I’m so pleased that for the rest of my life there’s an extra element to the experience of listening to bird song. I can work on how the notes of a thrush might sound like the smell of cold tea with no sugar….
We never pass by an indie bookshop if we can help it but, on arriving in Carlisle last Friday evening on the way to the border, we were actually stopped in the street outside Bookends and directed down a side-alley where this particular shop has a books-and-events cafe to be proud of, and where there was a book launch going on.
‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ what?!
Italo Calvino’s epic adventure in perceptions of reading and writing was devoured by book lovers of every variety when it first came out. At least, the first few pages were. If it has a fault (I think it has two actually) it is that the first few pages are so utterly, delightfully entertaining to booklovers it’s worth buying just for those…
Help, help! I’m months behind schedule and the reading pile’s going up and the money’s going down!
Well I’ve never done this before. The book is Citizen Clem by John Bew. The pic at the top of this article is from the Ken Loach film, Spirit of ’45. When you’ve read this book review, if you’re interested in all the talk of Jeremy Corbyn being like (or not like) Clement Attlee, I suggest you watch that film. It’s probably better than this book, and it’s more likely to contain the information that’s relevant to us today:
I put a status update on Facebook expressing my frustration about all these EU experts around me thinking Brexit is a more important issue than all the lives that are falling apart and being lost around us right now.
Donnachadh McCarthy has been arrested numerous times. Why? He was never a violent man, never a criminal of any kind. He was a classical ballet dancer until a few seconds before someone said “you were supposed to catch him just then.”
One of the things that’s really absorbing about running writing competitions is that you meet and judge works before you know who’s written them, so when I first read a Bruce Harris story during the 2015 competition judging, I didn’t know that was what it was. The story was called ‘Home Movies’, and it’s a brilliantly presented monologue by a teenager who has escaped from A level revision hell and is amusing himself by annoying various friends and relatives by filming them on his phone. We, the readers, get to follow both his inner commentary, and the reactions of those who find themselves being filmed. It’s intricate and utterly absorbing.
And one of the things I particularly enjoy is when two quite different works get put forward to the shortlist and turn out to be by the same author, so it was a real surprise when ‘Roxanne Riding Hood’, a detective-suspense-thriller that creeps up on you via a drag queen going about his/her late night club act business, turned out to be yet another Bruce Harris creation.
Both stories appear in the resulting Earlyworks Press prizewinners’ anthology, Journeys Beyond. It was some time later that Bruce approached me again to say that he had a big enough collection of prize-winning works to put together a collection of his own – and a very sobering reason for wanting to do so. Let’s leave aside the joy of his range of extremely human, often funny, always well-crafted stories, to consider a very common problem of our day and age – all those long-term, sometimes fatal, debilitating illnesses that don’t quite require permanent hospital care and don’t quite get the kind of home-care that makes life easily manageable for friends and relatives of their victims. When Bruce found himself in the situation of carer for a loved one, he set about looking for ways to improve that situation and his new poetry book Kaleidoscope and the story collection Odds Against which we published as an Earlyworks Press title, are part of that project. In both cases, all Bruce’s earnings from the book are going to the Huntingdon’s Disease Association.
But you don’t have to be in a charitable mood to buy them. Bruce’s poetry and stories are, as Booker shortlisted author Wendy Perriman put it, both amusing and uplifting. ‘Odds Against’ offers 15 stories about people doing what they can, in serious and humorous ways, with difficult and sometimes insoluble situations. You will find a young woman, a victim of refugee trafficking, rescuing herself in midnight London, wartime spies trying to adjust to post-war living, restauranteurs trying to survive the horrors of customers, wedding guests exhibiting contrasting takes on a universal situation, ex-lovers manouvering their way to (perhaps) reconciliation a series of consequences of a falling bucket on a building site, and more… all full of the pathos, belly-laughs and heart-wrenching that human life entails.
Buy Kaleidoscope https://www.artificium.co.uk/buy/Kaleidoscope-p86230028 (Proceeds to the HDA)
Buy Odds Against http://www.circaidygregory.co.uk/shortstories.htm (Proceeds to the HDA)
Buy Journeys Beyond http://www.earlyworkspress.co.uk/fiction_index.htm (Journeys Beyond is an anthology by Earlyworks Press competition winners, including Bruce Harris, but is NOT part of the HDA fund-raiser)
One of the many reasons I’d like to recommend Odds Against is that the much-loved Hastings artist Katherine Reekie offered Bruce the choice of images of her works for the cover. He settled on the haunting ‘Icelantic Field’, with its mix of the bleak, the absurd and the beautiful, as the image to speak for Huntingdon’s Disease sufferers and their carers. You can learn more about the Disease, and the HDA association on their website here, see more of Katherine Reekie’s work on her website, here and find out more about Bruce’s work at Harris Central.
Oh, just look what is being advertised on social media. Now, why would an election period where the Tories are angling for the ‘older’ vote be a good time to advertise ‘affordable’ private health provision? And, as with Tory affordable housing, may we ask ‘affordable to whom’?
When we at Earlyworks Press were reading the competition shortlist for the stories that would become our 2015/2016 anthology, The Ball of the Future, one story gave the judges pause for thought. We allow for quite long stories – up to 8000 words, in the Earlyworks Press comps, because we don’t like the idea of the whole world being made up of bite-sized quickies – but when a story weighs in close to that limit, we always look suspiciously for rambling, or poor editing. We found no such with ‘Angela’ by Ann Butler Rowlands. Thoughtful and well crafted, the exactly 8000-word story followed Angela through a lifetime of visits to a Greek island, studying all the flips and troughs of her career and her love-life along the way. It left the reader feeling as though they’d experienced a whole novel – and it stayed in the mind, causing thoughtful pauses – in a good way – for weeks afterwards.
Nevertheless, when I saw that Butler Rowlands had produced a whole book of English-people-on-Greek-island stories, it gave me pause. Could she sustain that style and quality through a whole book? – But she has. It isn’t just that Butler Rowlands makes such a fantastic job of using the light of Greek sun and sea to illuminate a wide range of stories – in some cases it is not the glorious light that illuminates, it is “the silence of the island at night” that “settles on us all…as if it came from the sea.” Nor is it just the variety of tones and moods or the skillful variety of narrative voices that make it special – from the jaded, retired academic to the adopted child feeling, but not understanding, her unremembered early years, from the cultured woman recovering from her husband’s last illness to a gossipy holiday maker thinking herself very superior in a hotel “quiet with self-contained Europeans who don’t need any more friends.”
The book is made special by a sad but intriguing theme: “What happens when the European middle classes come out to play on an upwardly mobile Greek island?” The totality of this set of absorbing and self-contained stories is the biography of an island with a bad attack of mixed humans. One of my favourites is the story of Sevasti, who was born into a pre-tourist era Greek community and “Galia” (the locals can’t pronounce “Gloria”) who makes a career of being, first the glamorous blonde on someone’s yacht and eventually a world famous model. It is questionable how much the two women really understand each other’s lives, as Sevasti finds her way to an education, a business and an accommodation with the modern world unfurling around her whilst Galia travels in the opposite direction, eventually consumed by the impossible demands professional glamour make on a woman. But despite the little they have in common, the empathy between them, and Sevasti’s quiet acknowledgement of Galia’s tragedy within the glamour, give the story its truly stunning strength.
Each of the stories is headed by snippets of Butler Rowlands’ own translations of C P Cavafy’s poems, and my favourite sits between Galia’s story and that of the adopted child – perfectly, I think, because it speaks to both of them:
I shall make myself a fabulous caparison…
…no-one will know
…where I am wounded…
Heaven. The title of the book is Heaven – both in the slightly silly way one says ‘Heaven’ when greeting a holiday vista and in the awestruck way that one responds to the numinous. Just think about the endless variety of reasons people with a bit of money to hand might dash off and bury themselves in a Greek idyll, and you’ll understand why these stories are a natural mix of the funny, the dangerous, the farcical and the deeply thought-provoking. If you enjoy exploring the spectrum of human experience, you’ll love Heaven by Ann Butler Rowlands.