A SPACE to Call Your Own

One of my projects is volunteering with Writers’ Centre Norwich for a project called SPACE. I am part of a team of volunteers who run weekly creative writing workshops for young people. It’s a lot of fun and more rewarding than can be easily described without resorting to cliches.

Here are some words I wrote about it, originally posted on the WCN website here.


The final frontier…

These are the voyages of–


OK that may not have worked as an opening gambit. Cheesy? Yup. Obvious? Check. Likely to pass some people by? Sure. Still, the first thing I learned from SPACE is that you have to dive in headfirst. Your ideas might not work out, but don’t play it safe: go for gold. I realised this a few seconds after standing in front of my first class. The group consisted of thirty disinterested young people who hadn’t expected to be there at all (their teacher had seized the opportunity to take a period off).

I came into SPACE expecting to regularly be terrified, and in that respect I was disappointed: I skipped past terror straight to fatalism.

My opening of ‘hi everyone, today we’re going to write poetry’ was not hugely successful. Following that up with a willingness to make a fool of myself was, however, much more effective.

In retrospect I recognise that feeling of ‘sod it, there’s only my self-respect at stake’ from some of my own teachers. Since my first day with SPACE I haven’t been particularly scared of anything. Except for clowns and the future and all that.

What does volunteering with SPACE involve? Step one is to identify what you can contribute.

I’m a writer, like many SPACE volunteers, and I write flash fiction. Flash fiction refers to very short stories, often under a hundred words. Part of my ‘pitch’ at my interview was that writing flash fiction would help young people overcome the difficulties I faced when trying to write at their age. These difficulties were overwriting and not finishing my stories. I found overwriting discouraging because I would write page after page without getting anywhere. With so much effort required to achieve so little, I would always give up before the end.

The flash fiction workshops we’ve run have aimed to get the young people thinking about what is essential to a story and what is superfluous. Hopefully they avoid overwriting and the pace of their story is enough to see them through to the end.

Step two works quite differently: now you know the young people you’re working with. You need to tailor the sessions to fit their needs. It’s no longer about delivering what you’re good at: it’s about finding something new outside your comfort zone that will help them best.

Next week we’re running a workshop on poetry. I never write poems and the list of poems I enjoy is quite short.

Regardless, I’m excited about this session. We’re stealing an exercise one of my friends used in their workshop. My friend got the group to cut up a ‘boring’ poem (‘The Whitsun Weddings’ by Philip Larkin) and, with copious application of Pritt Stick, rearrange it into something new. The combination of scissors (note to self: definitely safety scissors), glue and literary vandalism was a big success.

Building up a regular group at our weekly session at Gorleston library has taken a bit of work, but it has paid off with a group of really enthusiastic, talented and friendly young people. It is encouraging to see that they all have the same problems I had, so I can help them out no problem, right?

Well, it isn’t quite as easy as that. Problems I currently face when trying to write include:
Lack of confidence.
Feeling I’m not getting anywhere.
Struggling to finish stories.

Eh. All familiar obstacles, but ones I’m getting better at overcoming. Running these sessions benefits me as much as I hope it benefits our group of young people. It’s easy to be inspired to write after an afternoon with such talented young people.

Find out more about SPACE and hear from other volunteers.

Myths of the Near Future

I got  a story published in a magazine last week. It’s in an e-zine called Myths of the Near Future and it’s only £1.85 from amazon: http://amzn.to/1oMAYhs

The story is called AUTOMATON and is in fact already posted on this blog here. So you can read my story for free, but it’s definitely worth getting the magazine anyway. There’s some fantastic poetry in there.

Thank you Myths and NAWE for liking my story! Check out the NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) website for lots of useful things including events, jobs, writing opportunities…

Album Review: These New Puritans, ‘Field of Reeds’


The last album review for now, though I’m going to post a book review or two now, so there will be some genuine new content on my blog. That hasn’t happened for a while.

These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds (Infectious Music) 

This is different to their last album; These New Puritans make that very clear. You can tell it from the album title, art and track names. Contrast Hidden’s ‘We Want War’ with ‘The Light In Your Name’ and you’ll see what I mean. The band have moved away from booming drums and darkness towards something softer. Not any more accessible or less complex, though.

For an album of this complexity, however, you’d expect more emotional depth than what Field Of Reeds offers. The album is bleak and the prevailing mood is restlessness. Woodwind, piano and strings move erratically in and out of the composition on top of ambient noise. Other than ‘V (Island Song)’ and ‘Organ Eternal’ the tracks don’t seem to go anywhere, just shuffle about.

The album is obtuse, so the question needs to be asked: is there the pay-off to reward a listener’s effort? If you appreciated the enigma of their last album then you’ll enjoy that Field Of Reeds also rewards repeated listens. You’ll have to work for your reward, though, as These New Puritans don’t easily give up their secrets and don’t care if you don’t like it.

Unfortunately I think that most people will just find empty fields. I’ll give it another listen, though; maybe I just don’t get it yet.


Album Review: Hugh Laurie, ‘Didn’t it Rain’


And yet another from here

Hugh Laurie – Didn’t It Rain

First thought: oh wow it’s Hugh Laurie.

Second thought: three of the first four tracks are called ‘something blues’.

These are clearly the thoughts of someone who hasn’t listened to much blues or jazz, but many people who listen to this album aren’t going to be well versed in American blues; they just saw Hugh Laurie on the cover. And, if you’re looking for an introduction to some American musical styles, having him give you a hand surely can’t hurt.

It’s a surprise then when the vocals begin nearly three minutes into the opening track sung by Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno. There are a quite a few guest singers on the album and their different styles add a nice variety to the tracks. Just because this is Hugh Laurie’s project doesn’t mean it’s a chance for him to show off. He often takes the back seat to the guests and Copper Bottom Band. It’s more like a collaborative album with Hugh Laurie in than an album of Hugh Laurie.

Didn’t It Rain takes you on a journey through American music that visits a cross-section of different styles. Calling it beginner-friendly might be reductive, but it serves as a good introduction to American jazz and blues. Those interested would do well to start here.



Album Review: Magic Arm, ‘Images Rolling’


Album review number 4. You can also see it here.

Magic Arm – Images Rolling (Switchflicker/Peacefrog)

What’s the most productive thing you’ve ever done while moving house? My guess would be actually managing to move house. That would be enough for most people. Magic Arm’s sole member, multi-instrumentalist Marc Rigelsford, used the time to make an album, setting up a studio in his new house as its occupants moved out. Not that you’d tell from listening to it; Images Rolling is full of layered nuances. You’d expect the band to be at least five or six members strong.

The music itself has a sense of empty space created by low-key piano, violin, synth and vocals. You can imagine empty rooms waiting to be filled. Not always waiting with optimism, though. ‘I want a great life’ is the simple chorus for ‘Great Life’, but Marc Rigelsford doesn’t sound too hopeful about that. His flat vocals accentuate that, and continue in a similar way for the rest of the tracks.

This isn’t a gloomy album, however. In ‘Tonight I Walk’ the melancholy lyrics ‘tonight I walk alone/each and every step leaves me wanting more’ are contrasted by more optimistic music, while the opening track ‘Put Your Collar Up’ constantly surprises you with changes.

Overall the album is a subtle and compelling listen, something well worth spending some time with.



Album Review: Screaming Maldini, ‘Screaming Maldini’


This review was first published here on outlineonline.co.uk.

Screaming Maldini – Screaming Maldini (HipHipHip)

Screaming Maldini’s debut LP takes quirkiness to dangerous levels. ‘Life in Glorious Stereo’ approaches Disney soundtrack territory with lyrics like ‘These city walls are echoing with the song of the Earth / Life in glorious stereo is wonderful’, while on ‘Secret Sounds’ the band try their best kookaburra impressions.

Overall the album has the feel of a festival. It’s relentlessly upbeat and almost every song has a ‘whoa-oh’ or three to sing along to. Opening track ‘The Awakening’ certainly lives up to its name, setting a pace for the album that never slows down for long. With its rapid-fire lyrical delivery and wall of sound guitars and synth it is a hectic track. Like a festival there are all sorts of different noises going on in this wall of sound; the band often take a ‘play all the instruments loudly at the same time’ approach.

All this upbeat quirkiness can get a bit grating. Or maybe I’m the only one who finds the song title ‘I Know That You Know That I Would Wipe Away The Snowflake From Your Eyes’ annoying? (For one thing, it would have to be a pretty big snowflake to be in both of your eyes). Actually, that probably is just me. If you’re in the neighbourhood for feel-good summer silliness with trumpets, try this album.


Album Review: Dr Scardo, ‘Dark Dog Days’


Another album review, originally posted here.

Dr Scardo – Dark Dog Days (Resonator Records)

Subtlety is not something you often find in politically-inclined bands, and Dr Scardo are no exception. Right out of the gate that sets up Dark Dog Days as an album that many people won’t need to even listen to in order to dislike. If you think Margaret Thatcher was a great prime minister who did What Needed To Be Done for Britain then this will not appeal to you, possibly no matter how big a fan of contemporary alternative rock you are.

If the political and social commentary isn’t a problem then Simon Scardanelli’s latest band project are definitely worth a listen. Funky bass lines, judicious use of synth and the occasional big chorus make for compelling listening. The songs edge a bit on the long side but at eight tracks the album delivers its message without labouring the point. Lyrics vary between incisive to overdone (“Costa not fucking coffee and Starsucks”… Starsucks? Really?) but are generally insightful or brutally honest.

While ‘Leave Us Alone’ and ‘End of the World’ make good singles, the most representative song is the nine-minute title track. The band lay down a groove over which Scardanelli delivers half-sung social commentary. It finishes with the gem “Thatcher’s ghostie stalks the corridors of power and she’s not even dead yet”. Unfortunate timing, perhaps, but I don’t think Dr Scardo will mind too much.


Album Review: Team Ghost, ‘Rituals’


This is a review I wrote some time ago for outlineonline.co.uk, here. I’ve actually posted the review on this blog already but the way it was formatted was really annoying so I’m reposting it. Look for more music and book reviews being posted soon!

Team Ghost / Rituals (w-Sphere) 

Rituals for what? I’m not sure but it’s probably something sinister. There are certainly a few kinds of ghost lurking in this album and I don’t think many of them are friendly. ‘Somebody’s watching/it turns me on’ sing the lyrics to ‘Somebody’s Watching’. At its best the album is gothic shoegaze that drives along with a fierce energy that never quite reaches a catharsis, while at its worst it sags into pure atmospherics. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but tracks like the opener ‘Away’, ‘Curtains’ and the excellent ‘Dead Film Star’ achieve the atmosphere of a haunted house while channelling the energy of a poltergeist. Other tracks are haunted by more passive-aggressive ghosts, the kind that leave messages with fridge magnets like an irritated flatmate.

After a great start the album slows down for a few tracks and then explodes with guitar noise at the end of ‘All We Left Behind’. It tries to do what the opening track did but not quite so well. You put all of your best songs in the first half of the album guys. And yes, everyone does that, but the end result is an album of really good, atmospheric songs that begins to fade out around the half-way point. A bit like white noise, but not the regular sort: the stuff from that film, with ghosts in the static.


Home Alone

A friend recently sent me a link to a cool little tumblr site called FlashFrights. Flash fiction? Horror? It’s the perfect combination, like garlic and bread. They only post stories that are two sentences long. I wrote one called ‘Home Alone’ and they posted it. It’s a two sentence version of ‘Responsibility’, a story I wrote a while ago for Naflafiwrimo (here).

Here’s the site and here’s my story.

Restriction breeds creativity and I like this restriction. I’m going to try to write some more!


Built to Last

I was involved recently in a project called 26 for Norwich, in which 26 writers from 26.org.uk teamed up with 26 students and graduates from UEA to research 26 different writers from Norwich. I worked with Jane Chittenden to research Mary Mann, a writer who is criminally under-appreciated.  CRIMINALLY. Someone needs to be arrested. Jane wrote about her, and you can read that here.

I wrote a story inspired by Mary Mann and the time Jane and I spent in the archives in Norwich looking through her old letters, photos and manuscripts. Of course, as Mann wrote stories about rural Norfolk life around 1890-1920, based on the stories of people who lived around her, mainly poverty-stricken farmers, I decided to write a sci-fi story.

You can read it on the website for the project, along with loads of other stuff inspired by writers from Julian of Norwich to Ian McEwan.

It’s called Built to Last, have a look here.