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Writing Blog

Becoming the Professional Writer

“When you can’t create, then you can work.”

tropic_of_capricorn_henryMillerThat’s one of Henry Miller’s eleven rules for the writer which I keep on my desk. I’d always interpreted it as ‘if you can’t write new stuff, then edit old stuff, finish off something’. Essentially, still writing. But since reading David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea I’ve also interpreted it as taking non-writing actions to progress a life of writing.

In his book about finding one’s purpose/identity in one’s work, Whyte talks about his own journey from young biology graduate, Galapagos island guide, through non-profit organizer, to a poet, writer and poet-philosopher of purpose. One of the things he decided to do, when he knew he could not longer not make writing his central activity, was to do one thing a day for a year to make that happen.

So I thought: what a good idea.

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Poetry, Readings, Writing, Writing Blog

Performance at Eat our Words: Newcastle Eat Festival!

IXjyirssr_K77rWODj20GMIJV6MEwBVXg44Jwe9kK1YAs one of a baker’s dozen or so writers, I performed a couple of short pieces on the theme of either tea, cheese or cake as part of the Speakeasy Salon, which itself was tucked up like a layer of cream and jam in the Eat! Festival. Big thanks to Chloe Daykin and Helen Limon for the organisational wonders, and for the audience member who ate my vegan carrot cake and didn’t either spit it out or die.4cJ-G2l1MFN7i6EZsVtF69LsNpU1JXnEHA1da6m7A9o

Here’s the four pieces I wrote for the event, only two of which were read out (guess which ones).

 

Sugar

Each morning before lunch, after he’d swept the floor to earn money for schooling, Gwale would go out to the garden and climb the avocado tree and pick us the best fruits for our dessert. I was terrified of the tree, not for its height, which was larger than I ever imagined, ignorant of how avocados grew, but for the lace of web dipping between branches, the potency of the arachnids who lived amongst places where, if I were stuck, which I knew, from my childhood climbing our plum tree, could happen, I would have to face their brown scurry. My colleagues, mostly Zambian, ate their avocados sprinkled with sugar, as we do grapefruit. It was many years later, while reading Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar and finally realising that Miss Shug meant Miss Sugar, that I understood what sugar might mean to Africans, and why my colleague Siviwe put between fifteen and twenty teaspoons of sugar in each cup of tea, each morning and afternoon, right up until his disappearance, only noticing he had gone when his avocado halves remained un-sprinkled and uneaten.

First Date with Oysters (based on crimes committed by the author)

It could not have gone any better. You squealed with something near delight when you saw it was Planet Hollywood, our table under the Sinatra, the very finest of the plastic memorabilia. You squeezed my arm when I told the waiter to ‘come on, fill the glass up, I’m not paying for a dribble’. Sure the king prawns were a little crunchy, but wasn’t that the fun bit? You laughed perhaps too hard when I took the chilli bowl, not the ginger, to clear my palate. And okay, Tabasco is not for snorting. Perhaps I should’ve known that blue meant red, that corked didn’t mean unopened, that sweetbreads weren’t, well, sweet bread. But none of that mattered. It could not have gotten any better. And then it did. Big, grey, gloopy oysters for dessert, I gobbled greedily. ‘But we didn’t order Oysters,’ you said, not touching your plate.

The Kindness of Strangers (also a true story)

No-wonder Dunja did not date Westerners. In the fat of the war, as Milosevic besieged Sarajevo and every other city across Bosnia, the West, sending convoys to her aid, did not discriminate in the foods they sent. To Tuzla, sixty days under the sniper, arrived one morning in a Red Cross-bartered ceasefire, three trucks from Catalonia filled with sodium chloride. The white stuff, seasoning, vinegar’s other half, life’s essential solution-reactor, and, thought Spain, foodstuff’s symbolic saviour. Of course, Tuzla is the only city in Europe with its own salt lake. In Ottoman Turkish, it means ‘salt’. So the Tuzlans, under the eyes of the Red Cross and unbelieving snipers, poured those truckloads straight into the Pannonian. (And Ivana from Croatia, I soon discovered, was more amenable to the gut flora of foreigners.)

Obituary for a fillet steak

My friend, Cow 269, a Belgian Blue,
Who passed nine days ago at target weight,
Of fourteen-hundred pounds minus his hide.
Who was once sprayed with silver paint by teens
Causing trouble for grazing on’t Town Moor,
And who rubbed his nose against a lamppost
To cheer on my Park Run personal best.
Was this week fed to a hundred diners
At Blackfriars. He was clipped in a crush
as I clip my own hair. Stunned, cut up, cured.
He is survived, for now, by ten billion more.

Activism, Writing

Lee Halpin was too young to die for a story – even one that needed telling

This article was originally published on the Guardian Northerner Blog

I am angry with Lee Halpin. I am angry because, as a journalism educator and as a friend, I cannot get my head around his loss. He was too young to give his life away in pursuit of a story – even one that needed telling. He needed to make this film. As many have said in their tributes, he was a brave journalist with necessary and original things to say.

Lee HalpinI met Lee during a writing workshop three years ago. He was feisty, generous with his comments, nattily dressed, interested in the voices of others. When Lee and his friend Kerry Kitchin launched the arts and culture magazine Novel, I asked them to run a journalism class for me. Lee commanded the room of aspiring writers with an attention to detail and maturity that belied his age – he was only 24 at the time.

Lee was not my student, but he was a courageous journalist who was willing to tackle difficult stories by placing himself in dangerous and frightening situations. I wish he had been my student – maybe then we would have talked about fearlessness in covering a story.

Lee was investigating the rise in homelessness and the repercussions of the ‘bedroom tax’ in the North East. His body was found in a derelict hostel on Westgate Road in the city’s West End. He was following the story as part of a call by Channel 4’s Dispatches on ‘fearless journalism’ to win a 12-month contract. He had set out to “sleep rough, scrounge for my food, interact with homeless people and immerse myself in that lifestyle as deeply as I can”.

Lee believed the issue of homelessness was “politically, socially and culturally” important, especially in the region. Official figures from March show homelessness has increased 10% in the last year and, according to his contact at the Crisis Centre in the city, the figure of those sleeping rough had risen by 31%.

Socrates defined courage as the knowledge of what is and is not to be feared; not every fear should be ignored. Perhaps those who had slept rough all winter knew it was too cold a night to stay out – Lee had earlier put out a tweet for a sleeping bag. Perhaps they knew better than to sleep in derelict buildings. The cause of death has not yet been found – but it is certain his fearlessness contributed to his death.

I came up against my own limits as a journalist when I was offered a role in Palestine. I didn’t go, partly because of fear of the situation. I am now trying to understand what has happened to Lee for my students, who I want to encourage to be curious, courageous journalists. Where is the boundary? When is fear a good fear? How do you combine fearlessness with safety, with knowing when to step away? In his final video for the competition Lee said his approach “certainly feels brave from where I’m sitting now”. He cannot be criticised for that. But I’m still angry with him for it.

“Trash the supplements, trash the columnists, fire the editorial writers but don’t fire the frontline reporters,” said Andrew Marr in 2008, awarding another friend and fearless reporter, the Times’ Deborah Haynes, with her investigative journalism award into the plight of Iraqi translators working with the British.

Lee was a frontline reporter at the beginning of his career. I am angry with Lee for dying before that career developed, before we could learn from his work, or invite him to come and inspire future journalism students.

It is not lasting anger, of course. It is sadness. And more than both, it is admiration for Lee’s work and his sacrifice in wanting to tell this story that often goes unnoticed, about homelessness and vulnerable people. Homeless people do die in the cold. If we only identify Lee’s death as tragic because he was a journalist who didn’t need to be there, then we will not have listened to his story.

Picture (C) North News and Pictures

Novel Writing, On Reading, Writing Blog

Notes on Stucture: Andrew Miller’s Pure

Andrew Miller’s Pure was the 2011 Costa Book of the Year. Set a few years before the French Revolution of 1789, it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, and engineer, who is given the job of removing the cemetery of Les Innocents from Paris. Removing it complete, as it has become a physical and psychical stain on the city.

It’s a wonderful premise set in a turbulent time. But there’s something not quite right with the book. On the PhD at Newcastle, we were recently given a seminar by the prose playwright and senior lecturer Margaret Wilkinson on structure and narrative pace, taught how to be better readers-as-writers.

Margaret’s lesson is that there should be a few essential elements in each novel:

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Activism, Writing

Watching videos of Madonna

The library was in Ashburton Park, round the corner from where we grew up. I went there and rode my skateboard down the small slopes, travelling further and faster than I ever had before. It was in the small gardens outside the library where me and Maryann first split up; got back together; split up again. I remember the library as foreboding. But that wasn’t a kid word. That was a word I must have picked up later.

My sister was bunking off on days she had Mr Moore. Had her first period in his class. He stopped her going to the loo. So she went to the park, hung around the library. It had dirty red brick walls and its entrance was behind gates in the children’s playground, full of mums in sportsgear with loud voices and needling movements. My sister didn’t usually go in. When it rained she stood under the bandstand, if no kids were drinking or smoking there. She took my Nan’s Catherine Cookson’s back though, if they were late. But she didn’t borrow books. She liked watching videos of Madonna.

Sitting under the horse chestnut my sister had a view of the pond and the buses to Beckenham. She also had a view of the lane that led to our house so she could see if mum came along. Mum was the reader. She got me into the library and fantasy, the Belgariad and the ones with the Ws in the title (Wizards and the War Guild the one I remember). Libraries were posh and unknown then, like kisses. I came to like both. I believed in books even if I didn’t believe in myself. The library loaned it to me.

I learnt later my sister never had a library card. It was during a dinner with her boyfriend George who buttoned his shirt to the top and ‘didn’t drink anymore’ and told us my sister was afraid of the library. Not like her smart little brother, he said, and I felt ashamed for what I’d believed in. Her little brother who was reading Hornblower and throwing his smartness in her face. I don’t remember doing that. Maybe I did. I doubt I was any less cruel than the next kid. My sister was bullied since thirteen. It turned out, I discovered later, she was dyslexic, and never learnt to read.

(First published at Writers For Libraries, a campaign to protest Newcastle City Council’s proposals to close 10 out of the city’s 18 libraries, as well as other leisure services such as swimming pools, and to cut 100% of its support for the arts.)

Image (c) Shemer

Momentary Affects, Writing

Seeing Red

A group of four sit down in the corner with their porridge and orange juices. I looked up from what I was writing, and saw the one with green hair take off her coat. She looked like an old girlfriend of mine, when I lived in Brighton. Except this girl had bright green hair. But it looked like her. I kept looking. We caught a glance every now and then, but there was no recognition. If it was her, she had changed a little but still looked young, full of beans (she used to call me ‘bean’, it was a positive association), but what made me think it was her more than anything was that she was clearly the centre of a loving and calm and sweet group of people.

It was her. I was sure. Not quite. But then my body knew before I did. A brick wall went up. Although I wasn’t sure it was her, I also couldn’t imagine that she didn’t recognise me. I had changed less—she had green hair. But I recognised her in going off to brush her teeth, and then passing on that toothbrush and paste to a friend, and in the small dance she did on returning from the bathroom. A sudden engulfing of the cafe, slowly, not dramatically, but an isolation from the other coordinates. The music, my work. I was in my mood—my body. Something between shock and regret. I realised I was writing about a character who has a sudden paralysis. It felt like that. The location was at the Eiffel Tower (in my book), a scene from another relationship, where L fell faint in the lift on the way down. It felt like that. Not claustrophobic, but focused, tight, too tight.

I googled. A Riot Grrrl event in Newcastle today. So yes, it was her. A surging pulse, like hitting a wave, or being hit by a wave, and coming up for air, and then being hit by the next one, although the wave hadn’t stopped. More shock, more regret.

It was because I couldn’t remember how we’d left it, although it hadn’t been good. We’d seen each other for six months, moved in together, but it never worked well. She was queer—this was how she identified herself—and it made me angry. We both held responsibility for getting into something that wasn’t right for either of us. But her way out was to slink away, to always be doing, shifting, moving, acting. Positively. To do little proactive harm on the way to the exit. That left me as the one being left. At the end a friend of hers was staying over most nights on the sofa. Not just a friend, I guessed. Now it comes to remember, I can’t even recall how it ended. Just a few righteous emails after, from both of us, setting the record straight at a disintermediated remove.

It was also because it was an obvious statement on where I am now. Not wanting to hurt K any more by… well. K has given me another chance. We are close, close friends. I am not going to risk that. In the past I’ve made so many poor, irritated, broken decisions that have meant the investment in a relationship, friendships as well as intimacies, have all ended without contact. I don’t want to keep doing that.

[UPDATE: I emailed her instead. It wasn’t her. Just a doppelganger. What does it say about me, anything more than what I’ve written above, that I created this situation—now, six years ago, and since—and needed to feel those things, that shock, that regret, almost as if this were a parable or lesson for how to act; what to do next? It was a scene from the future.]