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:

Visit the writers' development service I co-run at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

About Me

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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. In addition, I co-run The Writers' Shed, a service for writers, at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Death on the Ice

I'm hugging a mug of ginger and cloves today as I succumb to a bout of Christmas cold. But I have relished the past week of ice and snow. When not trekking over treacherous pavements or catching up with family, I've been lost in a story landscape of polar wastes. Robert Ryan's 'Death on the Ice' (published Headline Review) made for perfect winter reading. At 546 pages, I felt as if I'd camped out at Hut Point for a few seasons myself. If you like tales of derring-do and flag-waving heroism, then Ryan is your man. His characters, in this fictionalised account of Scott's 1901 + 1911 expeditions to the South Pole, say things like: 'What an echo they'll leave on this world … they died doing something great.' This reader is more struck by the folly and even arrogance of The Owner as Scott's men referred to him. In some of the closely-fought versions of this history, Scott has been accused of incompetence and even 'murder'. But more than 8,000 applied to join Scott's 1911 expedition and right to the last, men competed to be amongst the four who would claim the glory of standing at the Pole with him. So perhaps it tells us as much about the time and the country as it does about the man.

This is a meticulously researched book and sometimes, like Scott's sledges, the narrative groans under the weight of all those salvaged facts and reputations. I was surprised by how slow the first section of the book was. Ryan spends 200 pages juggling between short chapters relating Scott's first venture to Antarctica in 1901 and accounts of the army postings of Captain Lawrence Oates. I found it aggravating to be continually yanked away from the ice-bound Hut Point to the dusty veldt of the Boer War or the heat of Egypt. I'm not sure why Ryan decided to give so much attention to the backstory of Oates rather than any of the other men. Maybe because his reported last words, 'I am just going outside and I may be some time,' have become a key part of the Scott myth. Despite the continual disruption to the main narrative, one thing this achieved was to set Scott's venture in the context of the pre-war Empire. We see Oates fending off the Boers – 'mere Dutch farmers' – and heading up the summary flogging and execution of Egyptian prisoners. By using Scott's one Norwegian man, Tryggve Gran, as a kind of implied narrator, Ryan also points up the nationalistic tensions that riddled the attempts at the pole, with Scott becoming locked into a race with the far better prepared Amundsen.

But why read a novel about the race to the Pole when there are letters, diaries and survivors accounts as well as countless biographies? Ryan's skills as a novelist come to the fore when he's evoking the landscape of Antarctica and the harsh physical regime the men endured. There is one stunning scene where a group of Scott's doomed ponies are stranded on an ice floe during an attack by killer whales. Oates and another man try to save the ponies by leapfrogging across the floes but most of the horses go under to a terrifying death. I absolutely felt I was a witness to this scene just as I heard the strange cracks and sobs of the ice during those everlasting nights. Ryan is very good at capturing the penned-in atmosphere of Hut Point, the segregation of officers from the 'lower deck' men, the cliques and rivalries that form as well as deep loyalties. And when Scott confesses to Oates in the final bitter days, 'I've got us in a bit of a pickle, Soldier, haven't I?' - you really want to believe that clipped understatement is exactly what he said.

Scott's approach to the expedition has been much criticised in later years. Unlike Amundsen who lived for a time with the Inuits and learnt arctic survival skills from them, Scott's men were more enthusiastic amateurs. His refusal to wear furs or rely on huskie dogs smacked of not wanting to 'copy the natives'. Yet they did wear 'finneskoes' or reindeer boots and did stuff Norwegian grass down into them along with their homely woollen socks. Scott clung to the scientific justification of their expedition. He wanted to test out the efficiency of horses and dogs versus motorised sledges. Yet he also insisted on the moral superiority of 'man hauling', putting his half-starved men under greater pressure as they lugged sledges weighed down with geological samples as well as supplies. A photograph of the five men at the pole, devastated by their discovery that Amundsen had beaten them to it by a month, says it all. Defeated in 'this awful place,' they still had to face trudging back eight hundred miles, man-hauling all the way. Ryan's final section, as the catastrophe closes in around them, was the most compelling. And though it was an exhausting read, I was reluctant to leave behind the glacial landscape of the Ross Ice Shelf and the men lost in its white wilderness.

Friday, 11 December 2009

A White Weekend?

Today I trekked up through the fog and spooky tree lines of Victoria Park to see Stan Cowley and Darren Wright of the Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group at the University of Leicester. It's a familiar route by now because since they first sponsored my poetry project on the Northern Lights back in June 2007, we've enjoyed a no. of collaborations. In March 2008, Darren and I took part in a Northern Lights evening at the Science Museum in London. A sell-out event which was reprised in September last year. Now we're planning to bring that event to Leicester and where better than the dramatic Space Theatre in Leicester's own National Space Centre? The innovative film-maker, Brian McClave will be showing his spectacular 3-D films of both aurora and solar flares. And under that domed ceiling of the planetarium, we hope to recreate some of the magic of the Northern Lights, as we mix poetry, physics and film. Are you hooked yet?

At our planning meeting today, we were joined by Ather Mirza of the University's Press Office to think of ways of getting the word out there. We're dreaming up a blizzard of press releases, e-mails, tweets - you name it. And this weekend, I'll be busy on a design for the flyer. So here's the first flake ... It's fab, it's free and it's Tuesday 23rd February!


And continuing the arctic theme, I'll also be working on a webpage to launch another poetry adventure. In 2010, I'll be teaming up with poet, Susan Richardson, to form the Polar Poets. We're hoping to tour the country with multi-media performances, talks and workshops around the Arctic. She can offer Viking women, hardy Antarctic Explorers and penguins - I can throw in Saamis, scientists and reindeer. And together our material traverses the icy wastes of both poles.

Inevitably, our poems reflect on climate change in these regions. With the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change opening this week, this theme has never seemed more urgent. You might ask what use is it for 2 poets to versify about melting icecaps. I can only say that 2 years ago, I went to Tromso in the Arctic Circle to see the Northern Lights for myself. And I think too I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the little girl in my favourite childhood story, The Snow Queen, and journey across the ice and snow. What I found was rain and darkness. They were experiencing summer temperatures in December. The same week we were there, a White House press conference announced the Polar Bear was a 'threatened' species facing possible extinction by as early as 2050. By this August, for the first time in human history, so much summer ice had melted at the North Pole, that it was an island. It seems impossible not to write about this. And the least the Polar Poets can do is celebrate the extraordinary beauty of this wilderness that we so depend on - while it is still within our power to conserve it. It's not enough, for sure - but it's one thing storytellers and poets can do.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Kabatic Winds on the High Street

Deluged by a blizzard of reports and coursework drafts at the day-job, I've been taking solace in a sumptuous book I found in the library last week. Antarctica: Exploring a Fragile Eden by Jonathon & Angela Scott made me long all over again to head off for the poles. It has breath-taking photographs of glacier caves, katabatic winds blowing up storms and colonies of penguins stretched across the ice-bound horizons. A book to get lost in.

There is one image of a gentoo penguin being shaken to death by a leopard seal. I was thinking of this as I digested a talk by literary agent Elizabeth Cochrane of Greene & Heaton Agency last Thursday. Her visit was hosted by my writers' group Leicester Writers Club and offered many insights into the world of publishing today. It was undoubtedly a 'very tough industry'. The harsh truth is most books make losses - only a few make money for the publishers. And there are thousands of novelists out there. 'Many writers will write perfectly publishable books that never get sold.' With the crash of Borders bookstore chain last week, the industry is in the throes of the credit crunch. Writers too will feel the pinch. After maybe 3 years work on your first novel, you might be lucky to get a £1,000 advance. Try living on that.

So that was just some of the tough talk. However, Elizabeth Cochrane was there to throw us a few lifelines, not just beat us about the head with home truths. She worked through several hours of detailed, practical advice about what agents were looking for, how to present your pitches and how they would fight for your interests in this climate. The talk was supported by Creative Leicestershire so free. A large room was packed with maybe ninety-odd aspiring and professional writers.

I've been lucky enough to hear a few agents and editors speak at LWC events so a lot of it was familiar. But there are always little gems. Having mentioned the horror story of an unnamed leading agency that kept the 'slush-pile' in a cupboard till some intern could send out all the rejection slips (gasp!) - she explained the routine in her own agency. They refer to 'the unsoliciteds' - not the 'slush-pile' - and take turns each week to do the initial sifting. I liked the mention of 'a little place in the kitchen' where other agents make their tea and get a second look at some of the submissions. A lot of the sifting inevitably has to go on in the margins of a busy day representing existing clients. So the question is always: 'Can I put this down yet? I've got all these other things to read - is this unputdownable?' That's the challenge with sample chapters.

Some DOS and DON'TS:
  • don't say your friends loved it

  • don't ask them to sign a security clause before they can see your top-secret manuscript ...

  • don't mention your holidays

DO mention other writers that your book is 'in the vein of'. But Elizabeth doesn't take to Hollywood-style pitches along the lines of: 'It's Smiley's People crossed with Anna Karenina'. Her talk also reinforced the importance of networking and making full use of any opportunities to meet agents at courses, parties, writers' conferences etc. And indeed, she was generous in her time during and after the event, handing out a great wadge of business cards.

So we were lucky indeed to hear an agent who was both witty and dedicated to getting up-to-date info. out there to writers. She also works for a consultative agency, Cornerstones, that writers can make use of to get in-depth reports on their books. With the freezing winds of recession blowing in, we need all the help we can get. Above all, Elizabeth Cohrane revealed, you need 'to see the joy in it' to sell books, and that's the hallmark of the kind of agent or editor you want to find in this business.