The publication by Arachne Press of my two stories in Stations back in 2012 was a significant moment for me. I’ve made my living as a journalist and teacher, so writing has always been essential to those roles. I continued to squeeze imaginative writing into this life and, like most aspiring writers, had folders full of half-finished novels and abandoned stories.
Publication by Arachne, however, changed everything. It signalled that I could write a story that someone else would want to read. It signalled that I should be serious about writing for publication. It signalled potential.
But I realized I needed help – and deadlines. I signed up for a creative writing MA, with a non-fiction book in mind, and with time to devote to it. I am about to start my second year, with many thousands of words still to write – and I am having the time of my life.
A huge thank-you, therefore, to Arachne for the part it has played. Without Arachne’s founder Cherry Potts and her decision to publish my stories, I should not now be able to say the following: I expect to finish my book, the story of my cousin’s eventful move to a mountain top in Italy, by the end of 2018. Look out for TheHazelnutGrove by Paula Read.
Yes, the whole world is breaking down, and here we all are heading merrily to hell on the hand cart, so, to counter this, let me offer you one small, beautiful reason to be cheerful. A swift. A small, birdy miracle. Not that I believe in miracles but can find no adequate word to describe their extraordinary existence.
They fly solo. What this means is that when the baby swift leaves the nest in the UK it flies – never having done this before – all the way to Southern Africa and then all the way back to the UK the following year, with no-one showing it the way. Seriously how do they do this? I mean I can’t navigate my way out of a signed car park. Or out of a badly written sentence.
A swift weighs, apparently, around 40 grams. It spends its entire life on the wing. Think about that. It sounds like hard work. It mates on the wing, drinks rain water on the wing, catches airborne insects on the wing, uses airborne straw and random airborne leaves for nest-building. It even – I can’t get my head around this – sleeps on the wing. How? How does it do this? The peregrine falcon flies faster whilst diving in a stoop, but in horizontal flight the swift is the fastest flying bird reaching a recorded 69 mph. It is the essence of flight.
This year, the swifts were here, in the south-west, on Friday 5th May. They always turn up on this date. I look out for them, and in the evening, summer has arrived as they wheel and swoop in at the end of their 14, 000 mile return trip. Their screaming calls are the sound of summer itself. I count them. There are, of course, fewer now than twenty years ago, because yes, the world is breaking down and we are too careless as a species to mind about any of this. But this is striking the wrong note here. So, my Arachne writer friends, one small, beautiful reason to be cheerful and one small reason to keep on writing is, each year, the swifts arrive.
Let me say, before we even begin, I write a variety of genres, lengths etc. I’m a journalist, business writer, author of woman’s fiction (four book historical fiction series, Legacy of Honor), author of children’s books (four are out, latest is Rosa’s Shell), essayist, short story aficionado and practitioner, and poet. Poetry is the most personal thing I write.
Why I write and why I seek publication are not exactly the same thing. I write because I am compelled to put on paper my ideas—to help me think through things, to help me understand what is in my heart. Writing is both a gift and a compulsion. I seek to publish my writing to serve others with my gift.
Even when I write something personal, confessional, and grief stricken, such as the poetry that deals with the loss of our son, if I seek to publish it, I review my work and then revise with an audience in mind. What do I want them to feel, to know? Do I want to make them suffer? No!!!! I want them to understand what grief does to a person so they can be of assistance to a person who grieves to help them in their grief by knowing others are there on the same path…
Tolstoy says that writing is a transfer of emotion form one person to another. Even when I transfer sadness, anger, I want it to lift my reader to a place of hope or at least understanding.
Writing is my gift, but it only enriches me when I share. When a piece is rejected, I feel it has not found its right audience, or is not yet ready for an audience and I revise and/or file, and send it out again.
Unlike stage work where at the end of a performance I can bask in the love of applause, writing like mine garners few appreciative letters or emails, but when it is published, I do at least know it has touched the heart of an editor! So, thank you, editors and readers for participating in my writing process by giving it audience. I write for you.
No animals were harmed in the making of this blog!
How writing saved me
Our neighbour had been a pest for five years. We disagreed about our shared boundary. To be exact, she disagreed with us, with the land registry, three surveyors, anyone with a gram of common sense and even her own lawyer. She insisted, ‘I can just go on and on.’
The evening of her latest infuriation, a TV crime drama took me to the laboratory of the pathologist, this obligatory scene presenting a row of knives. Which best made a similar wound?
The knife nearest the camera had a wooden handle of singular shape and the slight curve overall that denotes an Opinel. A number 8. My knife.
In France Opinels and the like are common in shop windows and on market stalls. There is no moral panic about knives; your right to carry the means to cut bread or sausage is assumed. My knife comes with me on a walk or a picnic. Bon appetit.
How the TV crime was solved I forget. It failed to distract me from our neighbour’s latest infuriation, but it intruded images of the various kitchen knives I had used lately, and the drill, the saw, the angle grinder, the hammer and chisel, scissors, and corkscrew. It had me reflecting how I had chopped logs; how I had stored items in the freezer, the attic and the boot of our car, and disposed of sacks at the recycling depot; how I had dug and filled a hole in the garden with concrete. My mind gauged the keenness of points and edges, the weight of a blow and the capaciousness of containers.
There was butchery in my family. It had been my grandfather’s trade.
A book, a jigsaw, a crossword, conversation and a bath failed to soothe me. I turned to writing. A cat seemed the thing, a sentimental tale of being lost and found, or heart-warmingly saving the life of a child.
I began nine times. I called the cat Tiddles, Fluffy, Blackie, Paws, Tiger, Puss, Kitty, Ginger and Smokey, but each time something intervened to turn the sweetness to mayhem. It was not the cat whose life was lost each time. Rather, each incarnation of cat became complicit in the death of … well, mice and voles at first, a dog, a horse, then Johnson and Gove in a pact scarcely stranger than truth, my old foe Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Julius Caesar yet again, Kitty having been Brutus’s cat.
Only in the darkest hour did the impaling of Smokey on a boundary post drive me to take bloody revenge on our tiresome neighbour.
When Cherry first told me she was launching a new press my first (private!) reaction was….hmmmm….? How many small – or micro, as she calls it – presses are launched like massive liners every year, only to founder like a leaf on the stream of got-in-first-well-funded competitors? Good Luck! But it turned out she didn’t need luck. Her energy and commitment to finding interesting authors with a story to tell or a poem to write has led to the five-year-old toddler Arachne Press growing to a stature well beyond its years, with a list that compares with many an older, staider press.
In particular, since poetry is my bag, I am proud to be in her line-up of vibrant and interesting poets, astonished that she used my poem The Other Side of Sleep as title for her innovative book of (neglected) narrative poems, delighted that she has published my collection about adoption and childhood, The Don’t Touch Garden and look forward to the emergence of A Gift of Rivers in April.
That is of course after a rigorous and exhausting process of editing and the prospect of an equally wilt-making string of readings…. but hey! let me not grumble. It’s high time we poets – especially those of us who don’t have very sharp elbows and who are maybe knocking-on a bit – learned to value a publisher who cares even more about getting our work out there than sales.
So thank you Cherry and Happy Fifth Birthday Arachne.
One chilly afternoon a few years ago I found myself chatting to a chap in the local health club’s Jacuzzi. I’d just completed a leisurely gym work-out, swum a few lengths of the heated pool and was contemplating either a visit to the steam room or the sauna or, indeed, both. The Jacuzzi had always been my favourite place to “zone out” and often, lying there with my eyes closed and my body partially afloat, I would find that as my aches drifted away solutions to niggling problems would bubble into my brain.
“It’s great here, isn’t it?” I said to the young man wallowing next to me.
“Yup, freezing outside,” he replied.
Then the thought that inspired “Free White Towel” blasted into my brain. “Give me,” I said, “ten good reasons why we should ever leave this building.”
I don’t remember what he replied and I certainly didn’t manage to think of ten reasons to leave because I rapidly became caught up in the idea that a leisure club was the ideal sanctuary; the bolt-hole I’d run to if there were a crisis of impending doom.
At a leisure club members can eat in the café, drink free water from the fountains, watch television screens as they pound the exercise machines, read newspapers or surf the internet in the lounge area, snooze on the loungers by the pools, sweat in the hot rooms, cool down in the showers where they can wash and preen using the complimentary toiletries.
Much of the idea was inspired by the story of the man who lived in the limbo of an airport and it wasn’t much of a leap for me to then get the idea that for a homeless person this place would be an improvement on the Spartan airport home, if they could blag their way in, or just afford the monthly fees (a good deal cheaper than the rent on a bedsit). The lockers were big enough to contain a cabin-sized piece of luggage and relatively secure. And then, everywhere I went people were handing out freebies at stations, and I wondered could you keep yourself fed that way, provided you didn’t look destitute?
The clincher was the free white towel that all members were given as they entered the leisure club. Cleanliness is the friend of normalcy.
And so my story “Free White Towel” was born in a whirlpool near Woking. Pamela, my heroine, was able to run away from her abusive husband into this sanctuary of warmth and moistness.
The original was a long poem, read at the first Liberty Tales event back in June 2014 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Excited by the ideas still flowing I wanted to turn it into a much longer tale; a novel. Pam was to be widowed and then the victim of a con-man, but my editor, the wonderful Cherry Potts, soon pared the story down to the essence of a vulnerable woman reinventing herself. The novel may emerge eventually, as I am still fascinated by how someone can live without a home and still look respectable, without resorting to anything more criminal than liberating a left-over portion of muesli.
As part of our Arachne 5th Anniversary celebrations, we’ve asked all of our authors to come up with a blog, that might have something to do with writing or anniversaries. Some of them responded! This one is from Jacqueline Downs who we published in Stations – her story She Didn’t Believe in Ghosts is set at Crystal Palace.
On September 23rd 2016, I received a birthday gift: a five-year diary.
Instead of acting as a repository of my thoughts and feelings about pop stars and boys and fallings out with best friends, this diary has a different function. Each day, year by year, this diary requests that I respond to a question or statement. The idea is that over five years I will be able to see how my answers to the questions or statements change, or don’t change. Prompts range from the profound and potentially distressing (‘Who loves you today?’, ‘What have you got to lose?’) to the seemingly more trivial (‘Write down the last text message you sent’, ‘What is your favourite item of clothing?’). Whatever I am asked, my response will reveal something about how I am thinking or feeling at the time; how I view myself on a given day in a given year.
One of the things that makes it so challenging and interesting, is that it also serves the purpose of acting as a series of miniature writing exercises. You may need to be descriptive (‘What’s the weather like where you are right now?’) or imaginative (‘Where do you see yourself this time next year?’). You may have to negotiate your emotions (I’m always going to give the same answer to ‘When did you last speak to your parents?’ – 13 February 1979 and 12 May 2009 – and that is always going to be sad).
There isn’t much space to write, but within those confines I can answer with a couple of words or an untidy and ill-fitting paragraph. The best thing is, it gets me writing every day.
The challenge on the day I received this gift was: Write a quote for today.
I was able to answer immediately, as a writing group friend had helpfully written something apt in his birthday card to me:
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
I’m a writer. I don’t earn my living from it, but it’s who I think I am; it’s what I say I am, if I’m asked (although out loud I will always add the caveat ‘and editor’). I put off writing a lot of the time, I get a slight homework-style dread when I know I have a deadline. But once I start, even if it’s just typing or scribbling, I feel happier. And then when typing or scribbling becomes actual writing, I feel a kind of lightness inside, there’s a taking off.
In the five years since Arachne Press started, I’ve taken off a little more. My first anthologised story was in Stations. Since then I’ve had stories performed at live literature events, published in other anthologies and online magazines, and written a screenplay based on another published short story of mine. This screenplay is with a producer who is trying to get a director on board, raise money, get the words off the page and onto the screen. I’m under no illusion about how long this process could take.
But with luck – and it will take a lot of luck, now that the hard graft of several drafts is out of the way – when the diary next asks, ‘Where are you right now?’ my answer will be ‘backstage at the BAFTAs’.
Because if you want to really take off, you have to aim high.
Is the number five more or less significant to a writer than anyone else? Five fingers for writing. Five senses we can use to make that writing as atmospheric as possible. Five days to the working week…or, at least, there used to be.
Working hours have shifted for everyone in our always switched-on society, but writers have never really had a day off as such. As a poet and fiction writer, my subconscious is always busy – listening for stories, rhythms, the sounds of words.
Maybe I’m trying too hard here to find symbolic links and connections to the number five because Arachne Press is celebrating its fifth birthday. But this is what language and writing are all about – evocative symbols that we use to make connection between us and other people, the page and the reader, the performance and the audience.
In any case, all of these observations filter one way or another into the writing of my poem ‘At the Hotel de la Lune’ and short story ‘Cut Short’ in the Arachne Press anthology Shortest Day Longest Night.
The man in 512 is trying to sleep
but he can hear his ex’s breath
in the air conditioning’s webs…
(From ‘At the Hotel de la Lune’)
There is a phrase ‘If the walls had ears…’ that sums up both part of my writing process and the background to ‘At the Hotel de la Lune’ in particular. The poem hangs on the passing flow of visitors through the hotel and all the stories they bring with them, if only the hotel rooms could pass these on. The beautiful thing about being a writer rather than a wall is that I not only have ears to hear but also a tongue to speak and hands for writing or typing. As writers, readers and audience, we also have something else that’s even more important – imagination.
These aren’t real stories, only stories that could be real. The hotel is a fictitious place conjured up by my mind. Each of the rooms , with its characters and its stories, is a room inside my head. Each character in this poem also has their own rooms inside their heads, with their own stories, hopes and dreams.
But who is in charge of all these rooms? Is it me as the writer/dreamer? The night porter, Billy – a potential modern-day Shakespeare (in his own head at least) – who aspires to theatrical stage stardom? Or the spiders and bugs that scuttle in the mind’s shadows and across this poem’s mundane yet nightmareish everyday stage?
Perhaps the ultimate control is actually with the reader or individual audience member – choosing how to interpret the words and scenes that they’re presented with…
“Damn, late again! I fidget with my car keys, a reflex action, as I’m tempted to bail on lunch. Sundays should be the longest day – lazy sex, coffee in bed, newspapers, novels, Netflix, not getting dressed until three, if at all… Ever since university, I’ve made it my personal quest to stretch these twenty-four hours of the weekend as far as humanly possible. But not today…”
(From ‘Cut Short’)
While ‘At the Hotel de la Lune’ is infused with a touch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream madness, my writing approach for the flash fiction ‘Cut short’ is more inspired by Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage,| And all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII) .
The family politics and matriarchal power dynamics in this short fiction are ones most likely being played out in homes across Britain even as I type this. At one level, the plotline is a small almost invisible everyday drama. Yet it’s one that moulds the very
personalities of every character in the story and, by extension, wider society. What can the young woman in this story do to change things? And what will happen if she does try to rock the existing structure?
Tradition and innovation
It might sound like an overly grand aim but in many ways literature as a whole is constructed on two principles brought to a head in this flash fiction – building upon the existing tradition while simultaneously reacting against and rocking it.
This brings me back not to ‘five’ but to ‘thrive’. As a poet, my most immediate response to the word ‘five’ is how close it is in sound terms to ‘thrive’. As words, these are similar yet different. As a writer what I strive for is to create pieces that are both similar (to real life, existing exemplars…) yet different (innovated, unique…). And, of course, yes, I also want my work to be strong, to thrive.
Five years of publishing is a strong stepping stone on thriving’s path. I hope this is a word that will keep resonating, both through my own writing and Arachne Press’s work ten, 15, 20 years from now.
Image: ‘Handling artistic imagination’ by S.A. Leavesley
‘There are moments when I would give anything just to get into a car and drive home, saying I was fed up with the whole show and they could look for someone else to fill my job. The making of plans is child’s play as compared with putting them into execution.’
It may be the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, but for me it’s been a summer of war, reading the edited WWII diaries of Alan Brooke. Brooke masterminded the very tricky retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk, and then oversaw Home Defence during 1940 when a Nazi invasion seemed imminent. For the last four and a half years of the war, he was at Churchill’s right hand day and (often) night, advising on military strategy as Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
The diary was written as a daily note to his wife back in Hampshire, about events at the decision-making hub in London, and became a safety-valve for a man experiencing almost unbearable stress and responsibility. Reading it, you’re closer to the uncertainty, fear and anxiety of the lived experience than any detached historical account can provide. It demonstrates the value of an immediate record, both as a historical source and also as an insight into the individual human psyche during momentous events.
I’ve been deeply impressed by Brooke – a man who managed to negotiate tricky human situations as well as military ones. It was a revelation to me how much skill was needed to steer Churchill and our American allies, let alone to devise overall military strategy.
Because the US had the greater number of allied forces in 1944, Brooke was passed over as Commander of Overlord in favour of Eisenhower. In his diary, he expresses deep frustration and concern at the American general’s often hesitant strategy, feeling the war in Europe could and should have been concluded that autumn, with a very different outcome for the political map of Europe.
March 5th 1945
‘Breakfast with Ike and another long talk with him. There is no doubt that he is a most attractive personality and, at the same time, a very, very limited brain from a strategic point of view… He only sees the worst side of Monty and cannot appreciate the better side… I see trouble ahead before too long.’
Brooke may have received all the official honours due to him, becoming Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. But this modest man, whose name, I feel, should stand as high as Nelson’s in our national consciousness, had to sell his beloved collection of bird books after the war, when his military pension was insufficient to support his family.
I’m grateful that Brooke finally agreed to make public what is a very private and personal document. So many similar texts are destroyed by their authors, out of consideration for their own reputations as well as others’. But what a unique form of writing a diary is, when it’s done with such non-self-regarding honesty.
We would like to invite you to a very informal launch reading at Eltham Centre Library, Archery Road, Eltham SE9 1HA on 7th June at 1.30 for Brat and 3.45 for The Old Woman from Friuli. Both readings will be performed by Carrie Cohen.
Further readings are at
BrockleyMax Art in The Park, Hilly Fields Park SE4 on 10th June 2017 at 2.30pm; (Old Woman From Friuli read by Katy Darby)
Stanmore Library, 8 Stanmore Hill, Stanmore, HA7 3BQ on 8th July 2017 2pm (Old Woman From Friuli read by Lisa Rose)
Osterley Library, St Mary’s Crescent, TW7 4NB on 22nd July 2017 at 2.30pm (Old Woman From Friuli and BRAT read by Carrie Cohen)
If you run a library, bookshop or school and would like us to visit you with a reading, get in touch.