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/

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Finding Richard

'Finding Richard' is a little film that's big on story and charm from the production company of Hive Films. I enjoyed today's screening in a gilt-decorated, wood-panelled room at Leicester's Guildhall - the perfect setting. The film features a boy's quest to connect with history - or more importantly with his grandfather - and this take on 'Gulliver's Travels' leads from garden shed to a muddy field to an unexpected tryst. Grandad - aka 'The Professor' - is played by none other than Colin Baker. Appropriately enough for an ex-Time-Lord, he has a shed packed with gadgets and a passion for amateur archaeology. Baker lights up the screen with a gentle energy that draws his young co-star into its warmth. Director Rhys Davies wisely makes this relationship the heart of the film.

 'The Professor' directs a dig to be undertaken by his grandson 'Gull', winningly played by young comedian David Knight (12 years old from Britain's Got Talent). His quest is inspired by the news that Leicester University archaeologists have unearthed the bones of Richard III in a Leicester car-park. Soon Gull is busy with a spade and metal detector, like a one-boy Time Team, in a stretch of rain-soaked football field near Leicester's Tudor Road. He finds a few items of questionable 'provenance' - I'll say no more - but the final scene has a pay-off that knits together his granddad's past and Gull's future in a sweetly understated moment.

I feel sure this film will repay more than one viewing. My own favourite moments and images are Gull's 'tent' in the opening scene with its montage of gothic gargoyles and toy knights; his always off-screen mother shouting up 'Switch that light off Gulliver!', the best cameo by a beseeching dog and the rose china tea-cup granddad sets beside a framed photograph at the end. The upbeat original music matched the warmth of the film's colour palette but gave hints of an undertow of a poignancy as subtle as Baker's performance. Unsurprisingly, this film garnered positive reviews at Cannes Film Festival where it has just been premiered. And with the news that those hotly-contested bones are to be interred in Leicester cathedral, it is destined to find a permanent home in a new dedicated museum.

Personally I find it difficult to be moved by the plight of a feudal monarch. The ill-fated Richard will be accorded a final 'dignity' but I doubt there was much for the lowly tenants and 'men-of arms' who slogged through the slaughter of Bosworth's battlefield. However if it helps people including children to connect to history as Gull did, that's a good thing. And even better this tale - which is 'about a boy' rather than a king - showcases the talents of today's generation. I was delighted to hear from the film's co-writer Douglas Cubin that Leicester's home-grown film industry is burgeoning with several feature films and 10 more 'shorts' underway in the city this year. 'Finding Richard' will surely fly the flag for Leicester's rich cultural output, alongside that raft of musicians who have put the city on TV's map recently. It will delight tourists and locals alike, and its themes about finding your own place in the world through imagination and persistence will resonate with all ages.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Weekending with Writers

A weekend in the Cotswolds with sixteen writers and an array of laptops, notebooks and manuscripts proved to be as stimulating and entertaining as we remembered. This was the 10th annual outing of LeicesterWriters' Club and the beautiful honey-stone farm-house of MiddleStanley by now feels like a home from home. Except we are entirely removed from loved ones and all domestic distractions. Creativity, fuelled by huge quantities of food and chat, is the order of the day. It's pleasing to see more of our writers with deadlines looming, making use of the weekend as a retreat to hit word targets and slog through the edits an agent is asking for. But workshops were equally popular and my job was to organise a weekend programme that addressed a range of genres, industry issues and wish-list items to engage all our writers. 
First up, as requested', was a session on Writing Time. The questions addressed were 'How do you find that precious time?' and 'How do you use it creatively?' So a chance to peek into the writing spaces and habits of other people – a literary version of poking round other people's houses. Some of our writers do this as the day-job and like to write in 'chunks' through the day. But many are juggling around shift patterns, school-runs and family commitments so resourcefulness and a determination to 'make a date with your writing every day' is key. As you might expect, setting targets such as word counts or completing a chapter draft proved helpful; likewise reviewing your last writing session or planning the next one. Having the opportunity to read a passage (up to 2000 words or 2 poems) at club can provide the push. One writer takes 25 minutes of his 2 hour morning slot to assemble all his research resources and writing apps and is constantly cross-referencing and updating his 'character files' etc. Research and how far it weaves in and out of the creative writing time was much discussed. Poets found this was even more key because that one telling detail could not only transform the poem but alter metre and sound patterns too. So Google is only ever a button away …
And thus practical considerations of time-management shaded into issues around the nature of creativity (the topic of several sessions last year too). It turns out that our 'best writing time' was not always mornings (close to dream-time and the back-brain). Some writers wrote most creatively from 10pm into the early hours – even when an alarm was primed for the 'day-job'. But editing time was different from writing time as was planning time. Writers who work in different genres found different rhythms required for poetry or prose and nobody could keep their head simultaneously in writing and alternate forms like painting. Music helped some whilst others needed silence. I find only silence works with poetry as I have to hear the words and beats so clearly. Some find their writing mojo profoundly affected by the seasons or monthly cycles and have learned to harness that rather than be limited by it. Many of our writers nest in a study or shed or 'man-cave' whilst others are impelled to go out, completely away from domestic routine, to write in caf├ęs or on trains. And word-targets aside, not-writing has to be valued too. Time spent day-dreaming, googling, planning, 'faffing about', is not (as sceptical partners might suppose) wasted time – but an essential part of the alchemy that is crafting words onto a blank screen and puffing life into them.

And lest those partners and families suspect our Middle Stanley weekend was all about the eating, drinking and being merry (of which there was plenty) I can tell you we packed in another five workshops and writing homework across the two days. After that fascinating glimpse into the diverse writing habits of our cohort, we worked through a few nuts-and-bolts sessions on Creating Suspense in Fiction and How and Where to Submit Poetry. Our second day was themed around the business end of writing. My introduction to the day noted 'there is a world of difference between producing a piece of writing and being a writer.' Out of the solitude and safety of the study, there are many challenges facing a writer in bringing a book to market and building a career around it. That is why I put together sessions on 'My Big Book Plan', 'Routes into Publication' and 'Networking for Writers'. The first session featured 'homework', a detailed plan that identified the unique selling point (USP) of a book/project, its audience and genre, the 'author-story' to accompany it and ideas for marketing both on-line and face-2-face. Even at an early stage, considering the key concept of the book, can help in focusing a sprawling storyline and as the possibility of publication approaches, a writer can begin to explore the audience and pitch the book will need.

In 'Routes into Publication', three of our writers, MargaretPenfold, Marianne Whiting and GwynethWilliams generously shared their experiences. With the help of their presentations, we discussed the array of options facing today's authors: work with an agent to pitch to editors in publishing houses, seek out an independent publisher or go the self-publishing route with an appropriate press. It became clear that whichever path to publication you ended up on, thorough research and sampling was necessary and that the relationship is very much a two-way one. Authors spoke of 'interviewing' potential publishers/ agents as much as seeking their backing. Finding an industry figure who could deliver the editing, marketing or promotion your book needs is vital and that first lunch or telephone call might be something of a 'first-date' for both parties to sense whether they can work well together. All three authors had found literary conferences helpful in meeting potential publishers/agents – either genre-based organisations or a book-fair like States of Independence. And once you've agreed on that contract to deliver a book together, then 'the hard work really begins.'

The final session of Sunday afternoon proved to be the most lively, not least because we pitched our authors into a role-play. First LindsayWaller-Wilkinson and I discussed the relative benefits of social media that can be seen as eating up too much of writers' precious creative time. Authors are wary of giving up hours reading what somebody had for tea or being one of those Facebook faces who pop up and say 'Buy My book please!' Instead we explored how Facebook and Twitter can be tools to interact with a wider community of professionals within the industry. Very much as the writing community of the Leicester Writers' Club allows us to share information, inspire each other, mentor new writers, offer suggestions and even introductions to agents and editors, so social media can build these vital relationships at all stages of a writers' career. The key to this is seeing our interventions as symbiotic – we need to be genuinely engaged with the creative work of others and with supporting their success too. That has always underpinned the manuscript evenings of LWC and the same etiquette applies to blogging and tweeting in a professional context.
And then the roleplay. In pairs, one of us played an agent/editor at a literary event who asks the inevitable question: 'So what do you write?' You have 30 seconds to sum up your work in an interesting way – no cringing allowed – and present yourself naturally, confidently, as a practising writer. Not as easy as it sounds. I can remember crumbling and mumbling the first time a published author asked me that question at a book-launch. But this can be the moment we find that special person whose attention our book needs – or who knows somebody who would be interested in it. Hopefully a little bit of forethought can help, as Lindsey found when she bumped into an agent and discussed a planned novel. Being a writer is one of those activities that can seem invisible or like play-acting – until you take the industry and yourself seriously.

But not too seriously. This weekend contained much laughter - and a shared pleasure in our peculiar passion. And have I mentioned the food? As we filed round the long dining-table, we felt like honoured guests at a Masterchef final – extraordinary and exotic banquets unfolded from our chefs Lindsay and Andrew on successive nights. Our thanks also go to Gwyneth and Liz as our stalwart organisers who make the magic happen with so little fuss year on year. Roll on 2015!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Word Cubes in a Wild Place

I'm standing in a slightly darkened room, a crisp modern space with wonderful acoustics – the CubeGallery of Leicester'sPhoenix Digital Arts Centre. It could be a clean, almost antiseptic environment yet somehow this exhibition transforms it into a gritty, wind-grazed landscape. Or indeed a box of multiple places within spaces. As I walk around, I encounter a series of grey vertical blocks, knee high, supporting a button-pad and ear-pieces for the recordings I am to select. But they seem like cairns or stone way-markers pointing directions, signalling entry-points to soundscapes that are tagged with single elliptical words – 'ghost', 'cooling', snow', 'banjo' and so on. I am confronted with the multiple possibilities of a wide-open landscape, with the Road Not Taken as well as the unique track I make through its aural valleys and crevices.

And that's just the experience of this exhibition in its 3-D physicality. Before we play with sound and image, with silence and static and eyes-closed pauses, with a full-on sensory rush of sound/ music/ talk that is so vivid it is almost tactile. Before we press the button and choose.

The exhibition is 'poems,places & soundscapes' and offers you exactly that. Curated by poet MarkGoodwin and poet-publisher BrianLewis of LongbarrowPress, it is 'an international exhibition of digitally produced sound-&-poetry focusing on place & sound-scape ... featuring various poet, musician and sound-designer collaborations' as well as a selection of ‘place-entranced films'. There must have been thirty or forty audio and film 'pieces', each offering a different blend or collision of poetry/ sound/ music/ image and each transporting you to an entirely different place. And then other possibilities opened if you listened intently to the ear-piece, whilst also letting your gaze be reeled in to a film-stream in another corner of the room. Not unlike standing in a wide, wild landscape, where your senses and mind might tune into cloud-shadows on a hill-side, navigational landmarks, bird-song, the random noise of far-off contrails, insects in the undergrowth, a stream of consciousness, wind booming and scratching against a dozen surfaces, chatter and sudden silences. Choose what you will because there is no one way, no one definitive experience and subjectivity is all. Be present and listen.

Some choices I made that day:

fice (audio-work at second post)

a dissonance of tinkles, echoes, rhythmic words, monk-like chanting, ribbons of singing, clattering wood – gradually a mysterious music emerging of the whole blend.

ghosts (audio-work at second post)

a harmony of synthesised music, murmured phrases of poetry that open into an intimate conjuring of memory and nostalgia that is quite haunting. The landscape is urban, modern, but meshed in with the natural at Westport Lake: 'and on Sunday we'll walk round Westport Lake / remembering the beach … and the ghosts of who we were .. and home to terraced houses/ if you've seen one row of terraces, you've seen them all …' Mesmerising.

cooling (audio-work at first post)

another urban place-poem unravelling into a series of startling and joyous metaphors for the twin Cooling Towers of Sheffield: ' two big birds' nests/ in the poetics of space … under the skirt of motorway/ two stout ankles … two grim bouncers/ to the nightclubs of Sheffield … two huge brackets around/ a 1950s skirt of sky … two jugs of stillness …' A transcendent sense of the human in the city, in the industrial. Music pulsing with the beat of the poet's rhythm and rhyme. Decades of social history threaded through landscape.

banjo (audio-work at fourth post)

twanging banjo music underpinned by polar wind-whorling and a gravelly American voice-over, reflecting on the narrative of 22 castaways huddled under a boat-hut on the exposed glacier-strewn shore of Elephant Island in 1916 ...

burbage valley (film-work at second reel)
extraordinary charcoal drawings seem to conjure wind and rock, accompanied by a delicate soundtrack of the same. Then the poem-text on the screen layers in a third dimension of textures and symbols: '… nevertheless the chalk hands/ stretch out to form their synapses/ where the grit-stone neurones happen ...'

Sometimes I let the word-sign draw me in: what on earth is fice? Sometimes I looked for a familiar foot-hold – the film-scape of Burbage Valley alludes to a Peaks landscape I've walked many times. And I could hardly pass over Shackleton'sBanjo, when my own second poetry collection was inspired by that polar expedition. But mostly these were random choices that held me entranced for a timeless afternoon.

And now I can dip in again to other pieces on the comprehensive website that accompanied the exhibition. You really must go there and trace a sound-journey of your own through that digital space. It is helpfully way-marked with photographs, interviews, blog links and all of the exhibitions works accessible, as well as the posted comments of visitors. A rich experience that alerts us to the possibilities for collaborative poetry adventures, knitting together many crafts with current technology. The overall synthesis is a mysterious and alive and utterly human interaction with place.