Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Lost Girl" by J. R. Summer

This is a mesmerising book. The cliché unputdownable is very apt here, but it is no cliché. I could not put his book down until I’d finished it. It intoxicates the reader as it delves into the trauma that is Bi-Polar Disorder. The condition is wrought clear to the reader as the Lost Girl of the title, Rebecca, suffers and self-harms her way through the story whilst high on recreational drugs and drink or low on her prescription drugs. Her case is extreme yes, but so relatable. Suffering under an abusive father and an alcoholic mother when her sister was taken away from her home, she has faced crisis after personal crisis, from childhood through to the current time.

She is able to hide the reality of the crisis that her life is from everyone, even her caring sister. Her whole life is a lie and we recognise this as the writing is so clever.

Her life now is tinged with violence and aggression. She metes it out but also welcomes it and she falls under the spell of an unsuitable married man where sex seems like everything, though she wants more. She follows him to Tokyo and her life spirals out of control as he rejects her, and she pursues a course with terrifying consequences.

Told in first person we really do feel her pain and live through the descriptions of the disaster that is her personal life.

My only problem is the ending, too abrupt and with too many things unresolved, though in a way that is also perfect as we can decide what happens to Rebecca after her final act of defiance.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 65. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for 20 years and coached girls & women’s basketball for over 30 years. He regularly teaches at Creative Writing workshops in and around Leicester. He takes notes for students with special needs at Leicester University. For his Creative Writing MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He is also writing a crime series set in the Great War and the early Twenties. The first part, Poppy Flowers at the Front was published by Brigand Press, London in March 2020. You can read a review of it here

Monday, 12 October 2020

Review by Matthew Bright of "The Fear Talking" by Chris Westoby

A prologue to this review: I come from the same small town as the author; his older brother (who appears in The Fear Talking) was my friend through primary school; I got on the same bus, followed the same tortuously long route to the same college, studied the same subjects with the same tutors. Even the music overlaps to a startling degree. Reading this memoir was chock full of moments of incredibly specific recognition, from the pathways and hideaways around Barton and the Humber to the unnerving shock of being addressed with your name by the college principal you'd never met. But not only those—as a reader whose own adolescence and early adulthood suffered more than its share of anxiety there were so many other moments that resounded, seemed familiar: the constant imagining of worst-case outcomes; the excuses planned out weeks ahead; the endless, endless calculations. All of which is a long-winded way to say that reading The Fear Talking was a profoundly moving and uniquely personal experience for me, but what follows is—as best I can—a review for everyone else.

The Fear Talking begins when the memoirist, Chris Westoby, is sixteen years old. September brings with it the start of a new routine: an hour-long journey in a dusty, packed bus across country to Leggott College. But at the same time Chris is suffering from building, debilitating anxiety and the routine swiftly becomes something else: a nervous, nauseated journey to college only to return by the next bus if he's lucky, or on less good days he will let the bus go by and he'll while away the hours tramping around the fields surrounding Barton until he can safely go home and claim it's an 'early day, remember?' He obsesses constantly about digestion—worries in every situation that he might be about to experience a bout of vomiting or diarrhoea, plans every situation by his distance from a bathroom; this builds into a fixation on germs and cleanliness and a quasi-religious fixation with being 'punished.' His inability to articulate how pervasive the anxiety is complicates his relationships with those around him—his parents, his girlfriend, his friends.

The blurbs on the inside of the cover focus on The Fear Talking as a memoir of anxiety and its benefit to readers who wish to understand living with anxiety as the author has. In that regard The Fear Talking does a superlative job; it strikes the tricky balance of using repetition (the cycle of envisioning worst-case scenarios; the obsessive planning of timings to avoid disaster; the counting of tablets; the protective rituals)  to create an immersive sense of what it feels like to live this way. Footnotes run throughout as a bubbling ever-present sub-narrative that insert a litany of worries into mundane moments. On a purely practical-writer level, it's an astonishing feat to maintain this without it becoming frustrating to read; instead it conveys a deep sense of exactly how exhausting it is. Much of the tension of The Fear itself derives from the author's inability to articulate his feelings to those around him, but as a memoir it does an inarguably vivid job of putting it into words. As a window into the experience of anxiety for those who have never experienced it in this way, it's illuminating; as a reflection for those who may be experiencing it without yet having words to explain it, it's invaluable.

Beyond this, though, The Fear Talking is also an adept picture of adolescence;  if the idea of a mental health memoir isn't something that might ordinarily catch your interest, Westoby is also telling a vivid coming-of-age story. It's richly detailed, well-observed and often very funny. He has a light touch in creating the 'characters' that thread throughout—especially in capturing both the crassness and subtleties of teenage boys and their friendships—and in building the small-but-significant defeats and victories that mark the path. Tensions rise between the author and both his girlfriend and his parents, the latter in particular skilfully handled. His sometimes-strained relationship with Emma is rife with complex contradictions—she is both support and catalyst for anxiety—and Westoby certainly cuts himself no slack. A note at the end thanks his parents for supporting him in writing a book that could 'only hurt to read,' but their inability to understand while still trying to help is sympathetic and moving. For a story that is so much about being scared, this is writing at its most fearless.

About the reviewer
Matthew Bright is a writer, editor and designer who's never sure what order to put those in. His fiction has appeared in Tor, Nightmare, Lightspeed, among others, and collected in his Lambda Literary Award finalist collection Stories To Sing In The Dark (Lethe Press, 2019). He is the editor of a number of anthologies and by day works as a book designer. With Christopher Black, he's co-author of the experimental novella Between the Lines, which was reviewed here. You can find him at @mbrightwriter on twitter, or

Monday, 5 October 2020

Review by Laura Besley of "Seventy Percent Water" by Jeanette Sheppard


In the title story of her debut flash fiction collection, Seventy Percent Water, Jeanette Sheppard describes how a woman’s body transforms from the usual seventy percent water to a hundred percent after a relationship ends. ‘In the sea she reformed and swam away from the storm.’ 

Sheppard has a natural flair for the obscure. In 'Trumpets,' a woman who wanted her arms to be more ‘finely tuned’ ends up with trumpets for arms. On the surface this is a piece dealing with the practical repercussions of having arms that no longer bend and are made of cold metal, but in reality it’s about the deterioration of her relationship. ‘This morning, as he left for work, I saw him glance at my brass arms and swallow a sigh.’ 

Although there is a wide variety of stories, it is in her stories about old age and all the frustrations and fears that come with that – for both the older person, and those caring for them – that Sheppard truly shines. 

In 'Mirror in the Bird Bath,' the main character puts her mirror in the bird bath because ‘the new one at physio said you had to adapt to your circumstances’ and ‘she had dementia, she knew that, but it didn’t make her a fool’; rage ignites in 'Kindling' at the main character’s brother who takes no responsibility for the care of their mother; in 'Domestic Fairy Tale,' the main character’s ‘mother lays in her hospital bed, reading over and over the two sheets of A4 … attached to the cupboard doors explaining where she is,’ as her care plan is discussed, just out of earshot; 'The Last Time I visited My Mum' hits hard when the mother produces a photo, saying ‘Look, it’s my daughter!’ 

Seventy Percent Water is an accomplished debut flash fiction collection with rich imagery and beautiful language. 

About the reviewer

Laura Besley is a full-time mum to two young boys and squeezes her writing time into the bookends of her day. She has recently been listed by TSS Publishing as one of the top 50 British and Irish Flash Fiction writers with her story ‘On Repeat’ (Reflex Fiction). Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020 and her collection of micro fiction, 100neHundred, will be published in May 2021. She tweets @laurabesley

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Review by Sarah James of "Dressing for the Afterlife" by Maria Taylor

Even just a few poems into Maria Taylor’s Dressing for the Afterlife, I realise there are many options for how to approach this collection, many themes and threads that I can trace through it.

The opening ‘Prologue’ gives us dressing for the afterlife as learning to 'breathe again,' having stepped into the moment where 'you ended a former existence / and zipped yourself into the unknown.'

The examples of possible outfits to wear hint at the poems to come, as does the opening poem ‘She Ran’ with its list of things run past, the poet having taken up running at the age of forty. This culminates, as summer turns to autumn, with:

          I couldn’t get as far as I wanted.
          The lights changed. My ribs, my flaming heart
          and my tired, tired body burned.

In many ways, the following similarly beautifully pared, moving (and also at times humorous) poems enact and extend this opening, taking the reader through personal past experiences. Some read like the poet’s own; others feature advice, adopted voices and celebrity lives. The book closes with a counterpart to the opening poem ‘Woman Running Alone.’

Afterlife here is not what happens after death but the afterlives within this life, especially women as they age. 

          In summer I was a night-blooming flower.
          By autumn I was a hangover. Winter made me
          a Wall-Street Crash.

I used the word ‘personal’ earlier but this collection is personal in a universal sense, borrowing others’ clothes (experiences) and drawing out wider similarities and significances. This poem, 'I Began the Twenty-Twenties as a Silent Film Goddess,' is a film star talking (in industry terms), but it’s the continuing experience too of many other women now.

For me, Dressing for the Afterlife is also about finding, or reinventing, an individual’s sense of ‘self’ against this and many other backgrounds.

          I trespassed.
          At night I found myself ice-skating
          into someone else’s life.

I can read this poem ('Awake in His Castle') in a Bluebeard sense, but I feel it also chimes at a real life level – in trying to establish and make sense of individual identity, power dynamics and dangers at play all around us.

Another reading of the collection, not unconnected to that above and completely fitting with running, is the sense of everything in continuous flow. Water is a recurring image. 

‘The Floating Woman’ is a memorial to Lauren Stephen, half-sister of Virginia Woolf. The poignant Ophelia-like imagery has death / suicide as a sense of ‘returning’ to water, and life as rivers poured over the narrator. Everything feels fluid, form-changing, transient. This also applies to language: 'how every word / turned into water.'

Meanwhile, in 'The Fields,' 'rain dissolves / a  landscape you thought familiar' and the poem observes 'your place in this world an ever-shifting thing.'

Flow is present too in life’s dance and our steps of learning: 'We dance to learn about a part of ourselves / books can’t teach; it’s what our parents expect' (‘Learning the Steps’). In this case, that includes the moves of old island lives and leaping like salmon (water and flow), 'trying to catch scent of home, / as music pours through speakers like flood.'

It’s also in the passing and nature of time:

         People vanish into thin air every single day,
         even ghosts fade in time ….
         You’re no different. Look, here’s your own reflection.

More than this though, it’s in the pace of the lines, the use of recurring motifs, choices of line-breaks and punctuation, including the end of ‘Mr. Alessi Cuts the Grass.’ Here, a noise like a neighbour pushing 'something larger than dreams / over concrete' expands into a whole poem that ends on the full-flow leaving open of all possibilities of 'but for a moment –'

That the final poem of the collection ends with a similar dash is even more significant in these terms, as well as inviting the reader to re-submerge themselves in the collection, re-reading for more possibilities.  

Other strong elements for me in Dressing for the Afterlife include romantic hopes and family love, and with them the sense of belonging, or not belonging (as present in some of the poems already quoted).

In ‘The Distance,’ the narrator’s family can’t get the hang of England, as lives are scattered into flats, people calling to each other from balconies instead of olive groves:

         Years later I throw open my windows to rain
         knowing my aunt’s echoes won’t travel the distance,
         I’m here, I say to water, can’t you shout any louder?

Meanwhile, in ‘Role Model,’ famous and seemingly glamorous potential role models are rejected for the woman next-door with 'a walk that says I know where I’m going.' 

And yes, all these loop back and together with the elements of water, dance steps, the essence of ‘self,’ the nature of life, society and time: 'Maybe time moves like a figure of eight, / surging forwards then back on itself' (‘Loop’).

That poetry can, maybe even has to, exist outside of time is evident hopefully in the scope of what I’ve already quoted. Imagination does too and this is inherent in many of Taylor’s poems here, including those that place deft light-hearted observations side by side with sharper emotional insights and lines.

In ‘Hypothetical,’ the 'conversational frolic' of a friend asking the narrator if they’d sleep with Daniel Craig is a wonderfully humorous poem. But it also speaks to the nature of the world we live in with its sometimes obsession with celebrity-status and lives turned into public drama.  ‘How to Survive a Disaster Movie’ is similarly deliciously light-toned yet profoundly chilling. 

These are some of the ways I have read this collection. The beauty of strong poems is that they leave space for the reader to find their own truths in them, having given the images, ideas and narratives to do this with. This sense of multiplicity of paths and routes – in life, identity and reading – is most explicit in ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ another poem that is simultaneously funny and heart / dream-breaking.

Reading and re-reading Dressing for the Afterlife, I’m struck by new and different striking images, lines and resonances. Each time, now matter how deep these may cut, I come away with a sense too of exhilaration, much like the woman of the closing poem:

          The rhythm fills her with flight – 
                                            and her wings,
                                                   what wings she has –                             

About the reviewer
Sarah James/Leavesley is a poet, fiction writer, journalist, photographer and editor, who also runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Her latest project is an Arts Council England funded multimedia hypertext poetry narrative > Room. Website:

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Review by Gary Day of "A Sense of Tiptoe and Other Articles of Faith" by Karen Hayes

This volume stand out from many collections of modern poetry in its willingness to go beyond the here and now. In some respects it is a return to the metaphysical tradition, though the poems here lack the sinuous complexity of Donne and the piercing lyricism of Herbert. But how could it be otherwise? Karen Hayes is turning her eyes skyward after nearly four centuries of spiritual atrophy. True, there have been exceptions, the visions of Blake and of course T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets standing solemn and monumental; but neither a vital influence on the contemporary scene. 

Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ is Hayes’ point of departure, a poem that registers the loss of faith and the need to connect to something greater than ourselves. Hayes’ ‘At the Cathedral’ captures something of Larkin’s offering, particularly in the descriptions of architecture and accoutrements, but in her account the dead do not nudge us to wisdom, they are the sharpness of pain and loss. A contrasting poem is ‘Ralph,’ for me the most moving in the volume. Here nature transmutes grief into the glory of the garden. There are historical poems like ‘The Women Who Shaped the Church,’ redeeming those who helped to make history but were then forgotten by it, and seemingly pedestrian poems, such as ‘The Twelve,’ which convincingly fuses aspects of Christianity with the workings of the judiciary. 

Hayes is extraordinarily receptive to the whispers and ripples of the great unknown. It was easy for the metaphysicals. They believed and had the rich expressions to go with that belief. Anyone today who wants to grapple with the divine is faced with the enormous task of overhauling the language, of stripping it down and retuning it to the heavens. On the evidence of this collection, Hayes has made a good start.

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. His research mainly lay in three areas, the  history of literary criticism, the workings of class in British literature and the persistence of sacrificial ritual in the development of drama. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has also edited two volumes on the history of British poetry as well as the three volume Wiley Encyclopaedia of British Literature 1660-1789. He hates management speak, has been involved in amateur theatre for over thirty years and is still trying to write poetry.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Review by Peter Flack of "Brazil That Never Was" by A. J. Lees


I've never been to Brazil but I did once get within forty minutes of the border while luxuriating in the coastal enclaves of Uruguay so I understand the attraction of exploring in South America.

Andrew Lees' book is about Brazil and Amazonia as an unknown and perhaps unknowable mystery. From his opening, gazing down as a boy from the Overhead Railway on the Ocean Liners and freighters tied up in the port of Liverpool that plied their way across the Atlantic, he is steered towards his subsequent quest by a book given to him by his father. The book, Exploration Fawcett, describes the adventures of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who from 1906, for almost twenty years, explored and mapped the jungles, rivers and gorges of Brazil. On his final expedition in 1925 he disappeared and was never seen again.

Fawcett, in his many reports to the Royal Geographic Society, recounted with glee the privations he endured and the fabulous creatures he encountered. These included a sixty-foot man-eating anaconda, a double-nosed tiger and cyanide-squirting millipedes. Each time, he emerged as the hero of his own tales, calming forest-dwelling tribes with a song, escaping cannibals and braving rivers where piranhas lurked to gobble down all but him. He even reported the existence of a valley where a large brontosaurus-like creature still dwelt.

As each new expedition began it became apparent that Fawcett's imaginings went further than inventing landscapes and incredible animals. Fawcett was now searching for a lost city inhabited by mystical beings who existed beyond time. Emboldened by dabblings in theosophy and the occult he came to see himself and his son as chosen ones. When he set off that last time he was sure he knew where he was going.

Lees is gentle in recording the consuming madness of Fawcett, last of the great Victorian explorers. Perhaps, in retrospect, his disappearance was his greatest achievement.

When Lees finally visits Brazil he finds that nothing is left of Fawcett's 'magical' kingdom. A salutary dose of reality.

I loved the book. I have now ordered a copy of Exploration Fawcett. It was that good.

About the reviewer
Peter Flack is a former teacher. He was co-founder of the Whatever it Takes literacy programme for Leicester schools. He also chairs the Everybody's Reading Festival.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Review by Laura Besley of "This Alone Could Save Us" by Santino Prinzi


          What would be lost if the moon were to disappear, how ordinary the sky might be
          without it.
- Santino Prinzi

The moon features heavily in Santino Prinzi’s flash fiction collection, This Alone Could Save Us. Sometimes a recurring character, always a metaphor for each of the powerful stories in this collection, the moon is steady, looming large above us, but also pulling away at a pace that is imperceptible to the naked eye. It’s in these gentle shifts that Prinzi’s stories shine.   

The first and last stories of the collection act as bookends, almost mirroring each other. At the beginning of the collection, people are desperate: ‘When we realise the moon is shifting away, we beg it not to go. We vow we can change. ’ By the end, this desperation is intensified, but has turned against the moon: ‘Following the will of the people, the government decide to nuke the moon .… Some people believe the moon is the source of all their worldly problems and it’d be for the best if the moon was gone.’ Prinzi’s layered messages in 'The Moon is a Foreign Body, We Can No Longer Trust It' shine as bright as a full moon on a clear night. 

This is a fabulous collection, exploring a range of emotions and situations. There is hope for Louise and her fourth husband, Edwin, who find their way back to each other in 'It Sometimes Snows in April' and the boy who is finally freed from his mother’s snapping in 'How to Make the Magic Work'; sadness for Clyde in 'Bonsai and Clyde,' and something in between for the characters in the title story. Highly recommend. 

About the reviewer
Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online, as well as in print and in various anthologies. Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020. You can read a review of it here. She tweets @laurabesley.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Wretch" by Ansgar Allen

A novella.
A stream of consciousness.
A tale set perhaps in the past, a present or a foreboding future.
We don’t know when or where.
A tale of a prisoner.
The Wretch.
Why is he there?
Physically and mentally rotting away in a prison where he copies
(“A diligent copyist”) 
“Producing my own words, or more exactly reproducing and reordering words I have heard!"
A world where travellers explore the unknown city.
The unknown regions.
What are they looking for?
Who threatens them?
Returning mad.
Or not at all.
What breaks their sanity?
Writing reports.
Hiding reports.
Collecting reports.
Returning reports.
On paper that rots away.
The paper mill produces
paper that disintegrates.
Another metaphor.
For what?
There is no hope for the Wretch.
The Wretch copies.
His writing machine breaks.
Or he destroys it.
Replaced, he copies.
This is his life compared to the travellers
with their burdens.
Reminding them of what?
Just as the Wretch carries his burden.
His machine.
Punishment for what?
Reminder or crime?
And their struggles in a frightening outside.
Why do they lose their teeth?
A novella full of metaphor but so
black and white.
Full of repetition.
Emphasising the solitary 
repetitive world of
the Wretch.
His life is repetition.
Who put the Wretch away?
Why are they threatened?
As many questions as answers.
The answers are for you to find.
They are what makes this novella unique.
Wretch by Ansgar Allen:
an experimental novella of an experiment?
You decide.
It is an ugly world inside and outside of the known city.
Discover it.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-four. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Review by Samantha Nicholson-Hickling of "Purl" by Jo Dixon

Jo Dixon’s Purl is a well crafted, satisfying set of poems which are observant and focus on the big themes in life. In these uncertain times, authority is just what is needed, with a bit of finesse to round it all off.

As her first full collection, Purl boasts three sections or chapters worth of poems, each with their own internal theme which intertwine with the meaning of the title.

Section one coats you in a sheen of familiarity, talking about Bisto, Sunday roasts, the clicking of dentures and coats hanging on pegs. It creates a feeling that you know the characters and settings in these poems, while also as a reader making you believe you are a voyeur on their lives.

A personal stand out of this section, for me, is ‘Leading Lady,’ a peek back into the Kodak timeline of life, with its vivid imagery of the hiss and flicker of the projector's beam, alongside the sadness of the recalled memories. The layout and typeface decisions were what initially drew me to this particular piece, and it serves the poem well to highlight those more personal moments.

Section two has a more whimsical feel, almost a sense of the ethereal. Nature appears to take centre stage, with the water, the trees, the pollen and Spring all appearing throughout. ‘Taking the Water’ this time grasped all of my attention, with a first line that had my mind immediately questioning, wanting answers on what was happening and why. It takes you on an exciting journey through Rag Beck.  The ‘Perfect Setting’ brings happier thoughts, with beautiful imagery, easy to picture and impossible to forget.

The last section promised to be more tumultuous, with the word purl meaning to capsize, to fall head over heels. I was not disappointed, with the first poem of the set ‘Grand Canyon’ having a sense of urgency and excitement. Dixon sustains this sense of excitement, as each poem tantalises the imagination and has you turning the page almost quicker than you can process what you’ve read - right until you hit an abrupt stop with ‘Stopper On The Poacher Line.’ This poem's interesting choices make it a perfect moment to catch your breath, re-adjust your thoughts and just take in the imagery: the watery in the ditches, the pheasants.

One poem which sticks out from this section, a jarring moment of pure emotion, is 'NICU I and II.' The images are still as clear as before, but are almost purer because of the sadness you feel. It is an emotional rollercoaster and the perfect way to round off Jo Dixon’s first full collection.

About the reviewer

Samantha Nicholson-Hickling is a former De Montfort University Creative Writing student. Since completing her degree in 2011, she has attended Cambridge University and now teaches in a primary school in Oldham. She is involved in the local writing scene in Oldham, supporting Create Oldham's Hack Writers group, a weekly meet up for professional and amateurs alike. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Review by Vic Pickup of "Unaccomplished Cities" by Jayant Kashyap

Pushcart-prize nominee Jayant Kashyap’s second chapbook, Unaccomplished Cities, released as part of Ghost City Press’s Summer Series (available to download for free here), is an exploration of the darkness of humanity, the impact of war and destruction. 

His ten-poem sequence revisits key points of trauma in human history — from man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to the ashes of Pompeii, bombed-out Düsseldorf and the bloody past of the poet’s native India.

Exploring harrowing tales of global conflict, Kashyap condenses atrocities down to single images, vividly described and highly evocative. In ‘Pompeii,’ he writes of the buried city: 

          like a body, picked from grave, bitten to cavities; 

          the city has cavities the size of women, and men, 
          bent in rituals – making love 

The juxtaposition of the entombment of people preserved in the very act of living – of passion – is horrifying and emotive. 

In ‘Death Sonnet,’ Kashyap describes a basement in Düsseldorf where the families ‘only recognised each other by voices.’ He explores the darkness ‘in which ‘deathbirds circled dark cities every night ꟷ / where even a little light meant death.’ These strong images enhance the literal and metaphorical darkness of wartime Düsseldorf in blackout. 

Life and loss are the key themes of this sequence. In ‘The Destruction of Nalanda,’ Kashyap transports us to Bihar in 1193, when The Nalanda University was burnt for the third time by Turkish Ruler Bakhtiyar Khilji. In his poem he mourns the destruction of the nine million manuscripts stored there: 

          jealousy took the toll, it was three 
          months until each page had burnt itself alive 

           — a slaughter of cultures

Kashyap describes the atrocities which occurred in his native India in ‘Aftermath of the Freedom Struggle,’ where up to two million people were slaughtered in the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan: 

          Everytime the last of the bodies comes out of the
          train, bone cracking from heat, smoke fills the sky,
          even in the neighbouring cities; the train cleared of 
          deathsmears, readied to take people home, again,
          alive from this end.

The poem ends: ‘people pray for their / loved ones: be safe. Nothing ever changes.’ The poet reflects upon the futility of life, which is echoed in the tragedy in ‘Husne Ara Parvin’ ꟷ here, Kashyap describes a mass shooting in a New Zealand mosque focusing on a woman, Pavin, who was killed whilst sheltering her wheelchair-bound husband. The poem’s final lines are deeply poignant, observing what is lost and gained:

          ... When the curfew 
          ended, the world had become both an ounce 

          more, an ounce less of love.

Despite the core themes of this sequence, Jayant’s writing is anything but bleak. To quote one of his own poems, Unaccomplished Cities retells ‘the tales all of us knew something about’ with poetry that is bold, powerful and evocative. 

About the reviewer

Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the Café Writers and Cupid's Arrow competitions, and was recently shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth contest. Her debut pamphlet Lost & Found will be published by Hedgehog Press later this year.  

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Review by Robert Richardson of "Hamlet" starring Nicol Williamson and dir. Tony Richardson, Movie and Theatre Production at the Roundhouse, London, 1969

It was London in 1969. The fashion-led and pop music-centred frivolity of Swinging London (after The Beatles moved from Liverpool to the capital) had to some extent been supplanted by an “underground” influenced by the counterculture of San Francisco, but with its own distinctive twists of psychedelia and left wing or anarchist politics.

A production of Hamlet at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm began with considerable media attention, and this was focused on Marianne Faithfull playing Ophelia. She had scored several pop hits, the first, As Tears Go By, was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and she was now in a relationship with Jagger: they were the popular culture power-couple of late 60s Britain.

The media frenzy continued, but the narrative changed. When the reviews began appearing, the big story was Nicol Williamson’s performance as Hamlet. It became clear this was very special and might be considered as one of the twentieth century’s most important interpretations of the role, ranking alongside Gielgud and Olivier.

Being described as sensational, it was, for sure, a hot ticket, and the details of how I came to see it are now somewhat vague. From the year, I think this is the explanation: at that time I was living very close to London and studying at a further education college, where I was also a member of an evening drama group. Our leader was George, a young English and Drama lecturer and recent Cambridge graduate. I am fairly sure it was George who acquired some tickets and took a small group of us to the Roundhouse. More certain is the impression made by Nicol Williamson’s incredible acting. Over fifty years later, it is something that remains with me.

I had already seen Laurence Olivier’s Oscar winning film of Hamlet, and the enduring and most iconic scene was for me, and I suspect for many others, the ‘To Be or Not to Be’ soliloquy, shot as a powerful Romantic pose accompanied by a dream like voice-over, luxurious in a poetry of indecision. If Olivier’s performance might be seen as one kind of measure, then Williamson took that measure and wilfully smashed it to pieces. Where Olivier was reflective, Williamson was dynamic. His performance, though, was beyond the merely energetic, it was manic. As a broad outline, I often describe it as playing Hamlet as a nervous wreck. Hamlet’s vacillations were not philosophical musing, but a living reality of frustration and rage. There was a ratcheting up of his desire to exact the cruellest possible revenge on Claudius. Williamson realised that with Shakespeare the poetry can be trusted to take care of itself, and he traded a carefully enunciated rendering for the power of a singular performance. His nasal voice at times modulated into one extremely suitable for expressing an aggressive bitterness. He eschewed declamation in favour of a more conversational tone and moments of cutting cynicism and sarcasm. 

The other role Williamson is most remembered for is Bill Maitland in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, performed, earlier in his career, to much acclaim in both London and New York, and it was also filmed. The character is in despair at the state of his life, and the nervous anger Williamson presented, a frightening intensity on the brink of madness, might be seen, at least in part, as a template for his portrayal of Hamlet. 

As a person, Williamson was complex, troubled and difficult. He had a problem with alcohol and a proclivity for fast living. When playing King Lear at a small theatre in north Wales, the director cancelled the second night, knowing Williamson would party so hard after the first night that it would not be possible (the performances resumed again on what should have been the third night). He also had anger management problems, and on more than one occasion landed blows against a fellow actor or a producer. At one point in the 1970s, he walked out of The Dick Cavett Show, at the time one of America’s leading chat shows, just prior to a scheduled appearance. His own volatility was, it seems, imported into Hamlet, understanding the character partly, and inevitably, through those aspects of himself he must have considered valid for his incendiary interpretation.

Later in 1969, it was decided this production must be filmed for posterity. As with the play, the director was Tony Richardson. I did not watch the film, thinking it might subvert my memory of its theatrical origins. Until now, when I decided it would probably be a valuable addition to this piece. All of the sets were within the Roundhouse, which, as its name suggests, is a theatre-in-the-round (used as both a rock music and theatre venue). For Hamlet, it also became a film studio. The film is not just documentation, but valid as cinema, and the many close-ups do not in any way detract from Williamson’s performance, on the contrary they provide yet another cause for admiration. Stating the obvious, it is, though, a recording of Nicol Williamson playing Hamlet and not the actual Nicol Williamson I was privileged to experience in a performance now lost forever: a series of moments on a particular night, when something approaching farce occurred: Williamson’s pacey movements shifted the dagger round his waist to the middle of his back, where it dangled between his legs. In response to the phallic connotation, there were a few giggles from the audience, and I doubt if I was the only one thinking ‘if he sits down now, he will have a nasty surprise.’ He didn’t, and that part of the action soon ended. Did this detract from his performance? At that point, a little bit, since it became unintentional Brechtian alienation, and if he wasn’t aware of it, and I don’t think he was, a type of dramatic irony might also be argued. In retrospect, it emphasises a strength of theatre: it is an art form that inhabits the actual stuff of living, with all its unpredictability. In film there would have been a ‘take 2’ and I am pleased that I saw the 'real thing’ when that could not happen. Theatre also means a third dimension, and it was amazing to be close to the actual space Nicol Williamson was moving through, because movement was a crucial part of his performance. Nevertheless I would encourage people to watch the film. The DVD I received was produced for the Italian market, but it was fine and the subtitles could be switched off. There are a few extracts on YouTube, and again I would encourage tracking down everything there with Nicol Williamson, including interviews. Why? Because he was an exceptionally great actor, and there are never many of those.                                                                                        

About the reviewer

Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer living in Leicestershire. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has graphic artworks in collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. In 2018, he had a solo exhibition of photographs, Luz Brilhante, at the Museu Municipal, one of the leading museums in Faro, Portugal. In the last few years he has produced a portfolio of digital artworks, some of which are now available as limited edition prints.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Review by Jane Simmons of "I, Ursula" by Ruth Stacey

At an online literary festival earlier this year, I heard poet Ruth Stacey speaking about writing imagined memoirs - and the techniques which she uses to create an authentic sounding voice for historical characters. In I, Ursula, her second full-length collection of poems, she presents the reader with a wide range of voices for female characters both real and imagined. 

The poems about the imagined characters take us back into the worlds of fairy-tale, legend and folk-history – to Rose Red, to Beauty and the Beast, to mermaids and witches. These poems take us into familiar Angela Carter territory – magical, subversive, feminist - and they are often entertaining in their exploration of paradoxes of female experience. ‘Bears are not good fuck-buddies’ begins the poem ‘Rose Red’ – and though the speaker goes on to list her bear’s many faults which lead her to throw him out because she ‘just can’t stand him any more,’ the poem ends, ‘I hope he comes back / I miss the warmth of the bear in my bed.’

The poems which I find the most powerful are those where the poet explores the experience of the female muse and the male artist in both art and literature. This major theme is introduced in the wittily titled poem ‘Averse Muse’ which opens the collection, and it is easy to spot in other titles such as ‘Muses.’ There is a strong feminist agenda behind the  presentation of the muse in many of these poems, and it is perhaps most striking or shocking in the eponymously titled poems such as ‘I, Ursula,’ ‘Camille  Claudel,’ ‘Jeanne Hebuterne,’ ‘Emilie Floge.’ This is where the personal becomes political: the male artists are known, but not the names of their female muses – not even when they were talented artists in their own right. The poor ‘I’ even goes unnamed in the golden shovel ‘Decorative’ and the later poem ‘Lady of a Portrait’ - no wonder that these women rebel. These poems – like so many others in the collection – explore relationships between artist and muse, men and women, the tensions between life and art, and the creation and appreciation of various forms of art, in terms of power and powerlessness.

About the reviewer 

Jane Simmons is a former teacher/lecturer who has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now a PhD student at the University of Leicester. As a reviewer for The Blue Nib literary magazine, Jane has built a significant publication history of writing about contemporary women’s poetry. A selection of her own poems appeared in the March 2019 edition of the magazine. Her pamphlet From Darkness into Light - poems inspired by the Book of Kells was published in 2018. Further poems have appeared in The View from the Steep, an anthology published by Pimento Press in 2019.


Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Review by Cathi Rae of "Threadbare" by Abbie Neale

There is nothing more truly depressing as a working poet than being asked to review a debut collection so wonderful that you immediately decide to pack it in and start whittling or metal detecting.

Neale's work has already been published extensively in a wide range of literary magazines and she was the winner of the 2019 New Poets Prize and it’s easy to understand why.

This slim collection, 36 pages, is divided into two sections – Part 1 with its frontispiece of a dark and decaying cityscape focuses on violence, the violence of men towards women, the violence of bad sex, the violence of sexual predators and the damage that women do to themselves in surviving toxic relationships.

Neale’s language is deceptively simple, but there is a clear sense that not one single word is extraneous. This is writer using huge restraint to describe very difficult things. Her use of descriptive language is extraordinary and leaves images that burn into your memory.

The poem “Can you draw him for us” about a sexual predator contains this striking image:

          so she outlines the lamppost instead

          where she saw the man waiting

          It cranes over him like a surrealist showerhead

The collection's second section, which is illustrated by an image of city brought to life with plants and life, explores the rebirth of relationships and love, with mother, sister and new lovers. Poems about love and acceptance and the possibility of new love avoid being sentimental or mawkish.

Even romantic love is handled with a light and deft touch. In “Being told that you are loved,” “It’s the closeness of coffee bean handfuls, it’s danger and relief, it’s the hairless tail escaping the bird beak.”

This is a beautiful selection of poems, buy it, tell other people and yes, I’m jealous.

About the reviewer

Cathi Rae is currently completing her MA in creative at Leicester University. She is a performance poet and spoken word artist and a multiple slam poetry winner and is allegedly working on her second poetry collection. Books about serial killers, unlikely heroes and blood are amongst her secret reading pleasures.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Review by Lucretia Rose McCarthy of "Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency" by Olivia Laing

I came to Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency after enjoying Olivia Laing’s 2018 novel Crudo. Crudo broke away from Laing’s non-fiction to brilliantly detail the despair of the politically turbulent summer of 2017 through the persona of experimental writer Kathy Acker. Funny Weather is its antidote. Returning to criticism through neatly ordered essays on subjects ranging from the environment to loneliness and immigration via art and culture, it is the culmination of Laing’s works gathered across a formidable career as a critic. The two books are inextricably linked, with Crudo presenting the chaos and fear at work in the world, and Funny Weather offering order and hope despite the frequently difficult topics addressed. 

It is a book that is at once sensitive, humorous and optimistic. Through the collection, Laing takes in radical acts of self-care through film director Derek Jarman, the ‘fertile paranoia’ driving David Wojnarowicz’s art and the joy and renewal of David Bowie’s music. She introduces queer writer Maggie Nelson, revisits theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and offers a conversation with singer Joseph Keckler, alongside many more. In this way, the text is highly peopled, forming communities of artists, writers and musicians in abundance without ever feeling pretentious or overwhelming. Funny Weather left me with a delightful, lengthy further reading list curated by what felt like a generous guide who appeared to be in conversation with the artists at hand and with the reader too. Laing’s own anecdotes maintained the autobiographical element familiar in many of her texts, which supported the interesting and often surprising biographical details of the artists littered throughout each of the essays. Each piece feels effortless, clearly backed up by Laing’s almost forensic research, making abstract art and distant figures familiar in the same way that the artists she invokes mediate our complicated world.

Funny Weather shows exactly what art can do in an emergency, how it can offer insight as well as respite, working as protest and envisioning new futures. As we begin to return to the world post-lockdown, this book provides not only comfort in chaos but strategies and spaces for hope. Though easily devoured in one sitting, it is one to return to, dipping into favourite essays and revisiting artists like old friends. It is the book we all need right now. 

About the reviewer
Lucretia Rose McCarthy is PhD researcher based at the University of Leicester in the department of Languages and Literature. Her work centres on women’s contemporary experimental life writing and is supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. 

Review by Charis Buckingham of "The Gossips' Choice" by Sara Read

I approached Sara Read’s novel with anticipations of enjoyment. A historical novel, set in one of my favourite periods of history, from the perspective of a woman, could hardly fail to appeal. I believe shining light onto the everyday lives of women throughout history is incredibly important; that this novel tackles this topic is an immediate recommendation. 

The novel opens as Lucie Smith, the protagonist, attends the "laying of" Lady Eleanor. Immediately, her skill and expertise becomes evident, although the modern reader may raise an eyebrow at some of the people's fundamental beliefs; in particular, their medical ideas and theories. Nevertheless, Lucie’s voice prevails, as she lets you into her busy, God-fearing, contented life as a midwife. She details several different cases, the characters and events moving together, against the backdrop of summer 1665 and the plague. 

As the story progresses, Lucie’s trials grow greater. Martha, her maid and close friend, finds herself with child, and Lucie, along with her deputy attend a difficult birth where both mother and child die. The tone begins to change; what was once contented and assured is now uneasy and uncertain. As the novel reaches its crescendo, a case is raised against Lucie, questioning her skill as a midwife, and her husband, Jasper, travels to London. He begins to feel unwell as she struggles at home. When he is found dead, a bruise under his armpit indicates plague, although it’s never officially confirmed. This small detail reflects the reality of life during pestilence and the inaccuracies of public records. 

The novel closes quietly, hushed with grief as Lucie contemplates life on her own, but with the promise of hope as the trial against her is overturned. 1665 has been a harsh and unusual year, but the story holds the reader’s attention throughout. 

One of Read’s greatest strengths is the way she embraces the spirit of the time. Her precision of writing brings what is ostensibly a simple story into full and vibrant colour. Politics, religion and superstition reflect the turmoil of the country at large and are interwoven expertly into each character. I would wholeheartedly recommend this novel to either those well-versed in historical knowledge, or those looking for an immersive and engaging read. 

About the reviewer
Charis Buckingham graduated from Leicester University in 2018 with an MA in Creative Writing, and has since split her time between teaching ESL, writing, and walking her dog. She occasionally dabbles in poetry and short stories, but her heart is in full-length novels, and she is currently editing a YA fantasy novel. Her favourite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and romance, but she never says no to a good serial killer documentary. 

Monday, 6 July 2020

Review by Laura Besley of "What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival," edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska

What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival, edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, is “a hopeful book. Its hope, however, is not the cheap kind peddled by the masters of self-help. It’s the kind of hope you can only find when you let the old delusions go and learn to dance with your fears” (as Dermendzhiyska writes in the Foreword). 

The book is divided into three parts: "Struggle," "Self" and "Striving." Each essay is unique and describes an extremely different experience. Below are four that resonated for me.  

A. J. Ashworth, in her powerful essay, "Eight," describes the panic she felt as a child that she was going to die, a feeling she relives over and over as a debilitating anxiety in adulthood.
Kate Leaver’s essay, "A Disappearing Act," not only tackles her personal battle with an eating disorder, “I was essentially trying to kill myself in instalments,” but she explores the wider relationship people have with food and why women especially bow to this pressure: “We teach girls to diminish themselves and how we treat women’s bodies as though they’re public property.”

Rory Bremner describes ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in his essay, "ADHD and Me," as “[his] best friend and [his] worst enemy.” 

In his essay, "No Cure for Life," Dr. Julian Baggini debunks striving to live life as if in a fairy tale. “The goal,” he writes, “is a life well-lived” and not, necessarily, to live happily ever after for it is “only good to be happy when we are happy for good reasons.”

This is an extremely powerful collection and not always entirely comfortable to read. Personally, it made me revisit some past experiences and feelings, which wasn’t always easy, but paradoxically therein also lies its power; it made me realise that there was hope for me too. Whether or not you or a loved one is dealing with mental illness, I would highly recommend this collection. 

About the reviewer
Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online, as well as in print and in various anthologies. Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020. She tweets @laurabesley

Friday, 3 July 2020

Review by Philip Tew of "Poppy Flowers at the Front" by Jon Wilkins

Last year, this website managed to reunite me with Jon Wilkins, a colleague of mine in the late 1970s, teachers together at a boys’ secondary modern school in Leicester, an awful place to work, but we survived. We were united by our aspirations to write and while teaching there, I completed a draft first novel with which I did nothing, exhausted by the writing process. Youth is wasted on the young!

However, eventually in 2019 I published my first novel, Afterlives, and Jon was in touch again, after a generous review. I am about to reciprocate, but certainly not out of loyalty, but merit. Jon’s novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, has been published, a charming and skilful narrative of two young female ambulance drivers surviving the horrors and discomforts of the Western Front toward the end of the First World War. Blending diary entries, letters and a confessional and impressionistic first person account, Poppy and her feisty French friend, Élodie leap off the page, dynamic, contested and intriguing. A life amid mud, death and struggle is evoked wonderfully, with our emotion engaged, but the narrative never descends to any sentimentality. The love affair between the two young women ties together the various complex strands. I will not reveal the plot, which is teasingly seductive and exciting, and must be fresh and unexpected in the readers’ minds.

For an older male writer to capture the lives of these two young and rebellious women full of such life and hopes and dreams is literally a tour de force. Poppy Flowers at the Front unfortunately came out as the Covid lock-down started, but now we are emerging from that peculiar social nightmare, you should read this book and thrill in its twists and turns, and the emotional subtlety that is displayed in the various encounters. It is an adventure, a reflection, a social narrative, and a fine piece of writing. I rate this novel. Brigand Press, a new micro-press, have opted for another fine story, wonderfully narrated and they should be supported in their efforts. Find their website, and buy it!  You’ll want to read to the end.

About the reviewer
A graduate of both Leicester and De Montfort universities, Philip Tew is an academic and novelist. Since 2001 he has edited, written and co-written twenty-five scholarly books on various topics, including many on post-war and contemporary British fiction. He published his first novel, Afterlives, in 2019 and a second book of fiction, Fragmentary Lives: Three Novellas, in 2020. A second novel, Clark Gable and His Plastic Duck, is about to be published by Brigand Press in August 2020. He is currently preparing a further book of fiction, consisting of two novellas, a volume tentatively entitled Heroes and Villains.

You can read another review of Poppy Flowers at the Front by Jon Wilkins on Everybody's Reviewing here

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Interview with Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson studied at the Northern School of Music, Manchester, and composition under Alexander Goehr at Leeds University, then at Manchester University. Since then he has written regularly for The Independent and The Guardian, and was Chief Music Critic of The Scotsman (1998-9). He is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber 1998), and studies of Mahler and Wagner (Naxos 2006, 2007). As a BBC broadcaster he presented Radio 3’s Discovering Music for 14 years, as well as a series of 14 programmes about the symphonies of Bruckner. He is also a regular contributor to the BBC Music Magazine. Stephen radio documentary, Shostakovich: Journey into Light, was nominated for a Sony Award in 2007. And in 2009 his radio documentary Vaughan Williams: Valiant for Truth, won a Sony Gold Award. His book about music and mental health, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (based on the Shostakovich documentary) was published in Spring 2018, followed in 2020 by a book about Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910 (Faber). In 1997 Stephen began composing again. His orchestral work Behemoth Dances had its premiere in Moscow in April 2016, followed by its UK premiere in London in May. In January-February 2019 his Clarinet Quintet Angel’s Arc was performed by Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet, and an American premiere is planned for November 2020. His website is here.

Below, he talks with Jonathan Taylor about his work, and his book How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, which was published in 2018 by Notting Hill Editions

Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor

JT: Perhaps, to start with, you could talk a bit about the aims, scope and context of How Shostakovich Changed My Mind: what is it about? What impelled you to write this book?

SJ: My aim shifted as I wrote it. There was a personal agenda - I was aware of that right from the start. Like Sibelius (whose Fourth Symphony I mentioned in the book), I wanted to see if writing about my own painful experiences might help get them 'into some kind of new perspective.' Therapy had brought me to realise how traumatic had been - not only my own experience of mental illness (I’m bipolar type two) but also the experience of growing up with a very disturbed and disturbing mother and a father who could barely cope. But it has also brought out just how important music had been in my own survival - and, more recently, considerable improvement. I hoped writing the book might somehow objectify all this for me. I think it did - and, perhaps more importantly, my wife Kate thinks so too. But, having talked about this book with others before I began to write, I sensed another possibility - that I might be able to offer something affirmative and helpful to people who had been through similar, or comparable, experiences. The reaction I’ve had to it, in reviews and in private emails via my website, suggests that it really did work. I’m haunted by Nietzsche’s remark that 'without music life would be a mistake.' By looking more closely at what music - especially tragic music - can do for us, I wanted to say that life doesn’t have to be a mistake. My experience is proof of that.

 JT: What are the particular challenges, for you, of writing (in prose) about music and musical experience – of representing one art form through the medium of another? Are there things music can do that literature can’t, and vice versa?

SJ: I love reading - especially novels, poetry, history and the more readable kinds of philosophy - but I’m aware that music does something special, possibly because it doesn’t speak through clear concepts or ideas, and can therefore bypass our critical defences and engage directly with our deepest feelings. I love Ernst Bloch’s comment, ‘When we listen to music, what we really hear is ourselves’ - I quote it in the book to make it clear that, whenever I describe music, it is my reaction I’m describing, however much it may be supported by the reactions of others. Describing music using non-technical terms is very challenging, but it’s a challenge I enjoy. I’m aware of the much-quoted (and variously attributed) line that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ - yet I can’t help feeling that if I were a choreographer I would particularly enjoy the challenge of creating dance about architecture - the challenge can also be highly creative. And I think of the example of writing that have opened my ears to new aspects of music - from the musicological (Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style) to literary (Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus) to poetry (Osip Mandelstam on Schubert, T.S. Eliot or Ruth Padel on Beethoven). When I think about it, the writing on music that I’ve found most liberating has been  more often literary than musicological.  

JT: At one point in How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, you talk about some of the ways in which music – and particularly Shostakovich’s music – exists beyond the scope of logical contradiction: that it can seemingly hold two opposite emotions (for example) in balance at the same time. This has struck me forcibly too at times, in terms of Shostakovich’s, as well as Tchaikovsky’s, Mahler's and Berg’s music. What is it, do you think, about music that makes this possible?

SJ: This is a very interesting, and a difficult question. Shostakovich and Mahler in particular were great ironists. Tchaikovsky does it too - I’m thinking particularly of the finale of the Fifth Symphony. It can be that a mood of tragedy or comedy - or even what seems like a straightforward ‘happy ending’ - is artfully contrived to created the impression that it ‘protests too much’ - that the emphasis is overworked, or that there may be some impression of lingering doubt within the affirmation, as in the final ‘memory’ of the minor-key Scherzo just before the massively, obsessively affirmative major-key ending of Beethoven’s Fifth. Or, since you mention Berg, there’s the emergence of the Bach chorale in the finale of Berg’s Violin Concerto - is it religious consolation, or a desolate ‘if only'? Some of the best performances have left me with the sense that it’s both - or as Beethoven put it, ’Sometimes the opposite is also true.' 

JT: Why Shostakovich in particular?

SJ: My sense of involvement with Shostakovich goes back to my early teens, and some of my most vivid memories of music somehow coming to my aid in times of great personal distress centre on teenage experiences of his Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Symphonies. I’ve always had a rather odd memory - and I found I was soon able to ‘play back’ these works in my head as I went out for long walks and cycle rides in the West Pennine Moors near where I grew up. I spent a lot of time on my own - it slightly shocks me now to think back to that time and acknowledge this. I don’t know whether I’m truly solitary by nature (in fact I doubt it), but needing to entertain, and sometimes calm and reassure myself during these lonely excursions clearly forced me to develop my musical memory at an early age - with poetry and prose following close behind. I’m enormously grateful for that - but above all I feel a huge sense of gratitude to Shostakovich himself. His music, probably more than anyone else’s, seemed to reflect back to me the mental torment I felt, and to transform it. As I became increasingly drawn to Russia - through music, and through the works of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov - I found that Russians seemed to find this notion less surprising than most of my Western friends and colleagues. I remember one old Russian I met saying to me, 'There’s something about hearing your most painful emotions transformed into something beautiful …' He didn’t have to say any more. 

JT: Who do you think is your intended reader? Do you have one in mind while writing?

SJ: At first I wrote for myself, but as I wrote I had the growing feeling that there must be many others like me. Maybe they hadn’t had the same kind of traumatic childhood experiences that I had, but had found tragic music their most powerful comforter. I had an email from a man in the USA recently who wrote, 'You made me realise I wasn’t alone.' I’m sure you can imagine my feelings on reading that. To know that you’ve made something out of your own pain that has been a light for others - it doesn’t get better than that.

JT: I thought the book was structured beautifully – as an extended essay, split into sub-sections, rather than chapters. How did the structure of the book come about?

SJ: Several people have said the same, but this was the aspect of the book I thought about least.There was one conscious consideration. I’m aware of how difficult it is for busy modern readers to find longish periods to devote to an argument. The idea of having it in short sections made sense if I pictured someone reading it on a shortish train or average tube journey, or even reading it in bed at night - though I admit it isn’t the way I prefer to wind down before turning off the light. On the whole though it felt like having a carpet unroll under your feet as you walk. You can only see a foot or two of carpet ahead, but you keep walking and it keeps unrolling. Mind you I did have one very important bit of structural feedback. I’m particularly proud of the last two pages of the book, in which I recreate what it was like at around 16 to stride across the moors with Shostakovich Fourth thundering through my head, but this felt like a new kind of writing for me. Originally this came about two-thirds of the way through the book. I showed it to Kate, and she immediately adopted her characteristic frown of concentration. It deepened visibly whence came to that passage, and I braced myself for something difficult. Then she looked up and said, ’This is the end.’ For a moment I didn’t know what she meant (it sounded bad), but then I realised, and she was absolutely right. After that the rest of the book just flowed towards it.

JT: How difficult was it to find the right balance between personal (memoiristic) material, on the one hand, and musicological or literary material, on the other?

SJ: I’m sorry it this is frustrating, but again I didn’t give it much thought. I liked the idea of weaving all sorts of different kinds of material together. You can suggest so much - invite reflection - this way without having to spell things out. It becomes a more creative experience for the reader - or that was my hope.

JT: What do you think are the strengths, weaknesses, possibilities, constraints of the personal essay form?

SJ: Well, to quote Nietzsche again, ’There are no facts, only interpretations.’ I don’t know if I entirely agree, but it’s a very important challenging thought. There must be objective truth, but how good are our minds at identifying it? The more I read of what I was once taught was ‘objective’ musicology, the more subjective I realise it is. I prefer to be honest about this, and the personal essay seems to me a far better way of achieving this than an academic thesis. Of course it risks veering into self-indulgence, or worse pure solipsism. I was very keen indeed to have as many level-headed people read this as possible, and to listen to their strictures. If the book does manage to avoid what a friend calls ’swimming in the me pond,’ that’s more proof that we can be better people in our work than we are in everyday life!

JT: What do you think you learned, about yourself, Shostakovich, or others, in writing the book?

SJ: Plenty - too much to go into detail. But there are two things that leap to mind. First it brought home to me how astonishing was Shostakovich’s achievement in holding to what be valued in his heart in the midst of the horror and madness of Stalin’s Soviet tyranny. This was absolutely the opposite of macho Hollywood idea of heroism. Shostakovich was highly sensitive, emotionally fragile perhaps, and in later years he lacerated himself for what he considered his own weakness and capitulation. But there was something deep within him that held firm, and now it speaks to millions - look at the views on YouTube for some of his most popular works and you’ll see that’s literally true.

For me though, when I read through the book before sending if off to the publishers, I was surprised at how moved I was myself, but especially by its message of hope. As I approached the end I remember a sensation like a convulsion from within - I’m not exaggerating - and found myself repeating, ‘It’s all true. It’s all true.’ I end as I began, with a reference to Kafka’s 'Metamorphosis' - apparently a very bleak parable, yet with a glimmer of light near the end. Gregor, transformed nightmarishly into some kind of giant insect and increasingly abandoned by his family, hears a violin playing and asks himself, ‘How could he be a brute beast if music could make him feel like this?’ I remember reading that years ago and thinking, ‘One day I’ll write a book about that.’ This is it. 

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is