narrator said happened did happen by definition, unless she/he were deliberately lying. And there’s the problem. How much can you believe, especially of what the narrator tells the reader about other people, other characters, other events? You can tell but you can’t show.

My ruse – successful or not – is to have the narrator explaining exactly that. Francis also admits that his story, his note-taking, by its very nature, includes meaningful digressions, byways, interesting dead ends. His allusion is the long walk, which one doesn’t embark on head down and interested only in getting from A to B. One takes in the view, cogitates, rests, looks over one’s shoulder. He has a story to tell but he’s not a novelist. He’s a ‘resting’ actor, working as a temp in a nursing home. You have to believe it, and it’s believable. Anyway, the lunge of that pig is giving him grief, maybe leading him away from immediacy towards the discursive, a much more leisurely path.

The idea for my book arose somewhat like Greene’s. My wife is a historian and explores family history. She has discovered two distant relatives, one of whom was seriously ill and not long after died. Her discoveries were in Cumbria, where Harold Taylor came from. The research for the book, as so often, was in the pursuit of small details. Being an actor, Francis needed to be placed in the context of theatre, of plays he’d been in. Those antecedents had to be accurate, not least the quotes.

Like all lengthy books, writing this one took over two years on and off. The problem with such intermittent activity is that a character may have blue eyes on page 17 and brown ones six months later on page 154. I was lucky to find the go-ahead Saron Publishers, a feisty Welsh independent, which took the book on. My rigorous editor, and Saron personified, was Penny Reeves, who sorted out eye colour, or kindred inconsistencies. Writing was more a delight than a challenger. I used to be a daily-newspaperman and really haven’t stopped scribbling. I still write devotedly for Jazz Journal, in which I have a column called Count Me In.

The aforementioned ‘sort of’ novel, or book, interests me. So that my influences (though not specifically in Notes From the Superhorse Stable) are writers such as Geoff Dyer, Emmanuel Carrère and W. G. Sebald. Their books do not fall into familiar categories. All writers should try to be original, if not experimental. How Modernism has for the general reader been effaced by ‘page-turners’ and books that ‘can’t be put down’ is the most depressing aspect of contemporary literature. It’s a regression.

I suppose for Saron, I had form: five books, one a poetry collection, published, and I am a winner of the Rhys Davies prize and the Templar Shorts prize for stories. It must have been alarmed, though, by the theme of how animals other than horses and pigs, but as well as them, ‘walk on stage’ in the memoir of an actor. It’s a bit of magic realism and, I hope, not overdone.

There was a strange postscript to the book’s completion. In it, there’s a Victorian eccentric called Charles Lovell Darling and a Giphy-obsessed character who sends the narrator a pic of a smiling rhinoceros. A week after the manuscript had been signed off, I visited Snowshill Manor, a National Trust property in the Cotswolds, with Mrs J and her second ‘discovered’ relative: David Lowis, from Appleby.

I knew nothing about Snowshill; it was our second choice, as the first NT property was shut. Snowshill was once owned by an eccentric called Charles Paget Wade, who stuffed it with masses of quaint collectibles, from Samurai armour to penny-farthing bikes, and lived in a cottage in the grounds. He’d also fabricated a tongue-in-cheek coat-of-arms in which there was a small image of a smiling rhino.

You couldn’t make it up. But I did. The book, I mean.

New journal of the plague year

‘On this they called a new council, and now the towns had no need to be afraid they should settle near them; but, on the contrary, several families of the poorer sort of the inhabitants quitted their houses and built huts in the forest after the same manner as they had done. But it was observed that several of these poor people that had so removed had the sickness even in their huts and booths; the reason of which was plain, namely, not because they removed into the air, but, (1) because they did not remove time enough; that is to say, not till, by openly conversing with the other people their neighbours, they had the distemper upon them, or (as may be said) among them, and so carried it about them whither they went. Or (2) because they were not careful enough, after they were safely removed out of the towns, not to come in again and mingle with the diseased people.’

                                                   DANIEL DEFOE, Journal of The Plague Year

                                                                  oOo

March 18 2020: We are bruised, dazed and off-kilter, battered daily by The Invisible Man.

It’s now about 13 weeks since Coronavirus was a ‘downpage’ story, a remote event in a remote Chinese place.

The remote never concerns us because of its very remoteness. It’s always been the same in newspapers, and even a TV report only ever makes us wince. Perhaps we should wince more at the media’s juxtapositions: the film of homeless refugees, or our own homeless, followed immediately without time for reflection by Love Island or an advert for Ferrero-Rocher. Without reflection, we forget. John Berger was the first to draw attention to it: he saw that the early Sunday Times magazine catered for liberal concerns as well as refined (and expensive) tastes, often in the turn of a page. In our millions we watch Martin Bell asking us to denote £6 to feed a starving African child but most of us never reach for our wallets. Well, Lewis is up next.

Early Spring has become a proclamation without an audience. But there’s a paradox: more than usually you notice the details of its awakening. Blackthorn comes first, a bit like a corrupting rash; then snowdrops, followed by primroses, stuttering fields of rape, and magnolias. But we have other concerns.

March 19: Boris Johnson* is never more ineffective and uninspiring than when he’s dealing with a topic that defies flippancy, though he’s reported to have made a joke about the lack of ventilators for victims wheeled into intensive care: he called for a ‘last gasp’ effort to provide them. It was probably unintentional, a case of his levity refusing to be suppressed by seriousness. It could, of course, be a social media lie. It’s so easy these days to Tweet, for example, that Jacob Rees-Mogg is encouraging everyone to dip into the interest from their Blue Chip investments in order to see them through the crisis, any crisis. Many will believe it’s true. Social media has become the vehicle for easy mendacity. In the end we shall trust no-one.

But we are all victims. When Covid-19 first appeared in graphic terms as a red blob on the map of China, it was assumed that this was when it first appeared. Common-sense and Chinese dilatoriness tell us that it must have been moving around before it was identified, maybe to far-flung places outside China. Coronavirus as a collective body of nasties was already known. Deaths must have been occurring, particularly among the elderly with chronic ailments, in which the symptoms were not sufficiently different from pneumonia-like ones. When the latest version first appeared in Italy, I went down with symptoms that at one point in recent weeks I would have ascribed to possible Covid-19. My belief was bolstered this week by someone who did not have the full list of ‘official’ symptoms yet still tested positive. The government, hampered by lack of testing, estimates that the ‘official’ number of cases in hundreds could well be in thousands. Deaths, too, one assumes, for at least before the point at which deaths were officially ascribed to Covid-19.

Last week, at Keswick’s Words By The Water Festival, the Guardian’s John Crace explained Johnson’s prime ministerial buffoonery in terms of a distinction between his wishing to assume office and the fulfilment of having done so -viz., the former gave him the greater buzz. Interesting. Cumbrians, by the way, seemed little interested in social distancing. On the fells, they are used to it. But it’s early days.

March 20: Reading Andrew Turnbull’s 1962 biography of Scott Fitzgerald. It seems authoritative and it acknowledges sources. Today someone posted on Facebook a letter written by SF from the South of France in 1920 during the Spanish ‘flu pandemic. As is often the way with social media, someone takes issue with the details, pointing out that the letter was written after the pandemic was over. No doubt someone else will say that it returned several times in virus-ey gusts and that it was in one of those that the letter was written. I’m also sure that somewhere Turnbull’s book is denigrated.

One simply doesn’t know what to do – about evaluating written testimonies as much as avoiding lethal viruses. On social media, as we know, things ‘go viral’. No need to pick up online ubiquity after today: we are virtually in ‘lockdown’, with all pubs, restaurants, theatres and similar places closed until further notice, and most of us being paid wages and running costs by the government. It’s all on the telly and everyone’s watching.

Weird, coincidental serendipity at my local library. I can take out an ominous 14 books (closure on the way?) and I discover in the ‘for sale’ section for £1 volume three of the Bodley Head Scott Fitzgerald edition, one I’ve been looking for. Either with good grace or for ease of transaction, the librarian lets me have the SF book for nothing when I tell her I have no money on me. I feel for her predicament as sundry borrowers descend on her at less than two metres, the recommended ‘social distance’. Cash has become infected.

March 21: Much talk, possibly contextual, of how I and my contemporaries are the ‘golden’ generation. We’ve fought in no wars (at least not as volunteers or conscripts), availed ourselves of a free education, and paid nothing for medical treatment. We’ve also seen parts of the world that our grandparents, and our parents in most cases, knew only as places on a map, names in the newspapers, or locations where killing an enemy trumped sightseeing. And if we are rising eighty and this thing continues, we may be closer to the end than we think. It’s a sobering thought while we are cooped up and planning to venture out only for exercise or to shop. ‘Venture out’ embodies an element of trepidation. It’s sunny, so we go for a walk.

Maybe it’s the moment we’re living in, but I ‘m more grumpy and disapproving than ever. In Castle Meadows, a greyhound craps inelegantly as its owner walks away unconcerned and more interested in continuing his phone conversation. I felt like shouting at him in the same way that I was tempted to ‘accidentally’ overturn a shopping trolley at Aldi’s overflowing with toilet rolls. I don’t need others to tell me that I’m becoming like my father was in his old age, perhaps making up for years of not complaining when I should have. But then, what appeared to be a panic-buyer may simply have been a public-spirited individual, shopping for a group of elderly neighbours who couldn’t get out.

Monmouthshire has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Wales. I wonder why. News from Italy terrible. It has now recorded more deaths than any other country, surpassing even China, which says it has the epidemic under control. If it’s on the news, we believe it; we have to.

March 22: The real world, as we often refer to it without knowing precisely what we mean, has been transferred to the telly. It’s where people congregate, attend football matches, plan holidays, frolic at Centre Parcs, and lunge like a phalanx into John Lewis’s when the sales start. There is no social distancing on repeats of Friends. That was in former times. We have become the under-privileged and deprived. This is what it feels like, except that what we are watching is what has happened, not what is happening. To use the popular parlance, we don’t yet have an exit strategy, nor do we know what terrain we shall be exiting on to – blasted heaths, maybe.

The government imposes more and more draconian measures, seemingly always to be in the trail of the pandemic, not anticipating it. It needs to anticipate the tendency of fools to ignore social distancing. There are a lot of them. They must think that distancing ourselves from normality is some kind of holiday in which they can do vacational things, such as going to the seaside in large numbers, thereby eroding the distance. It’s a misanthrope’s heaven. But we must not allow government to tarnish the many with the actions of the reckless few, for that’s the route to tyranny.

March 23: The sun stays out and temperatures rise. The sky is free of vapour trails. No aircraft save for a light trainer, lonely as an albatross. It’s what it must have been like when the lone survivor of a dogfight over France in the Great War spluttered back to base.

March 24: To town for medicines and food. It’s now that we know who the important people are in society among those we take for granted: shop assistants now assisting at a distance, dispensers of essentials, unseen NHS workers daily going into battle. All of them placing themselves in situations where the likelihood of contracting the virus is increased.

The government’s skewed response to what’s happening based on scenarios in other parts of the world is illustrated by our own experience. In Keswick we attended six events at a packed theatre. There was little ‘social distancing’ in town. The incubation period for Covid-19 is five to fourteen days. As they say now, ‘Do the maths’.

March 25: As Britain closes down in the hope of making the under-funded NHS look as though it can cope with a crisis, I reach the point in Turnbull’s Scott Fitzgerald biography at which the subject is cracking up, or undergoing his own shutdown. It was a faltering process, halted at intervals by a capacity for revival and a belief that his talent was indestructible.

Lockdown comes with its own vocabulary, which includes ‘lockdown’. What circumstances was it applied to before? We are self-isolating, socially distancing, ramping up, flattening (the curve of rising numbers of infections and deaths), exponential (in our numerical growth as victims) and, if we are employers, ‘furloughing’ our workforce. There’ll be more.

At the start of the book, Fitzgerald’s father as a nine-year-old is reported as having watched in the distance the long line of General Jubal Early’s Confederate battalions marching towards a last offensive against Washington. From such inconsequential anecdotes do poems begin.

March 26: At 7.38pm precisely and in a clear sky between Mars and Venus, the International Space Station heads north-west. It’s like the smallest of glittering diamonds pushed across velvet by an unseen hand. What do the crew of nine – Russian, American, Arab – in the supreme example of isolation, think as they look across at us, locked down on our celestial orb?

March 27: We meet a friend on our daily walk in Castle Meadows, keeping the prescribed distance. It feels like something out of a Science Fiction story, filmed by Truffaut. The gap, another we have to mind, is the bank of our former conviviality. When shall we be able to redeem our deposits?

March 28: Camus’s La Peste (The Plague) is not the only book that’s worth re-reading at present. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring from 1962 was a warning to the world about the devastating use of pesticides on wildlife. Carson in other books prophesised loss as a result of neglect, and would have been a climate change activist today. The evocative title Silent Spring describes a world without birdsong, of which I’m reminded by the sound of a single Green Woodpecker hammering away across a deserted car park. It’s always one, of course, the harbinger appearance that masks the reality of all the other woodpeckering.

Carson was a marine biologist writing at a time when science-denial would have horrified most rational beings. Neo-con suspicion of expertise, hitherto ridiculing the idea of global warming and other disasters of human povenance, is now being swamped by the realisation that our fate is in the hands of experts; so much so, that what one hopes are remnants of the irrational figure only briefly in newscasts: rednecks queuing in the US to buy rifles and ammo in lieu of civil unrest; protests by the religious that pestilence is the will of whatever god they believe in; and Trump’s idea that because Covid-19 began in China it could be ascribed to the nation that dares declare trade war and, because the US would always win such a war, any threat from such a country could be minimised.

March 29: We are waking from the illusion of independence. Painted rainbows appear randomly in windows, chalked ones on walls and pavements. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are setting aside ancient enmities. We are smiling at each other more. This morning, back from my daily exercise, I perform a strange ritual-type dance with the person walking towards me on the pavement as we decide who should step into the road to make way. Despite imposed civil quietude, civility survives.

British Summer Time begins, with the natural world’s equivalent of a yawn.

March 30: At 5pm the town is almost deserted. I cough an ordinary, non-Corvid cough, and it echoes along the high street. We have been locked down with our routines. What day is it?

March 31: Deaths in Italy, Spain, and France being reported daily in the hundreds. We are catching up.

Life-drawing class should be held this evening but it’s been cancelled for the last fortnight. Amusing to think how our socially-distanced circle of amateur hopefuls ponder each week the vulnerability of the human form, catatonic for two, or five, or ten minutes at its centre. This is what I am, the model seems to say: naked, without sartorial predicates. Yet we struggle even to describe external appearance. Is this the difference between good and bad art, the success or failure of deep mining and revelation? The truth is there before us in all its blank solemnity. Can we divine it? Without those statuesque forms in front of us, there would be no pandemic: coronavirus needs a host, a hellish host. We’re in it together, artist and model.

Collecting thoughts for collected works

Why Craig Brown, writer of hilarious faux-diaries of the famous for Private Eye, never got round to the wonderful Clive James, I can’t imagine. So I’ll do it for him. As James himself might have said, if you’re going to send something up you might as well make the send-up a send-off. He could have sent up the cancer that killed him as it wanted to send him off instead of being sent off itself. Cancer’s like that. RIP, Clive. Nobody did it like you (to be read in a laconic SE Australia accent):

The reason I haven’t yet succumbed to the illness that won’t let me go is because of its ability to delay the act of succumbing. You expect it to do something only for it to choose something else, such as not living up to your expectation. Cancer’s like that; or, rather, cancer is like nothing you’ve ever experienced, so what you expect of it is what you’d expect of anything determined to operate beyond the bounds of reasonable possibility. With cancer, anything’s possible, even the possibility of the impossible.

Deciding to leave it to its unpredictability, I did the improbable – or the impossibly probable, as it’s often known. I learned Persian in two days so that I could read the collected works of Ferdowsi, Nezami, Hafiz, Saadi, and Omar Khayam. It was a huge task, as huge as old Persia itself. I’d learned Persian twice before, taking a week each time before I could lay it as low as one of its eponymous carpets. As soon as I was fluent, I simultaneously read two biographies each of Attar and Rumil. But first I had to fly to Orlando to make a programme for ITV about Disneyland. I’d long decided to pass the time it took to take off from Heathrow and land at some far-flung aerodrome by reading the complete works of Shakespeare in Goethe’s German translation with full annotations; an annotation by Goethe is as full as an annotation gets. I’d bought the single volume from Hugh’s Cambridge Market bookstall while I was a student and have carried it everywhere, its impending dismemberment eternally postponed by a thick elastic band. My fellow passengers must have thought me nuts as I retrieved the several pages of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from their laps, but I thought my fellow passengers nuts for thinking me nuts. As a showman on route to being one I knew it was always going to be a show.

I only wish I could impress cancer in the same way. Then it might do the improbable and watch me put on a show till it was ready to put on a spectacular one of its own.

In March 1997, I learned Old Norse in order to read the complete works of Harald Haraldsson so that I could discuss them in Anglo-Saxon with Anthony Burgess..’ (Cont. P. 94)

It’s only grumpiness that keeps me going

General Election week was a gift for misanthropes. After ten years of austerity, the country voted for five more years of the government responsible for it; The Bookseller magazine announced that Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels were the most popular books of the decade; and Aung San Suu Kyi was at the International Court of Justice denying responsibility for the genocide of Rohingyan Muslims in Myanmar. Only the last of these might persuade grumpies that some agency other than people in the mass might be responsible.

The only surprise of the election result was that Britain’s class structures had taken so long to split on unexpected lines. There are still plenty of sons and daughters of toil to galvanise into what we have always understood to be ‘the working class’. But it’s no longer numerically large enough to guarantee the election of a Socialist government professing to represent it. That has long required the ‘workers’ to be bolstered by what is meaninglessly known as ‘the middle class’ (we are all workers, after a fashion). These are people who do not work manually to the extent of getting their hands dirty, a distinction that has to be further qualified: their brawn is not as important as their brain in what they do for wages, which are often not paid weekly and may be known as ‘salaries’. A middle class temperament will always see working class individuals wriggling their way out. So, these distinctions are already becoming practical and cultural and conducive to dislocation, though will depend on yet another difference: improvement. Education can lead to economic advance, which has to be competitively maintained, offers insights and myriad points of view, and may result in what its recipients see as enlightenment. This, in turn, may bestow feelings of superiority on the enlightened, thus permanently widening any gap. The two will no longer meet on common ground; they will not mix socially; and they will recognise intellectual disparities. In unpredicated terms, of course, we are all equal and capable, whether ‘educated’ or not: capable of being wise, intelligent, and intuitive. But education adds knowledge to all these, altering their states – the wisdom is questioned, the intelligence enhanced, and the intuition confirmed or denied.

Thus we have a middle class Labour voter and a working class one, though the middle class activist and campaigner must speak for both. In Brexit terms, the former voted to remain in the EU, the latter to leave it. The Labour party, if elected, promised to strike a new Brexit ‘deal’ and put it to a second referendum, dressing the word with an euphemism: a ‘people’s vote’. Its mistake lay in believing that Labour Leavers would accept this as indicating that Brexit as an election issue was less important than the party’s manifesto of widespread reforms and vote for it accordingly. It didn’t. The two conflicted. Notwithstanding suspicion of the party and its leader fostered by the Press, Josie and Joe Public supported the Brexit parties, even though neither they nor their middle class confrères had ever thought EU membership worth talking about in the previous thirty years; they had absorbed an issue unconsciously and come to a decision about it with the help of political demigods. After the election result, a street interviewee in Scunthorpe said: ‘Look around you at the closed shops and deprivation. We needed change. So I voted Conservative.’ Don’t blame the politicians for Labour’s failure; blame Joe and Josie.

Bang them to rights also for reading Fifty Shades of Grey. It had not a single good review but plenty of salacious commentary. As a book purporting to be significant of anything whatsoever it had the merit of one written by Barbara Cartland on an off day. But it was ever thus. The province of Bestsellerdom is on the other side of the mountain from whatever the province housing ‘literature’ is called. Tastes in book-reading are also defined and confused by class division; indeed there are some people who never read but would consider themselves the recipients of an improving education. But then, to read or write a shopping list requires an education of sorts. It’s all a matter of degree. It’s also required in order to make elevated claims for Stephen King and Agatha Christie. (Pauline Kaal, the US film critic, once destroyed King by saying he was the best horror/thriller writer and therefore, by definition, the one most likely to induce a heart attack in the reader.)

A misanthropic response to genocide would have to incorporate wholesale lack of confidence in the ability of individuals to rise above the dumb throng and do the right thing. Some do, but they are the misanthrope’s exceptions, which are really aberrations. For the misanthrope, war and conflict are the rule, peace and stability the exceptions.

Poems & plays…

It’s nice to have a poetry collection lodged with a publisher in the hope that it might, after due perusal and consideration, be taken up. My collection, Gwyriad (the word is road-sign Welsh for ‘diversion’ but in this case use metaphorically) is with The High Window, an independent publisher which, to my knowledge, has never brought out a book that didn’t excite and inspire. What’s nicer is to have several of the collection’s hitherto unpublished poems taken up separately before a decision on the collection as a whole is made. The High Window’s own magazine and Orbis magazine have each taken two. All four are from the collection’s Glenside sequence, written after visits to the museum of the former Bristol Lunatic Asylum, now a campus of the University of the West of England. The museum has moving photographs of some of its turn-of-the-century patients, and I’d like to use some of these throughout the collection, in which I’ve tried to depict various forms of instability, including eccentricity. I hope the publisher thinks it works. During the war, the asylum was emptied to make room for injured soldiers returning in ever-increasing numbers from the Great War. I’ve not discovered how the patients were dispersed. As a hospital for soldiers, one of its orderlies was Stanley Spencer, the painter. I managed to work that into one of the poems.

To Theatre By The Lake at Keswick for a performance of Dear Uncle, by Alan Ayckbourn, his transportation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya from Russia to Cumbria somewhere between the two world wars. In offering a reason why the switch seems fatuous and meaningless in terms of what it amounts to as a substitute for watching Uncle Vanya again, one might adduce universality if the goings-on did not seem more appropriate to the original locale. Chekhov’s setting is not specific but it does meet expectations that he will do what he always does with characters and their interactions – place them central to the inertia of provincial life in the country and introduce the attempt by a ‘progressive’ (here a doctor of medicine with wider socio-political concerns but burdened with his own lassitude) to give it a shake. All these characters live cheek by jowl and in various degrees of inter-relationship, some of them morbidly sexual, if unconsummated. But, apart from the doctor’s anxiety about the environment (the planting of acres of fir trees in the Lake District in the 1930s was later considered to be a disaster), there appears to be nothing peculiarly Cumbrian about what’s happening. Chekhov’s pattern of infatuation and sexual desire are still there, mostly unchanged.

     Mention in the text of Penrith, Carlisle, and Keswick itself raises an audience titter, always a signal that it’s finding the wrong thing funny. Maybe Ayckbourn is saying something about local British history and that of Northern England. But are the characters when portrayed as Northerners any more typical than the Russian originals? Unless there’s a reason for such changes, they become at best a novelty, at worst a travesty; more so if the adaptation is presented outside Cumbria and the North-West – Brighton, say – where Marcus (Vanya re-drawn) is being driven barmy by the work of running the esate of his absent brother-in-law, a professor and hypochondriac. Since Ayckbourn adds little to the original play’s theme (in fact, he subtracts from it by having Marcus so young that he can’t have had enough time to loathe the job so much that he wants to shoot the Prof), the changes are immaterial. One looks instead in the TBTL production for the inter-scene choreography and its tableaux of time passing. It’s what the play is partly about; or rather it’s about a disruptive episode in that passing. (In fairness to Ayckbourn, Marcus has more reasons for attempting to despatch his brother-in-law than that of being put upon). The props are economy-grade minimal and the backdrop an unconvincing stab at depicting the snow-draped fells.

Words and pictures et al

‘Blogpost Of An Older Woman’ is about to appear in the online magazine Platform for Prose via a circuitous route, of interest only to those like me in constant need of locating where one’s submitted work has come to rest. I’ve also just proofed the text of an essay about Rhys Davies, titled Chasing The Hare, a reference to the symbol of fugitive biography or recollection; its sister title, Print Of A Hare’s Foot, is that of Davies’s somewhat unreliable memoir. My essay is to appear in the next issue of the magazine Tears In The Fence, whose editor, David Caddy, has published a lot of my short fiction. I’ve also sent something to Rebecca Parfitt’s wonderful ghost-story magazine The Ghastling; if she accepts Grizely Mill, it would be my third appearance there. The next issue is the tenth and the theme is ‘No.10’. I’m also waiting for decisions on work I’ve submitted to The Cabinet Of Heed, The Barcelona Review. The Blue Nib, and The Lonely Crowd.

I never thought I could write a ghost story, so I’m pleased with my efforts thus far, even though both were variations on familiar spectral themes: namely, Disturbing the Dead and Hauntings. My latest is more original: a haunting with a difference, and another example of fictional ventriloquism, like Blogpost Of An Older Woman. I thought of writing an essay on The Writer As Ventriloquist, before realising that all fiction in which characters different from the author give utterance must embody ventriloquism. The trick is to keep one’s lips sealed while talking. Anything else is intrusion.

I managed to read Three Men In A Boat while in Cornwall for a week. Thanks to the wonders of online book-buying, I hope to arrive home* to Joseph Connelly’s biography. JKJ was surely the first important modern British humorist. It’s remarkable that Three Men… was written at the end of the 19th century.

No visit to Cornwall is complete without a visit to Tate St Ives and other galleries not swamped by abstract-realist seascapes painted in varying degrees of mediocrity (the realist ones are mostly dull beyond compare, the work of the Newlyn School far more historically interesting). The permanent commemoration of the St Ives School at the Tate is a satisfactory attempt at placing it in a wider European tradition (Matisse, Mondrian, Ernst, Dubuffet, Appel etc) but still has few if any examples of American Abstractionism, the movement which diverted the St Ives obsession away from the Primitivism of Alfred Wallis and his schooled admirers – Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, and others, most of whom themselves finally embraced the Abstractionist ethos. The attendant British contemporaries beyond St Ives such as Sutherland and Keith Vaughan, seem to be there simply to fill up wall space, though there’s always a bigger ‘picture’ to be illustrated and Sutherland, less so Vaughan, would appear to be under-rated. Mark Rothko visited St Ives. I assume the collection is being added to all the time, and/or some of the the gallery’s items are being loaned. Is Wallis’s Voyage to Labrador, which George Melly described as the artist-mariner’s masterpiece, a newcomer? Peter Lanyon seems to me to have emerged as the best of the St Ives moderns, those aerial views of the landscape a grim reminder of how he died – in a gliding accident – and how he managed to imbue his canvases with a sense of place, profoundly so in St Just.

Among the Tate’s new textual acquisitions, I think, is a short typewritten letter from the poet WS Graham to Nicholson, asking for a meeting out of sheer want of human contact: Graham was living in a scruffy, borrowed caravan at nearby Hayle, and was within walking distance if he couldn’t have afforded the train fare. Pictures dominated in St Ives; words were mostly confined to art criticism as abstractionism strove to explain and to a certain extent justify itself against the rearguard of a stubborn figurative tradition. Time changes all.

The Porthminster at Westcott’s Quay is a new St Ives Gallery. It sells limited edition prints of work by William Scott, Lanyon, Henry Moore, Howard Hodgkin, Roger Hilton, Sandra Blow, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and others. I particularly liked the ‘paper entomology’ constructions of Bristol-based Helen Ward: pinioned butterflies and other insects each intrinsically designed, made, and arranged in ‘cases’, subverting the notion of the naturalist/collector in a Damien Hirst style.

* It did arrive.

The author meets his readers

The expression ‘spoiler alert’ might have been coined for anyone interviewing Ian McEwan about his latest novel. All McEwan’s books hang on the expectation that everything will be dramatically explained towards the end (his eponymous Black Dogs, for example, turning out to be descendants of the hounds used by the Nazis as instruments of sexual torture in Occupied France).
At the Hay Festival, McEwan was talking to Marcus du Sautoy about his novel Machines Like Me, which is a take on Artificial Intelligence (AI). Du Sautoy is an Oxford professor charged with popularising science, or making it intelligible to the layman; so McEwan’s novel was a gift. He said it was difficult to avoid mentioning the novel’s outcome but would try not to spoil the enjoyment of anyone in the audience who hadn’t yet read it. I assume there were many of those. One Hay regular I spoke to had attended this year’s festival on nine days and attended 35 events. He may or may not have read the particular book which all speakers at Hay have just had published and which is the reason for their being at the festival – and many others no doubt. But most educated guesses about McEwan’s latest dénouement might have been accurate, given that the ethical dilemma of AI centres on the likelihood of its developing attributes beyond intellectual capacity: knowing the difference between right and wrong, for instance; or, rather, coming down on one side or the other without knowing why: AI as intuitive, as it were.
McEwan’s ‘gig’ (as Hay’s hour-long appearances have become known) was sold out, unlike the one for the distinguished theatre director Richard Eyre, which was not about his stage career – well, not directly – but his début collection of poetry. The poor chap hadn’t been able to find a publisher so self-published. He may have pitched too high, though he seemed too immodest to have done so thinking that none of the big-hitting poetry publishers, such as Cape and Faber, could have resisted the temptation to take him on because he was so well-known. The poetry wasn’t half bad. I was amazed that no smaller publisher was interested; perhaps they weren’t contacted. Only those unknowns who’ve struggled to find a publisher for their poetry are aware of who these pygmy houses are.
James Ellroy. America’s leading crime writer and maybe one of its best irrespective of literary genre, was at Hay this year, calling interviewer Mark Lawson a ‘sidewinder’ for trying to get him to comment on Donald Trump. Ellroy was having none of it. He lives in Los Angeles ‘in 1942’, has no TV or cellphone and no interest in today’s politics. It’s a curious stance but at least his books, the various components of the LA Quartets and his latest This Storm, bear out these assertions. They read as though there were no today. He began his Hay appearance by reading the long intro to This Storm, a fictionalised radio speech by a real Jew-baiting and racist commentator following the attack on Pearl Harbour. Ellroy was the only son of parents who separated. He chose to live with his dysfunctional father and as a ten-year-old wished his mother dead, as irascible ten-year-olds often do in anger. His wish was granted: Jean Hilliker was found raped and murdered on the outskirts of LA and the young Ellroy went off the tracks. But he found solace and redemption in the local library. Ellroy today is a handful yet there’s something appealing about him. No-one in the audience at Hay asked him why he wrote. So he posed the question himself, and answered it by quoting In My Craft and Sullen Art, by Dylan Thomas.

Examining the unexamined

Examining the hitherto unexamined life does not necessarily lead to enlightenment. I never knew until I read Richard Bradford’s biography of Alan Sillitoe that its subject had in the 1970s tried to mobilise support for Israel because of the Western intelligentsia’s pro-Palestinian stance. Or perhaps I’d forgotten. Attitudes haven’t changed. Sillitoe and like minds saw Islam as threatening and totalitarian and Israel as the West’s only bulwark against its encroachment.

The intellectual ‘whoosh’ today still demonises Israel and the Zionism which seeks to justify its existence. It’s not seen as the victim of Arab hostility but an aggressor desperate to consolidate victory in the war of 1967: asserting the right to captured lands on the West Bank and East Jerusalem expressed not so much a desire for lebensraum (though possibly that, too) as an attempt to create a defensive barrier between itself and further intimidation from truculent neighbours.

The pervading view of Western intellectuals that Israel is the instigator of all the Middle East’s troubles was vindicated by an UN resolution of 1974, which compared Zionism with South Africa’s apartheid policies. This was before apartheid was dismantled.

Sillitoe was a friend of Aharon Megged, who had been cultural attaché to the Israel Embassy in London in the 1960s. Megged had since become active in International PEN, a body of writers which campaigns against State coercion and human rights abuse. Megged saw the creation of a Jewish homeland as frictionless; it would lead to Jews living peacefully side by side with Palestinian Arabs. For him, therefore, and his supporters the UN resolution had cast Israel for good as the source of all conflict in the region. Sillitoe’s views, shared by Ted Hughes, David Mercer, trade unionists Vic Feather and Joe Gormley, and others, seemed to take no account of what to any reasonable mind would have been obvious; viz., that no such amicable relations were ever going to happen and that the consequences of enforced settlement were almost bound to spiral out of control, as they did and continue to do.

But even if the UN had not made its declaration, Sillitoe’s pro-Israeli views would not have changed. One assumes he would have examined them. He was nothing if not unpredictable, but to his credit he has always made his position on various issues clear. He is widely regarded as the only writer to have fictionalised the British working class in terms unpredicated on political ideology. A ‘Bolshy’ Sillitoe factory worker on a low wage was for him an individual whose freedom to act as an individual was constrained, and the way out was to bugger off or rage against the system. Sillitoe was initially lauded in the USSR and visited it several times as a guest, mainly because the social class he wrote about was the one for whom the Soviets justified their philosophy. They were thus disappointed when he refused to endorse, or was ambivalent about, their solution to the workers’ plight. He had no time for State control; it might improve wages but could do nothing about being chained to a work bench or production line all day. He was notorious for refusing to fill in official forms; he would be giving the authorities details about himself that no-one else had any right to request. As a writer he was Stakhanovite; as a model Soviet citizen he would have been a non-starter.

So, in the light of all this, I examine my hitherto unexamined beliefs. Sillitoe and friends failed to see that the cause of the Middle East problem was tribal religion masquerading as politics. This was odd considering their recognition that Israel’s adjacent countries were propagators of Islam, not of political ideologies unfettered by religion. They didn’t see Israel as a state but as a Jewish state on land which was Palestinian. They didn’t see that, as the imposed State, Israel, despite its invitation to Palestinian Arabs to become Israeli citizens, was diametrically opposite in its religious beliefs. (Though to say that religion is the problem in the Middle East would be to dismiss the idea that if it weren’t religion it would be something else.) Megged’s childish hope that tribes would co-exist without conflict was laughable: tribes don’t do that; they fight each other; hegemony is their raison d’etre. Were Sillitoe and Co. fearful of Islam or of Islamic governments? There’s a difference but probably only in theory. We should rid ourselves of superstition and belief in divine law. We should be humanist and keep our religious beliefs, if any, private. We shouldn’t allow religion to have any bearing on the way we are governed or the way we choose to be governed. Israel and other states in which politics is the means by which superior religious beliefs are asserted are always going to be fractured. Because every religion is the true one, the means of making the other true religions believe it is by subduing them politically and, if necessary, militarily. The Chosen people are always right by definition. This is Northern Ireland’s tragedy too. No-one is chosen; we all should be able to choose for ourselves.

A politician as politicians should be

The death of Newport West MP Paul Flynn this week prompts me to re-publish here a review I wrote of his autobiography for the Welsh magazine Cambria. Flynn was always straight with the Press and, as a reporter on the South Wales Argus, I enjoyed good relations with him, though he took me to task if I wrote something that annoyed him, as well he should have. I didn’t think he was always right, either. Give and take. Civilised give and take.

PAUL FLYNN: WELSH PATRIOT, SOCIALIST AND FLY IN THE OINTMENT

NIGEL JARRETT is amused and moved by the Welsh MP’s autobiographical memoirs

The Unusual Suspect by Paul Flynn (Biteback Publishing Ltd., £19.99)

When the irrepressible MP Paul Flynn began his political career on Newport borough council in the 1970s, I turned to my South Wales Argus reporter colleague, Tom Ellis, and said, ‘We’d better not doze off while this guy’s on his feet.’

Tom, the paper’s local government correspondent, was used as I was to waiting interminably for debating councillors to get to the point; that’s if there was any debate at meetings where decisions had already been taken by powerful political groups, mostly Labour. Even with the incessant noise of rubber-stamping in the background, it was easy to see that the eloquent and often sardonic Paul Flynn was going to help us get something newsworthy out of the tiresomely unproductive.

Newport’s council committee meetings were covered religiously by the Argus in those days and, to be fair, the group generally laid out its wares clearly, albeit with an irrevocable outcome in mind. Minority opposition members achieved publicity by default, especially at the full council’s monthly meetings. Their frustration often reduced cogent argument to rant and animosity.

Tom and I soon discovered that despite group discipline Paul Flynn often espoused unusual causes and spoke out publicly if he disagreed with his Labour colleagues, either bravely at formal meetings or through contact with the Press. He’s a prolific writer – in books, in letters to the Press, as a blogger and in the public prints. He once got back at an obdurate Labour group by writing a scurrilous and pseudonymous column in a local newspaper.

As this candid, entertaining and often self-deprecating memoir recalls, his outspokenness came to a head when he opposed the demolition of a row of council houses in his ward on the grounds that it would lead to a common-enough spiral of decline in social conditions. He was thrown off the group. Other pet causes, including opposition to banning the film Last Tango in Paris, promotion of traffic-calming measures and encouragement of performance poetry, had already irritated its other members. To him they were serious but to others they must have seemed mischievous, off the point and – worse – enviably headline-catching.

Beyond group diktats, he was free to speak his mind, though he had to avoid expulsion from the party itself. He was to depart Neil Kinnock’s front bench at Westminster on two occasions (the second a retirement through fatigue compounded by arthritis) for his present position on the back benches, where he has been popping up and down for six months short of 20 years, exercising the independence of mind that got him into trouble in the first place. He’s been equally active and provocative outside the Chamber.

With regular immersion in hot water has come the fame-through-notoriety that has probably and ironically been an advantage to Labour. If you like Paul Flynn and his single-mindedness, you’ll probably like his Labour friends. The electorate’s ‘Don’t knows’ doubtlessly think that his charisma might make him worth voting for. He is a favourite of political correspondents of every persuasion and has won their formal plaudits and prizes. Canvassing once, he was tailed for the Daily Telegraph by the playwright David Hare and thoroughly enjoyed it. They both did, apparently.

In the 1970s, when the party in Wales was looking for unanimity of view on devolution itself, let alone a referendum, Welsh-speaker Flynn was in no doubt that Wales should be governed in part from within. Typically, he had few qualms about bashing Labour luminaries who disagreed. These included the manically anti-devolutionist Leo Abse, whom in other respects, as an uncompromising reformer, he most resembles.

When the vote went against devolution in the 1979 referendum, Flynn, to the astonishment of many who for perfectly valid reasons had opposed any measure of self-government, was irate, and in the book recalls his anger by saying that the No-vote ‘disgraced’ Wales on the international stage. If nothing else, this reveals a patriot, one who has come to terms with the difficult accommodation involved in being both nationalist and internationalist while supporting himself on the bedrock of Labour virtues.

Of that time he writes, ‘It is a rare event in world history for a nation to declare it does not want to have a larger say in its own affairs.’ Divisions had been rife, even in his own backyard, the ‘Gwent Against the Assembly’ movement having been funded by a £1,000 grant from the Labour-controlled county council. Anger aside, the whole issue and the fidgeting alignments of friend and foe must have been grist to Flynn’s mill.

He was born in Cardiff. His father, a machine-gunner throughout the Great War, was shot in the leg but later deprived by the government of his ex-serviceman’s pension. Flynn’s picture of a man vainly trying to sell full sets of encyclopaedias to scrape a living in the 1930s is heart-rending. The father’s example of heroism, determination and disappointment has been the son’s political inspiration.

His mother is equally lovingly portrayed. Kathleen Flynn came up with a sophisticated analysis of the Welsh that went beyond the glib, north-south division favoured by those eager to describe sarcastically a nation of irreconcilable polar opposites. Perhaps only a Cardiffian from the melting-pot of Grangetown could have understood it. There were three grades, she averred: the Cardiff-Irish-Spanish-Italian but Wales-born ‘mongrels’; sing-song Valley types who were ‘Real Welsh’; and the northern Welsh speakers, who were ‘Proper Welsh’ (deeply Protestant and probably extra-terrestrial).

The first Flynn to attend a grammar school, he went to St Illtyd’s, an establishment for good Irish Catholic sons, where his interest in the Welsh language, ‘a lifelong delight’. was sparked by teacher Glyn Ashton. Perhaps the often lone-furrowing Flynn, a man with a roving intellectual curiosity and keen sense of injustice, was interested in languages because their embodiment of ideas can often be usefully exclusive. At any rate, on two separate occasions he famously addressed the Commons in Latin and in Chaucerian English. He also encouraged pioneering parents in their 1960s mission to have Welsh taught in schools.

He became Newport’s first Welsh-speaking MP in 1987 (actually for the sub-divided constituency of Newport West) and was invited the following year to be a Llywydd y Dydd when the National Eisteddfod came to town. Preparing his presidential address, he was urged by the BBC’s Huw Edwards to amend a quote by Hungarian writer István Széchenyi from ‘a nation living in her language’ to ‘a nation living through her language’ (drwy’r iaith). The niceties of words. In a characteristic resolution of self-assurance after doubt, he stuck with Széchenyi’s original metaphor.

To say he’s done his bit for Wales is an under-statement. The language passion was channelled into the clamour for a Welsh fourth channel, but Gwalian concerns stand beside an infinite variety of other issues spreading outwards from his ‘infatuation’ with Newport, where he has worked, lived, brought up a family, been re-married after divorce and suffered grievous personal loss, all recounted with candour and absence of self-pity. Being a stroke victim doesn’t appear to have staunched his wit and invective.

Backbenchers are able to make waves but the wave that breaks around the leader of the party and gets him uncomfortably drenched is possibly the ultimate in revolt from below. As Flynn’s fulminations have been trained on proponents of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, animal dissection in schools, criminalisation of drugs, mortgage and pensions mis-selling, cavalier attitudes to boxing injuries, homosexual inequality, bull-bars on 4 x 4s, to name just a few targets across a wide range, it is perhaps no surprise that Tony Blair should have been in line for a soaking. There’s no love lost between them.

And if anyone thinks an MP in his seventies who has suffered a stroke and been possibly enervated by years of campaigning should have become less vociferous or more forgiving, let them be warned that retirement from politics would for Paul Flynn cause painful withdrawal symptoms. He’s been in Parliament for a ‘mere’ 22 years and is ‘just settling in’. As a late developer, he senses that the best is yet to be.

So no-one, least of all the Labour hierarchy, should expect immunity from ire and coruscating appraisal; at the same time, those who may not like him should be pleasantly surprised by his generous good nature and jibes both well- and ill-intentioned. He says his judgements of other politicians are inspired by admiration and hero-worship, ‘spiced with a little malice’. The last is uppermost when Lembit Opik, Kim Howells and George Thomas get it in the neck; Anne Widdecombe (Flynn’s beloved ‘Doris Karloff’) probably ducks with a smile on her lips; Ann Cryer, Stephen Pound and Gordon Prentice are wreathed in adulation. But the party is still being called to account, it having ‘wallowed in the easy victories and the comforts of power’. Austerity, thrift and concern for the fragile human habitat lie ahead.

There’s still work to be done, too, at the lone crusader level : the introduction of daylight saving, hounding the Church Commissioners over blood sports on Anglican lands and investment in the arms trade, among others. On his suggestion of making St David‘s Day a bank holiday, he has never taken John Major’s ‘No!’ for an answer. It may yet come to pass if the old Grangetown mongrel – or Labour’s ‘Welsh Terrier’, as one BBC journalist called him – keeps his teeth in good nick.

ENDS

Onward and Upward and Sideways

I thought my new short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy, might be out from Templar Press by Christmas; but ten days away it looks unlikely. Alex McMillen, who at Templar runs one of the most important poetry imprints in the UK, has been doing his darnedest, uncomplainingly putting up with my interminable edits as he takes on fiction for a change. We got there in the end. That’s the problem with editing and proofing: the MS typeset exactly as it will appear in book form always looks right, and therefore beguiles. Close reading not only reveals solecisms missed last time around but also inelegant constructions (also missed) which one just has to remedy. The process in logic would of course carry on without end. Did Hemingway, agonising over the final paragraph of For Whom The Bell Tolls – I think he had a dozen attempts at at – feel that he’d hit on the definitive one? I suspect he would have had several post-publication second thoughts but could do nothing about it until the time came for re-printing. I can’t be sure that he bothered, having never read the first edition.
A Gloucester Trilogy, consisting of three spooky stories based in the Forest of Dean, had an early add from me when I mentioned something in the first story, Inspector Rossington’s Casebook, which linked it, albeit tenuously, with the succeeding ones. My poor police-inspector, recalling his career in the force, may not be as he seems. The central story, Christ, Ronnie, Christ, won the inaugural Templar Shorts prize and appeared at the same time in my second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, published by the Medway-based independent, Cultured Llama. The final one, Missing, is a more involved case of goings-on among educated Forest folk, centred on a writer from Ruardean called Emma Brocke, not her real name.
Alex has come up with a nice front-cover illustration: a Monet-like painting of tall, wind-beruffled trees that aptly doesn’t show any grubbing around on the forest floor, or anywhere else in the forest for that matter. The mise-en-scène, as the auteur has it, is meant to reflect the idea of the forest as a place of mystery and dark imagining: think Hansel & Gretel and Grimm things in general. I’ve also included a foregoing epigraph, supposedly an anonymous verse referring, as does Houseman’s in one of his Shropshire Lad poems, to the presence of the Romans in ancient Severnside. (It’s by ‘Anon.’, but I made it up. If we can’t invent things rendered without authorship, what can we do?) That’s it. With Acknowledgements and a couple of endpapers and a biog, it clocks in at just sixty pages. The idea is new: we’ve had poetry pamphlets aplenty, often the promising or hitherto unpublished poet’s first effort in print and the overture, publisher and poet hope, to a first and full collection. ‘Tis better, of course, if the contents of both poetry and story pamphlet have some linkages to justify their handling by the reader. Mine has. My hope is that it’ll sell in the area of which it speaks. So I’ve booked preview features in the two main Forest weekly newspapers (calling in favours here), though the daily Gloucestershire Echo hasn’t had the courtesy to reply to me.
The New Year, then. Gary Raymond at Wales Arts Review and Gwen Davies at New Welsh Review have promised to commission notices from their writers, which is kind of them. (Gwen has just published an author blog of mine about the American poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch.) Others might too if I can think of anyone. Marketing and publicity are not my strong points, and at my age I cannot call on a host of admiring and/or sympathetic coevals. A Gloucester Trilogy will always be a stocking-filler; which Christmas is immaterial.
In other news, Laura Black at Fictive Dream, which published a story of mine called Siblings, about closing ranks against threats of one sort or another, is reading a second one, called Lovey-Dovey, which is about romantic infatuation. Jamie McLean and Celia Morris at The Erotic Review have taken my essay Close Quarters: Eroticism, Nudity, Pornography, and Burlesque, and are looking at possible illustrations. Jamie tells me that Malachi O’Doherty has written on broadly the same subject, so I must look him up. My second poetry collection, Gwyriad, is with Wrecking Ball Press, a poetry imprint I admire. Work on the novel is halted but at this moment I’m coming to the end of a story, Dear Reader…, about a woman ‘of a certain age’ who is about to take her annual summer holiday at an offshore hotel and believes that her life might be changing. I’m thinking of submitting it to The Island, a magazine which publishes stories to do with anything insular; it has published my story A Weissman Girl, which appeared in my Who Killed Emil Kreisler? Collection and deals with a woman whose instability has led to a lonely life in an American rural fastness.