Writing is a journey, both imaginary and physical. My first book took me to the Arctic to 'catch the colours' of the Northern Lights. Then I hunkered down to catch the wind-blown voices of polar explorers on Shackleton's 1914-17 Endurance expedition. More recently I'm obsessed by space: the race, the rockets, the final frontier.

Hear a BBC Radio Leicester interview about my space poetry at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wfpyp
Explore my digital narrrative PHILAE'S BOOK OF HOURS, published by the European Space Agency, at:

My prose-poetry collections FIREBRIDGE TO SKYSHORE
and MAD, HOPELESS & POSSIBLE are both published by Original Plus Press at:

Contact me for signed copies or bookings at:

About Me

My photo
Leicester, East Midlands
As a storyteller, my work crosses boundaries of myth, science, history and spoken word. It has been presented in the British Science Museum, Ledbury Poetry Festival, National Space Centre and the European Space Agency website. In 2014 I ran a digital residency on WW1 for 14-18NOW and Writing East Midlands. I teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University and have experience of leading school events, workshop tuition and mentoring.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Jewellery-Box of Story

Short on words, long on lasting impressions. This I think is what we're looking for in a good short story. That they drill down deep into our imagination, suggesting themes, vividly realised worlds, character secrets, at a level somewhere below the surface of the text. So we the readers are drawn into using all our intuitive resources to excavate their meanings. And when we find ourselves down there, the emotional clout of the story is so much more because we have constructed it with our own memories and feelings, our guesses and hidden knowledge of the human heart.
Well that is what we hope for. I'll admit I find short stories devilishly difficult to write but worth the hard sweat when I finally make it through my usual fog of doubt to shape something that works. If there was a formula, I'd apply it every time but each story is a new journey with its own demands. However I'm always more than happy to read other author's tips.
Jacob Ross is a man who knows his craft and in his introduction to the Peepal Tree Press anthology Closure, says: 'Humans have always valued the short story as a way to make sense of the world, and their place in it.' I love reading classic short story writers like Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov but reading contemporary anthologies is key to learning how storywriters are making sense of OUR world right now. And that means language and form are being stretched in new ways to evoke that.
Award-winning writer Rebecca Burns offers her own tips in a forthcoming anthology by Dahlia Publishing. Burns was a judge for the Leicester Writes Short Story competition 2017. She identifies several winning factors in these stories: the ability to 'make time stand still'; 'a killer first line' or alternatively plunging the reader into 'a fully-formed, fleshed-out world'. She addresses the crucial economy of the short fiction form - in maybe 2000 words, the writer needs to find ONE moment that can illuminate all the pressures acting on a character. And vivid settings and rich backstories need to be sketched in just a few sentences.
Since I have two stories being published this month in different anthologies, I'm reflecting on what I've learnt so far about crafting these short-form tales.
  1. I'd agree with Burns about the compression of storytelling. And I think my own stories have benefitted from getting shorter so that my focus has to get much clearer. My story in the Leicester Writes anthology is just 1,705 words. That took a lot of whittling down but the editing is like sculpting the story with a chisel to get a sharper, cleaner outline. This is where the sweat and tears comes in.
  2. That 'moment' has to reveal the main character's essence but the story also needs a click, a definite sense that at one point something has changed or been realised. It mustn't be so elusive that the reader misses that heartbeat. I don't want my reader to feel the ending was too obvious but neither do I want them to wonder what on earth it was all about.
  3. We're working in miniature here, like crafting jewellery. Or more like the jewellery-box because structure is the mechanism of a short story. It has to deliver. In my story 'Switching Off the Metronome' I gave myself 4 scenes to plot the twists and turns of a crime-story. I was delighted then that judge Nina Stibbe commented on how the narrator wrong-footed her as to the guilt of my protagonist: 'She leads you this way, then that ... (until) with only a few sentences to go, she's switched it all around again. Brilliant. Powerful.'
  4. None of this matters if you haven't got a compelling character with something to lose at the centre. I don't mean your protagonist has to be sympathetic. In my 'Metronome' story, the narrator may or may not have committed a terrible crime. But short fiction brings us very close in to a character and unpeels tightly-wrapped layers. I do character quizzes and such-like to learn what their values and quirks are, before and sometimes during the writing. A local writer I much admire, Bead Roberts, used to say; 'Put your characters up a tree and stone them.' This is when we really see what they're made of.
  5. Then it's a case of rummaging through the tool-box of story. Setting is often a good trigger for me in bringing a story to life. 'Metronome' is partly set in a police-station - I borrowed freely from TV dramas and a few Google pics. And I wanted to capture the atmosphere of those tense police interrogations in my dialogue. But in another story 'Red Feet', inspired by the fairy-tale 'Red Shoes', it was more about weaving a pattern of imagery that played with the colour and dance motifs and Gothic allusions. Different elements come to the fore in different stories.
Anyway I'm rather pleased to find my characters in such interesting company in these two anthologies. The Leicester Writes Short Story Prize 2017 Anthology Vol. 1  will be launched on Friday 30th June at the 2017 Leicester Writes festival. If you're a writer of short fiction, do yourself a favour and book in for the workshop with prizewinner Catherine Menon at 3pm earlier that day.
My other story appears in the recently released Mrs Rochester's Attic, a gorgeously Gothic anthology from Mantle Lane Press. Billed as 'Tales of Madness, Strange Love and Deep, Dark Secrets', it's available in hardcopy, Kindle edition or as an MP3 download for the ridiculous price of 79p. Now that's really cutting it fine.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

'And Still I Rise': HIDDEN FIGURES Review

Sometimes you have to admire the maths. What a finely tuned script this was from Allison Schroeder, delivering uplift or burn-up at exactly the right moment in a beautifully predicted orbit. So here comes the man holding out a chalk to NASA's 'smart girl' Katherine, posing a test. It's a visual motif that recalls the day her elementary schoolmaster demonstrated his faith in her latent genius for numbers. Turns out you can make quadratic equations look elegant on a blackboard and make jotting sums look like the breakout action of a heroine. You've seen the trailers, right? She smashes it out of the park and no-one in the auditorium is going to begrudge the inevitability of that victory.
Equally impressive were the calculations behind intersecting stories of three remarkable women embodying different talents within the sprawling NASA machine of 1961. The gifted mathematician Katherine Goble calculating the trajectory of America's first astronauts. The natural engineer MaryJackson working in a Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, once she's battled the segregation barrier at  night-school. And the 'coloured computers' unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan who has the foresight to teach herself a new computing language when NASA invests in an IBM. She actually invents a job not only for herself but her entire team. If Civil Rights protesters outside are facing dogs, water cannons and live rounds, she too displays courage in the face of career death when she insists 'we come together or not at all'.
The pay-load here is that this mind-boggling story is TRUE. I've been researching a book about the Space Race for some years now and I'd come across one article about one of these pioneering women. So I was blown away by the sight of that room full of 'coloured computers' and how integrated these women were into the NASA story. How on earth did they get access to colleges and university degrees? We glimpse in the film the support of their community and families helping power their journeys and they way the women looked out for each other within the corridors of NASA. This is a key theme of the book by Margot Lee Shetterly which inspired the film. Likewise this feel-good vehicle fresh out of Hollywood gains real buoyancy from warm-hearted performances by actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle MonĂ¡e.
But beyond the 'Hidden Figures', we are clearly supposed to be rooting for the US of A and Kennedy's project of beating the Commies to the Moon. Kevin Costner's earnest gum-chewing chief has a big speech about how the winners of the race get to make the rules for what happens in space. There's an implication that NASA is strictly about the science where the Ruskies are all about spying and nuclear war-heads. And so here comes JohnGlenn, a blonde cowboy in silver-suit, flashing smiles straight out of a 1960's toothpaste advert. Gagarin by comparison is an uncomfortable historical footnote that cranks up the narrative pressure.
No matter that this is a country which treats its black citizens as untouchables, a point made by the separate 'coloured coffee pot' Katherine's white-male colleagues introduce into the Space Task Group room. (A lovely supporting role here for The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons as the sour-faced Head Engineer.) Yes, there is grit too in the tank along with a ton of sugar to fuel the combustion needed. But it could certainly have explored more the racism within and without NASA. The movie's story arc gives the impression that once Kevin Costner has wrestled the 'Coloured Bathroom' sign down with a hammer (an entirely fictional scene), discrimination was dumped in the bin for good.
Overall the relentless upwards trajectory of the narrative sweeps away any close interrogation of that history. Pharell Williams has spoken of the challenge to match the 'ascension' of the women and his poppy soundtrack does just that. It propels our emotions bang on target. My advice is – don't fight it. Strap yourself in and relish the G-forces of optimism and indignation. Personally I enjoyed the ride so much I postponed a comfort break indefinitely in sympathy with Katherine. And that's gotta be worth a few stars in any review.

Friday, 24 February 2017

A Portal of Worlds

Beyond the heavy wooden doors, oaken floor-boards are greyed by age and the walls clad in dark green enamel tiles. Downstairs doors swoosh open like a Tube carriage to reveal locals sat at computer booths along the wall. But I am drawn to the magnificently curving staircase with its stone-flagged steps and wrought-iron balustrade, topped with brass railings worn smooth by a century's hands. It's as generously wide as the idea of the building itself and as I ascend, my boots send out a satisfying ring on stone. This echoing atrium reminds me of all those Victorian libraries, favourite haunts of my childhood, Hogwartian portals to multiple worlds.
Today I am visiting that rare beast, a public library that has survived numerous culls by the Philistine hordes of government. What tugged me back to explore Leicester's Central Library was a rather lovely event staged by librarians there last week, one of a series of Write-On readings which are celebrating local writing. On a rainy Monday evening they welcomed us in to hear readings from Dahlia Publishing's shortfiction anthology, 'Lost and Found'. I was hugely impressed by this series of events showcasing Leicester authors. It's hosted by the Library on a ZERO budget but with lashings of goodwill. A really good turn-out despite the deluge outside and they made us very welcome with tea & biccies at half-time too. They have more readings planned and it's a great initiative for booklovers and writers to be supporting. And now there's an excellent review by literary blogger Emma Lee
So a week later I am ascending to the realms of  Literature, History and Non-Fiction though I find Newspaper collections, Maps and Musical scores here too. This upper floor is wrapped in a warm hush. No 'SSH' signs - just the quiet of minds absorbed in discovery or work. I wander off for a browse and find an excellent section on Writing Craft, next door to a more comprehensive Poetry section than I've seen in any bookshop. They even have a copy of my first book Firebridge to Skyshore which is rather thrilling because in a way it all started here. In libraries where a shelf-lined maze of learning and legend devoured the hours like a Narnia adventure. Installed in a comfy chair, I spend a very happy, productive afternoon, thumbing through chapters and stitching characters for my latest fictional venture. Next week I've promised myself I'll root out my old library card and become a Borrower once more ...

Meantime my current bedtime reading is Neil Gaiman's 'Odd and the Frost-Giants', a perfectly-formed icicle of a book. The hardback features an original children's tale by Gaiman and gorgeous illustrations by Chris Riddell encrust its pages or open picture-windows framed by silvered carvings. Gaiman's language probes the narrative with all the delicacy of that icicle. His hero, a gawky 12 year old boy with a winning smile and broken leg, is named Odd for the 'tip of a blade'. His companions are grumpy Norse gods who've been magicked into a depressive bear, a conceited fox and a monosyllabic eagle. The frost-Giant has eyes 'the colour of lake ice just before it cracks and drops you into freezing water'. Its shaggy mane has the tortured forms of a frozen waterfall I remember from Iceland. His breath is frosty steam for a voice 'like the howl of winter wind'. Beyond this enchantment of place, Gaiman's tale delivers wit, peril, humour, ingenuity and just a smidgen of sadness. It's a book my younger library-immured self would also have adored.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Trainspotting's Return Trip

“Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here.You’re a tourist in your own youth.”
Aren't we all, Sick Boy? Personally I'm finding the tug of 80s songtracks and period movies irresistible. Recently it's been anything with David Bowie in, especially that 1983 Vamp Noir THE HUNGER with Bowie and Deneuve slinking around to the throbbing wail of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi is Dead". Today's matinee at the Phoenix Arts Centre was T2 TRAINSPOTTING, simultaneously a 90's throwback and a 'now' movie for our out-of-control Noughties.
Genius. So funny and raw and sad and sordid and soulful and crazy and swaggering too. The original T1 cast obviously relished getting their teeth into these mid-life stranded characters who launched their acting careers. Ewan McGregor and Johnny Lee Miller may be on a sabbatical from Hollywood but it's Ewan Bremner - wrestling his face and body into so many quirky grimaces - who's the pulsing heart of the thing, dodgy deathwish notwithstanding. The women are largely wry onlookers as the men lug around their backstories in a battered carry-all. Even an incandescent Begbie can't get it up these days.
I relished the flashbacks to the gory 'glory days' of Trainspotting 1 and even their 70s childhoods. Also loved the soundtrack stuttering into brief silence early on for a nod to David Bowie. And the rainy Edinburgh cityscapes oozing more with melancholy than menace. Then screenwriter John Hodge's 'Choose Life' rant in the middle is a glorious throat-clearing gob of invective. But still the film fizzes with a kind of joy too, from the sly humour to the gorgeous photography and punchy songs that keep on coming. Like Renton's bedroom bop to his old LPs in the final trippy shot, Danny Boyle has still got the moves.
I wondered if T2 would disappoint after the break-out originality of the first film. But Boyle proves the sequel was more than a cash-in on 90s nostalgia. Irvine Welsh, whose later novel 'Porno' was raided for the new script, believes they've actually surpassed the first film. And the photo above certainly does it justice. Just compare it to that cocky fuck-you 1996 poster. 'First there's an opportunity - then there's betrayal.' Are you ready? Here comes the crash.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Venus Unshelled

For a feast that feeds the eye and ear in equal measure, it's hard to beat the unique fusion of performance poetry and figurative painting in Lydia Towsey's show THE VENUS PAPERS and its companion Scott Bridgwood exhibition. For one night only we enjoyed a consummate storyteller and a ravishing smorgasbord in one building. Throw in the wine and cupcakes and it was practically Dionysian.
Credit: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/the-birth-of-venus-by-sandro-botticelli/
At the exhibition preview, there was plenty of time to immerse ourselves in the intimate and sensuous world of Bridgwood's nude sequence. I can't remember such a compelling 'muse' narrative since I came across Andrew Wyeth's Helga paintings. My favourites here were probably the earthy brown 'boxed-in' series but I also loved the cool aqua blue in certain paintings. And how the figures morph from charcoal sketching to broad-wash strokes to knots of solid flesh that insist on their female presence. The exhibition is open till Sunday the 12th February at the Attenborough Arts Centre on Lancaster Road Leicester (or take a peek at Bridgewood's on-line gallery). Gorgeous work.
Credit: Ambrose Musiyiwa & http://www.renaissanceone.co.uk/events/ 
Credit: Ambrose Musiyiwa
Meanwhile over in the theatre Lydia Towsey was impish, seductive, sad, satirical on the turn of a verse-line in her VENUS PAPERS show. Her deft performance took in a range of characters but we were always rooting for her modern washed-up migrant Venus. I loved the props - an ingenious pink plastic sculpture strung with light-bulbs to serve as her Botticelli 'Birth of Venus' shell; a pop-up book with scenes from Renaiisance art to Tabloid headlines; and then there were was musical accompaniment, clever sound effects and slapstick murders from her two accomplices David Dhonau and Ola Szmidt. It was a magical hour, an odyssey through memory and contemporary urban landscapes with a woman wholly in command of her craft. The show came courtesy of Renaissance One but Towsey's accompanying poetry collection from innovative indie press Burning Books is also well worth seeking out.
It's a while since I've been up to the Attenborough Arts Centre for an event. Sitting in the Princess of Wales Hall always makes me nostalgic because one of my very first shows, 'Stories Drummed to Polar Skies' was staged here. It's a great venue with decent stage, intimate but properly theatrical, and ideal for a poetry performance event like Towsey's. I was delighted to also visit the new Gallery extension which provides much-needed exhibition space for visual art in Leicester. Bridgwood's canvases of his Venus muse had room to breathe here and performance and painting spoke to each other throughout the evening in teasing allusions. Delicious.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Believing the Spin

Frost pinching at your window? Nightfall chasing your heels home? Perfect time for a good book or two or three, the bigger the better. Can I mention how much I'm enjoying THE CREATION MACHINE by Andrew Bannister ? I meant to save this one for summer hols reading but it turns out to be a good hefty winter tale, transporting me to a far galaxy populated by various lifeforms and strange but vividly realised planets.
The world-building is superb but most of all, it is the characters in peril who keep me up late worrying what's going happen next and how they're going to get out of THAT one ... And quite the most impossible and engaging romantic entanglement I've followed in a while, threaded through a dark fable of political machinations and genocide that strikes dystopian echoes from our own fucked-up world. I give you just the opening paragraph which you can read on the usual book preview sites:
''The thousand and third day of Fleare's imprisonment dawned cold and clear. Frost fuzzed the stone battlements of the Monastery, and the plains fifteen hundred metres below were veiled in mist. Fleare paused halfway through her daily walk up the Shadow Stair and gathered the thin prison fatigues into folds around her as if that would help keep out the cold. It didn't."
Credit: http://www.sffworld.com/2016/05/interview-with-andrew-bannister/
See what I mean? Who doesn't want to know what the Shadow Stair is but more importantly, how can you not be rooting for this emaciated but determined political prisoner Fleare? Bannister evokes the new world of the Spin galaxy with great economy and deft painterly strokes. But he absolutely resists the temptation to over-describe or explain. I am right there in a few phrases. Loved the 'frost fuzzed'. And already the story is on the move. The narrative voice is quite original to my ears; although the frequent humour sometimes made me think of Pratchett or even the Hitchhiker, it is more acidic in its bite. This voice grabs you by the scruff of the neck and hauls you into the adventure. The pace and scope of the narrative is as relentless as the ambition of the Spin's competing overlords. As all the reviews have suggested, it is a hell of a debut from a writer who gets straight into his stride and obviously has far more story stowed away in the hold.
Creation Machine needs no plaudits from me but believe the hype. It's a thumping good read and a roller-coaster ride. I'm delighted to see on Bannister's website that a further two novels set in the Spin are rattling down the pipe-line. I'll be strapping myself into the passenger seat, ready for just about anything as soon as Bantam Press can patch up the ship.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Tommy's Scarf

Before the day closes, here is my act of remembrance. Back in 2014, this poem was inspired by the statue of an Unknown Soldier in Paddington Station. The Tommy is wearing a long hand-knit scarf over his uniform and reading a letter, perhaps from home.

Her tapped-out knit-one-purl
was a private Morse code
as much lullaby as distress-call
between Field Service Postcards
from France. Her autumn spent
picking up and slipping stitches
to shoulder you from afar.
Today it is a coil of python
a slithering bundle of welted yarn
wrapping your jugular: a ribbed
belt of bullets machine-gun issue
pulling your bowed head to assent.
Then it was a muffler, her umbilical
shawl of twice-ravelled wool
that clicked and twitched
over many a clock-ticked night
into a candlewick fabric, elastic
boy-looped, long as a man:
a fleece itching with unsaid words
still warm with smells of her.
Did she cosset you, Tommy?
Fuss and mither you? Dab
spittle to polish you, tidy a wisp
of hair under your trench cap
when you defied her at last
and donned Kitchener's Blue?
Before this tasselled winding-cloth
you lay cat's cradled in a weft
of barbed-wire bindweed
that snagged on her name and stuck
for the two days it took to die.
A jagged casting-off attended by
No Man's rats and bluebottles.
Your fingers laced around her letter
in a certain light, are skeletal
but stubby nails, bent eyelashes
and boy-man jutting chin, are molten
unresolved, alive in metal.

Published in the Letters to an Unknown Soldier Anthology, ed. by Kate Pullinger & Bartlett  Nov. 2014. Written as part of a residency I led for 14-18-NOW and WEM in August 2014.