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, 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.

Friday, 7 October 2016

How We Learned to Love our Machine

The room is a hush of people studying computers. On screen, a black window with white grid-squares and pulsing green line. The heartbeat. We watch it for five more tense minutes leaping and spiking and then – the zig-zag falls away to a background fuzz. We know it's flat-lined when the Operations Manager removes his headphones and begins to embrace the other engineers, almost all men. In their black crew-shirts, they are mourners at an interment.
The Machine is dead. The Machine is broken, an abandoned shell on a desolate body. Indeed that jittery green line was already a ghostly echo because the deed was done 40 minutes earlier at the other end of the solar system. Rosetta was instructed to self-terminate on impact, for a 'clean ending'. The Machine has been 'passivated', some will say killed. The press conference has turned into a wake.
As I sat riveted to the livecoverage of Rosetta's descent from ESA headquarters at Darmstadt, the high emotion emanating from that inner sanctum was unmistakeable. At times during Rosetta's two year long dance with comet 67P, the anthropomorphism seemed mainly a device to engage the public. The cartoon cuteness of mother-ship Rosetta and its adorable bot-child Philae. The Twitter-feed messages: #AreWeThereYet? The cuddly toys. But it turns out that no-one had bonded emotionally more than the engineers and scientists who lived with this project for decades. Here are some of the comments from that gathering at Darmstadt:
'Everybody is very sad but it's a spectacular way to do it.'
'Now it's time to say sleep well, Rosetta.'
'Philae was such a brave little boy, sitting in a ravine, still doing fantastic science.'
'It's like Sleeping Beauty – I keep hoping some Prince Charming from ESA or NASA might come to wake Rosetta up.'
'It's like cosmic euthanasia – we just pulled a plug – a very sad day for me.'
That last muttering was from Matt Taylor being interviewed live by BBC'sSkyat Night. Grief was obviously catching because Chris Lintott introduced the programme as marking the 'extraordinary feat' but also the 'tragedy' of the Rosetta mission. The last act of Hamlet it wasn't – and there was much elation at a perfect descent from Rosetta capturing one last dust-jet of data as it drifted down to the comet. Still – why did so many Earthlings 'have something in their eye'?

In truth attributing human characteristics to our machines is nothing new. For centuries we've given our ships, cars and flying machines personal pronouns and names, often female ones. We routinely project human emotions and personalities onto objects. If Tom Hanks can paint a face on a football and talk to it in Cast Away, no wonder we loved TheClangers and Robbie the Robot? Borg-like, we are more and more hard-wired into a dialogue with our technology as it wraps itself around our lives. There you see; personification again. Our daily use of IT may just be re-programmingthe way we communicate, use language and think. Meanwhile the TV series HumanBeings explores android-human relationships with the latest robot technology that is already here.
    Credit: AP Photo/Showtime, Joe Schram

Responding to a Rosetta fan on Twitter recently who was lamenting the crash-landing plan, Matt Taylor referenced the Replicant's last speech in BladeRunner:

    @tomgauld @newscientist IT IS A ROBOT!!! It has seen things you people wouldn't believe... Time for electric sheep @ESA_Rosetta

We would believe it because, thanks to Rosetta's OSIRIS cameras, we peered onto the cometary surface of 67P like space tourists at the portholes. But Rosetta and Philae revealed to us not only an alien world but also ourselves. In a week when Teresa May invited us to discard the humanity of our foreign-speaking neighbours, our identity as citizens of the Blue Planet (or PlanetNowhere according to May), is put in doubt. Could some of us more easily project humanity onto a washing-machine sized box on a comet than an immigrant or refugee? One striking thing about the ESA Rosetta mission is that it has involved such complex communications in many languages in numerous European countries to construct and operate this machine across the solar system. It is a miracle of co-operation and far-sightedness without borders. That might be more futuristic than the technology. Or not. Perhaps that spirit is as tough – and as fragile – as the aluminium skin of Rosetta's craft. We should cherish both.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Where PHILAE Boldly Goes ...

We follow. #AreWeThereYet? What's not to love about a space mission that delivers more drama, danger and comebacks than a sci-fi franchise? Only last week, we got another cliff-hanger as space-craft Rosetta tracked down its long-lost lander Philae. Marvellous as the engineering has been, it's the imagination that's kept me riveted to my desktop porthole. ESA transported us across the solar system via our Twitter-feeds. Beam me down, Scottie. Those razor-sharp OSIRIS photos of comet 67P put me right there, kicking up carbon-dust.
Where early Egyptians drew constellations on coffin-lids to guide departing souls, ESA let us ride the stars. This virtual adventure inspired me to create a poet's saga for the digital age: Philae's Book of Hours. So Philae is a chattering soul-bird. And though its song has since fallen silent, it had us spellbound in its season. Its cometary resting-place Abydos was named for an ancient cemetery. In Egyptian mythology, after death a human-headed soul-bird flits between the lands of living and dead. I thought of ESA scientists at computers communing across vast distances to their metal avatar in this underworld. But Philae ventured into the dark on our behalf too, an android explorer probing an icy wilderness, an ingenious box of tricks sifting air and dirt for the secrets of creation. And most extraordinary of all, it talked to us. Well-named for an obelisk that unlocked an ancient language, it kept up a stuttering dialogue for days. #LifeOnAComet Its subsequent silence always hummed with the promise of more.
'You bide your time, faithful
as a mummified dog... When
you wake at last, Philae
you are babbling to yourself
a snakeskin song of telemetry
a cometary Book of Hours ...'
Rosetta is the mother-ship goddess, blue-winged like the protective figure of Isis, who knew a thing or two about resurrections. So whip-smart, quick on its feet, engineering with attitude. Think Princess Leia before the bikini. But this solar-panelled spacecraft could also be sun-god Ra's midnight barge crossing the dangerous realms of the afterlife. When ESA's scientists described the comet's icy jets as a 'living thing, a dragon waking up,' the storyteller in me was hooked. Rosetta's zig-zagging course was a pyramid trajectory. It had to dodge comet 67P's fierce outpourings, just as Ra and his 'crew of gods' had to steer past Apophis, the fire-spitting snake. Surely this is a classic Hero-Quest, a space-voyage in an aluminium boat on a wing and a prayer. Han Solo minus the laser-gun.
And then there is the comet, captured in mesmerising black-and-white shots in all its rugged variety. I am addicted to those OSIRIS close-ups. Tracts of wildernesses marked not by space-boot but by Philae's human-made SESAME feet. I see comet 67P as a book. Let's call it a book of maps, a cartography of 26 alien regions 'named for Gods of the Old Kingdom'. All very Star-Gate. ESA's Egyptian analogy for the space mission finds its fullest expression in their colour-coded maps of 67P's rocky terrains. Rosetta's own burial chamber will be a cometary pit of hell. I love that it's named for Deir-El-Medina, an Egyptian archaeological site filled with tomb-workers' rubble. But the comet is a book of spells too, a book that spits and fires and sings. A book that hides its secrets deep in pages of ice-dirt, in a crease of rock or sudden abyss:
'… The comet is spitting creatively
uncharted twinklings, carbon-glints,
constellations of grit, a cosmic
sneeze of light.'
Some Earthlings are sad that the mission is drawing to a close.* That we will cease our conversation across space with Rosetta's satellite. No more fly-by postcards from the underworld. No time-delayed messages from the box-robot forever hanging on its cliff. Yes, I'll miss all that. But the scientific stories that Rosetta-Philae gifted us are still being decoded. We will be thumbing the pages of 67P for decades to come. And this space-epic has already become a tale of us at our best, coming together in many languages, to achieve an extraordinary feat. No wonder we painted a face on Philae and begged it to call home. Like the Egyptians, we've daubed this fable on our walls. Rosetta and Philae are celebrated in our poems, rock albums, t-shirts, e-wallpapers, sculptures, cartoons, comet-shoes, installations and origami. They are already legends. As the Pyramid texts promise, 'you have died but you will live.'
* ESA has invited followers of Rosettta & Philae to 'Share your personal experiences and feelings about the mission' on a Rosetta Legacy Page. See: http://rosetta-legacy.tumblr.com/  This blog-post appeared there in September 2016.

Saturday, 2 July 2016


I was moved by pictures of yesterday's 'WE ARE HERE' Somme commemoration. More than 1,500 men appeared in WW1 uniforms in cities around the country. These 'ghost-soldiers' stood around silently in groups and if passing commuters or shoppers tried to talk to them, they handed out a small printed card with the name of a soldier who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It looked powerful on You-Tube clips so what must it have been like to witness it live? Since the 'life' of these dead soldiers was the point. From time to time they broke into a popular song from the WW1 trenches: 'We're here because ... we're here because ... we're here because we're here ...'  The circularity of the song's lyrics, sung to the tune  of Auld Lang's Syne, captures both the weary stoicism of front-line soldiers and the senselessness of the carnage that followed.
Many of these visitations occurred at railway stations, so associated with the transport of troops in 1914-18. Two years ago, I was leading a residential workshop to help members of the public find a way to write letters to the Unknown Soldier of Paddington Station. The Tommy on the plinth was one of 20,000 railworkers who lost their lives in the war. The letter campaign was an initiative launched by 14-18 NOW and supported by Writing East Midlands. Inevitably, it drew in writers who had very personal family histories from that period. And we began on day one of the week's course with the sounds of Paddington Railway station. For myself, this soundscape triggered a poem that, like yesterday's enactment, blurred the boundaries between then and now.

Eyes half-closed, he hears
the pulse of place as a full-tilt stream
that familiar suppressed roar:
a piston's disconnect, whoofs of steam
those far-off whistles piercing
Paddington's glass-domed roof.
And then it's a day at the Somme
the Corporal's whistle insisting on 'NOW!'
A row of Tommies stumble to the top:
one man hesitating, is too slow,
his puteed legs sawing at the mud;
as his head clears the ridge
he slithers back, rifle abandoned
face-down in the trench.
And they are already gone, his comrades
over a weed-straggled field
vanished into shellfire and rain.
Those ruddy whistles – and right on time
the slamming of doors like the rat-a-tat
of machine gun fire; echoing calls,
the distant halloa of a guard
or a Pal down the Line:
boot-falls clattering on duckboard
commuters, day-trippers, the lost patrol
looking for a funk-hole:
a child crying Mumm-eee, lads
on the wire, the tink of mobile phones
metallic clinks high in the eaves
where nesting birds hide.
A tannoy announces a platform change
signal for this marching tide of feet
to work, to war, to the last troop train:
those bleeding whistles again.
Pistons and engines, now as then
sounding their Misere Mei
rising like Brunel's cast-iron girders.
Fractured light in the end-screen's filigree
curling like Tommy's last ciggie:
and after the battlefield, smoke
writhing between the splintered trees.
He listens and remembers it all
the boy on Platform One.