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

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

Friday, 25 April 2014

Sigrid's Saga

As a storyteller, I have always been fascinated by ancient legends - how different their shaping is, how their heroes don't 'learn lessons' or morality and yet how powerful these early narratives are. On a visit to Iceland some years ago, I stocked up on some wonderful Viking Sagas, packed with passionate characters rooted in real historical landscapes. My holiday reading currently shares a good deal of this territory.  The heroine of Marianne Whiting's 'Shieldmaiden' is a contemporary of poet-warrior Egil Skallagrimsson and also fights at the battle of Brunnanburgh, though on the opposing side. Like Egil's Saga, this tale is unflinching in its depiction of war's chaos and the cruelty of kings. But Whiting's novel has a modern story arc charting the psychological development of its young protagonist Sigrid from her childhood through a bloody and difficult adulthood. The pacing of the narrative is astonishing; in just a few chapters we rush headlong from Sigrid's first crush, through an unhappy marriage, the violent dispersal of her family into exile and her experience of battle and its bitter aftermath. Fans of a rattling good story not short on gory detail, sparky dialogue and strong characters, will be as delighted as I was.

On her website Whiting reveals her excitement at realising that Viking history was one of the few periods when women could arm themselves and play a full part in adventures. Her heroine Sigrid is a gifted warrior, one of the fabled 'shield-maidens' modelled on Thor's own Valkrye daughters. Yet she is much more than a swashbuckling, sword-wielding protagonist. Whiting conveys the full range of Sigrid's experience as a Viking woman living in the Danelaw of Cumbria in 936. She 'knows only too well that look of a man who has seen a woman he wants'. At any time her family or king may decide to use her as a 'peace-weaver' - to forge a politically advantageous marriage. Sigrid negotiates her options as a woman sometimes clumsily, sometimes with a hard-learned dexterity as the vulnerable daughter of a declared traitor. But Whiting also explores her joy in being a lover and mother as well as an increasingly assured leader of men, a 'ring-giver' in her own right. She grows into a legend to match Egil Skallagrimsson, even if she is sceptical about how the reputation of warriors is exaggerated by the bards.

Equally I was impressed by Whiting's subtle but compelling handling of historical detail and landscape. I never once felt the author was 'showing' me some carefully researched detail of Viking lives. Rather we breathe the story through Sigrid's viewpoint and learn to take for granted as she does the Viking system of thralls and karls or bloody sacrifices to the gods, whilst 'discovering' the peculiar practices of Christians now challenging the 'old religion' of the Danelaw. This is what historical fiction can offer beyond the veracity of museums and textbooks - we step into the hand-stitched boots and turbulent emotions of a tenth century Viking woman. I think Whiting's novel benefits too from its vividly-drawn Cumbrian landscapes and recognisable place-names. You feel you could step off a twenty-first century train and hike your way back into Sigrid's world. The novel's sense of place is no less precise or rich in emotional context than the farmsteads and courts of the Icelandic sagas which in part inspired this Swedish author. Her blog makes clear that a sequel is in the offing and also reveals the original impetus for the novel was a vivid dream about her heroine that demanded to be written down. I for one am looking forward to joining Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter on another Viking quest across the rugged crags of Cumbria or Norway. Meanwhile there's always the VIKINGS TV series to dip into while I wait for Sigrid's return ...

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Lyric Lounge Laureates & Street Anthems

When people ask me 'What is poetry?' I often say: 'Poetry is singing with words.' Never has that been more true than with the trio of laureates who make up 'Three the Hard Way.' The influence of Jean Binta Breeze, an original dub-poet, is strong on the show's performance style. Jean is a legendary Caribbean poet and recent MBE, who has long had a second home in Leicester - lucky us. The voices of Alison Dunne, formerly the libraries Book Doctor, and Lydia Towsey, a sometime poet-ghoul, are equally distinctive though and they make a fabulous, gorgeous threesome. But before they gift us their poems together and separately, here comes the anthem of community arts that is the Lyric Lounge.

Today the Lounge is a 'jam-packed day of live-lit, music, film, masterclasses, open-mic spots and family-friendly activities' at Leicester's spanking Curve theatre. This carnival of arts is FREE to all - yes, you heard it right. In these days of Gradgrind and Gove, of banker Culture Ministers and libraries staffed by volunteers, somehow we sneaked in a publicly-funded festival of lyrics, laughter and improvised rhymes. I only caught the tail-end of it but the songs and sets from workshoppees and community groups showed a good time had been had by all amidst the borrowed sofas and curtain swags of the Curve's Lyric Lounge corner. As they warbled their way through laments for Belgrave's fly-over and celebrations of Leicester City's promotion, through poems about broken boilers, red budget boxes and crack cocaine, George Osborne made a few appearances. Delivered off the cuff and scribbled crib-sheets, occasionally a rhyme clunked or a rhythm stumbled - but the energy and exuberance of creativity let loose for a rare day out lifted all. It was witty, husky with passion, ukelele-accompanied and often, as one of Jean's lyrics reminded us, there were moments 'that made you gasp'. I was reminded all over again of the glory days of the original Lyric Lounge five years ago, fronted by the same excellent community poets, musicians and artists.

And finally we were treated to three sassy word-artists in their 'full-flow' - pitch-perfect, swerving seamlessly from an autobiographical mother-daughter poem to a lyric on slavery or Rwanda and on to a rousing chorus of  'I know, me duck, I know/ how this country leaves you broken-hearted;/ the summer's over before it's started ...' And all too soon, it was indeed over. But well worth catching if you spot them on tour at a venue near you.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Space to Mourn

Another beautiful OystercatcherPress chapbook - a slim pamphlet titled 'atthe memory exchange', immaculate design but so spare in its contents. However a brief dedication to the poet's parents tucked away on the copyright page reveals they both died the year before publication. And this note anchors the first sequence for me. Kathleen Bell's 'They come for you to buy and sell' is a moving meditation on mortality, lives lived, memory, death rituals, loss. The buying/selling metaphor maintains its grip throughout and its idioms nail the dead into their place as the men in 'tall hats' arrive to do their business:

'We bought it years ago

cash down


... and if you have the price

to buy it back

well, pay it now.'

The bereaved have their moment too:

'a child enters a wood

                       and cries

for something lost

she cannot name.'

Brevity is all here and I am interested in the hesitancy of verse line layout, those speaking spaces:

'I leave you

                        empty air

and a white page

remember me.'

The second sequence in this chapbook is also full of sorrowful echoes but 'Off Lampedusa' reflects on a found story. Apparently these drowned refugees washed ashore off Italy after a fire caused their overcrowded fishing boat to capsize. 366 died including many children. I only know this because I heard Katherine Bell read her sequence at Leicester's bi-monthly Shindig poetry event. The beach scene is haunting enough:

'flame on the ship

and corpses on the sand

                              so many, unimportant ...'


But Bell deepens the impact of this narrative by drawing analogies with travellers and exiles from classical Western literature. First up is 'that many-travelled man' Odysseus is rescued by Nausicaa and honoured at the feast. Later Jane Eyre stumbles across the moor and 'our minds say "Please/ please take her in."' But as for the refugee 'bulrush baby/ there's no promised land for you.' Fragment 13 offers an elegy for all these modern wanderers, bundling their humanity into another tentative assertion:

'people like us

             but braver

more afraid.'

Uncapitalised, unnamed and '(not a phone among 'em)' they are nonetheless mourned in Bell's second meditation. Oystercatcher Press have packed two huge stories into these 20 pages, full of resonances that ripple outward. But I would have liked some little footnote to reference the identity of those lost souls at Lampedusa. Also a credit for the artwork, an evocative seascape, which really helped to sell it to my roving eye at the bookstall.