Tuesday 20 December 2022

Review by James Nash of "Selected Poems" by Donald Davie, ed. Sinéad Morrissey

I like a knotty, argumentative poet.  And I like Donald Davie very much. He was a blind date.  I knew the name but had read, to my knowledge, none of his work. Barnsley born but for much of his life a peripatetic academic, there’s more than a bit of Yorkshire grit in these poems, the grit around which pearls are formed.

In a brilliant new selection by Sinéad Morrissey there are pieces from every decade of Davie’s writing life; poems where he foreswears sentimentality and romanticism and chews away at ideas and experiences like a favourite bone. What we have then in his writing is a synthesis of his internal dialogue that speaks directly to us. These are not imagery-filled, metaphor-heavy poems and they feel as if he has chipped them, mason-like, from stone to ‘chisel honey from the saxifrage.’

Poems which reference 18th-century poet William Cowper and Barnsley Cricket Club win me over instantly, and I warm to the poet and the man. I am astonished by how much he wrote and how close he was in age to the present me when he died in 1995. I think we are now dating.

This is an accessible exploration of Davie’s work.  And it makes me want to read more, so this taster selection clearly works. It is an important reminder of the great writer he was, and how relevant he still is, nearly thirty years after his death. Morrissey’s introduction is clear-eyed and intelligent, a perfect primer for a clear-eyed and intelligent poet who in his poem 'Wombwell on Strike' writes:

           I was born of this 
           tormented womb, the taut West Riding.

About the reviewer
James Nash is a poet and writer based in Leeds. Heart Stones, his third collection of sonnets, was published by Valley Press in 2021.

Thursday 15 December 2022

Review by Alan McCormick of "Without Warning and Only Sometimes: Scenes from an Unpredictable Childhood" by Kit de Waal

Kit De Waal’s narration is clear-eyed and unsentimental, devoid of self-pity, with an extraordinary gift of recall and eye for detail borne from a harsh childhood, where survival was often found in the shadows, dreaming, observing, trying to make sense of the goings on in an often unpredictable, joyless home, attempting to understand her family’s place in the world. 

Kit’s Mom is from Wexford and her Dad from St. Kitts. Being both Irish and Caribbean in nineteen-sixties-and-seventies Britain meant enduring endemic prejudice and everyday acts of racism – being called ‘Little Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy’ by a teacher or ‘wog’ and ‘blackie’ by a spiteful classmate – singled out in turn for being either Irish or black or mixed-race.  Even Kit’s grandmothers, Nan and Black Nana, never accept the racial partner choices made by their children, and, worse, Kit’s parents seem to distrust and reject each other’s cultures, and barely connect or show affection to each other. 

Kit’s Dad, Arthur, is mostly controlled (controlling), off-handily critical and barely present, living through cricket (he’s good), and detective and cowboy films on television. He springs momentarily to life to corral his willing kids (desperate for a bit of fun) to help bake Christmas cakes to give as gifts or make Caribbean food at weekends whilst Mom, Sheila, is at work. He puts on a good face around relatives and friends from home, fondly reminiscing a romanticised past. There is little money around and what money there is, is rarely spent on enough food and clothing for Kit and her siblings. Whilst Sheila tries to save, Arthur would rather use his money to keep up appearances by buying a smart car, good shoes for himself, sending extravagant gifts back home and building a house for his fantastical return to St Kitts. 

Sheila is overwrought and overworked (doing many jobs, cleaning, child-minding, caring, and running the home). She’s exhausted and distracted, needy and swamping when showing unexpected moments of generosity or affection (the sudden purchase of art supplies is accompanied by her manic desperation for the kids to instantly use and enjoy them), her feelings dissipated in caring for vulnerable strangers outside the home. She does rise to meet a crisis, caring in response to Kit’s dramatic childhood accidents, but becomes increasingly frustrated as time passes, saving milk bottles to throw at the outhouse wall, escaping into a forlorn, nostalgic reverie of singalong sentimental songs. 

And then there’s Jehovah which means no Christmas or birthday presents! Kit and her siblings learn to endure, and (ultimately) reject the weekly services at Kingdom Hall with their boring, guilt-tripping sermons, by making up irreverent names for the congregation. But Mom is on a mission to spread the word and in one hilarious, acutely observed scene, she again tries to lay traps (the increased frequency of natural disasters) to try and entice and convert her wily Catholic mother, who is having none of it: ‘It’s a push-me-pull-you of a dance,’ Kit observes. ‘As old as time, the child who was never the favourite, the mother who couldn’t love enough. They lock in with their clumsy footsteps, out of step to the music, each one trying to lead, stepping on toes.’

Affection and joy may arrive in the home ‘without warning and only sometimes’ for Kit and her siblings but it can also come from outside – Dad’s cousin Uncle Mike is ‘loud, gruff, rough, fun’ and the kids love being around him in his chaotic bedsit. Kit and her siblings also learn to find their own fun, to stick together to survive.

Everyone in the family wants to escape and change their lives, and, whilst Dad and Mom are thwarted, Kit finds salvation, the possibility of a better life away from home, first with friends, and then in the company of characters from books. She devours the classics recommended to her, the watcher becoming a reader, and later the writer who will let us into her life and tell her story – a multi-layered story about race and class, of hope and survival. It’s a wonderful, wise, and life-enhancing book that will stay with me for a long time.

About the reviewer
Alan McCormick lives in Wicklow. He’s a trustee with  InterAct Stroke Support who read fiction and poetry to stroke patients. Alan’s writing can be read in current issues of The Stinging Fly, Southword and Exacting Clam; and online at 3:AM Magazine, Fictive Dream, Dead Drunk Dublin, Mono, Words for the Wild and Époque Press. His story, 'Firestarter,' came second in this year’s RTÉ short story competition. For further information, see here

You can read more about Without Warning and Only Sometimes, by Kit de Waal, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 12 December 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Dead Drop" by F. C. Malby

I cannot recall ever reading a book with such a sensual, sense-ful, scent-ful opening. The tastes and sights and sounds enveloped me as a reader drawing me into Vienna and its streets, cafes and churches. I can smell espresso, then I can taste the Guglehupf. I feel the wind on my cheek and the bustle of people on their way to goodness knows where. It is enchantingly delightful. Malby should be asked by the Vienna tourist board to promote their city. And that is only after the first two chapters!

I haven’t even mentioned the dead body, found by our protagonist Leisl, on Stephansplatz underground steps, as if it were the most natural of things to discover. Well it was where she was told it would be. But who by? And what of the broach and the note she took from the body? Art thief by career, Liesl finds herself in a terrifying world of murder and deception in this well-researched, beautifully written thriller. She is a hero we root for, despite her criminal behaviour, as she goes on an adrenalin-running-high escapade as she seeks the truth. To Malby’s credit. I found myself in the streets and buildings of Vienna, described with the minimum of fuss, but described in such a way that I felt I was part of the city, part of the chase and totally enmeshed in the plot.

I hope this is the first in a series as there is room for so much more.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

You can read more about Dead Drop by F. C. Malby on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Tuesday 29 November 2022

Review by Laura Besley of "Three Men on the Edge" by Michael Loveday

Three Men on the Edge by Michael Loveday is a novella-length book comprised of three short novellas-in-flash, the stories of three men: Denholm, Gus and Martyn – all struggling with life. 

The first story, ‘Cause for Alarm,’ explores the marriage of Denholm and his wife, Joan. Through the use of swans – birds which are renowned to mate for life – Loveday gives us some insights into the relationship. When Denholm’s friend shows him ‘an image of a swan pair, necks wound tight round each other,’ Denholm doesn’t see romance, but instead shrugs and says, ‘“Could be the blur … but it looks to me like they’re suffocating each other.”’ Later on he muses that ‘if he’d known, really known, how much marriage is one drowning person trying to push another under, he might not have risked it.’ 

In the second story – ‘The Invisible World’ – there are twelve micro fictions, one for each month in a year of Gus’ life following the loss of his wife whose absence he still feels acutely. He is stuck in a quagmire of grief he cannot, or does not want, to find a way to move on from. ‘There’s a veil between him and the world that will not lift, and to tear it down seems a betrayal. Why is it still not consolation – witnessing these swans, these shadows, this sky?’

The final and longest novella-in-flash is ‘Chewing Glass’ wherein Martyn navigates relationships with Anja and Rob. ‘[W]ith every relationship, the miniature sculptor works her hammer and chisel on the stone lump of your heart. If you’re really lucky, Martyn thinks, a man survives well enough to be left in the end with something recognisable.’

Throughout the book, Loveday supplements the starkness of these men’s lives with the stark beauty of nature. This adds, I feel, to the presence of a certain level of resignation, but also resilience. Because life is brutal, and all you can do is live it. 

About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea. 

Monday 28 November 2022

Review by Kathleen Bell of "Thorpeness" by Alison Brackenbury

In Thorpeness Alison Brackenbury’s poems explore rural life with love but also a strong awareness of struggle and hardship. A poem about her grandfather, 'Shepherd Brackenbury,' set in lambing season in the 1930s, ends with the tender, warning couplet:

          Best shoes scratched by rough straws, I learnt love meant
          Not glances, silky curls, but blood’s raw scent.

There are celebrations of achievement but also references to the limitations imposed by class and poverty as in the reference in 'Fern' to the old man 'who would have gone / to "Grammar," if they could have bought / a crested cap, soft shoes for sport.’ There is also the satisfaction of rebellion in 'Meeting 1919' when the returning soldier, Brackenbury’s Great Uncle Sidney, tells the lady of the manor 'I’ve not come home to be bossed round by you.'

Women’s domestic achievements and heritage are celebrated alongside the work of male farm labourers. The sequence 'Aunt Margaret’s Pudding' rejoices in the work of Dorothy Eliza Barnes, the poet’s grandmother who had been a professional cook before she became a shepherd’s wife. One poem recounts how she would provide sandwiches of 'home-cured bacon and white bread' for the unemployed men who tramped across England in the rain, searching for work. The sequence concludes not with the rich and heavy sweetness of cakes, puddings, curds and pies but with the salt of samphire, gathered hazardously on the dangerous Lincolnshire shore.

This combination of comfort and danger, risk and hope is characteristic of the poems in this collection. The six-line poem 'Sunday on the Coach' demonstrates a time of peace while hinting at its fragility:

           It is June. Tall grasses nod. On the back seat
           the last baby has hiccupped into sleep.
           No one swears, nobody phones. The south wind whistles
           white motorways of cow parsley and thistles.
           A helicopter hangs, but does not strafe.
           This afternoon the innocent are safe.

For all its focus on the vivid and the particular, Alison Brackenbury’s beautifully crafted poems often seem to hint at something just out of words' reach. It is therefore fitting that the final stanza of the final poem looks both toward an unreached Thorpeness and to something further beyond:

           In tall streets, low clouds press. 
           Three swallows snatch
           a gust, a breath, last fly.
           Small voices catch
           land’s end, storm’s edge, whirl high
           far, far beyond Thorpeness.

About the reviewer
Kathleen Bell is the author of two recent poetry collections: Do You Know How Kind I Am (Leafe Press) and Disappearances (Shoestring), both published in 2021. She also writes fiction and, on occasion, teaches creative writing and leads workshops.

Friday 18 November 2022

Review by Neil Fulwood of "Radical Normalisation" by Celia A. Sorhaindo

Here’s roughly the first half of "Poetic Turn of Events," the compact, bristling, self-questioning opening poem in Sorhaindo’s astonishing collection:

        Today, The People are giving back,
        mirroring, throwing light, honest
        feedback to The Poets; uncovering
        cryptic metaphors; deciphering line
        breaks; telling The Poets exactly what
        they feel-think of them & their loopy
        poetic turns …

It’s what I’d be tempted to describe as a game-changer, except the game is barely yet afoot, and Sorhaindo has another 90 pages to deliver - 90 pages in which the poet challenges herself as rigorously as she does her readers; in which soaring intellectualism and street patois exist side by side; in which womanhood jostles with race, cultural heritage, self-interrogation and the sheer defiant act of surviving.

Poems on the aftermath of a hurricane and the rebuilding of a community are delivered in clear-sighted and stringently unsentimental terms, while a questing and experimental sensibility is apparent in pieces such as "Un-Set Binary Bits - Lingua Franca" and "animula : rapture of an Introverted Narcissist," where Sorhaindo seems to be testing the boundaries of the page itself, never mind the flexibility of the words thereon.

Radical Normalisation fuses linguistic fireworks and a freewheeling imagination, tempered by the poet’s awareness of the weighty responsibility of her craft, and is unlike any other collection I’ve read this year. 

About the reviewer
Neil Fulwood lives and works in Nottingham. He has published three full poetry collections with Shoestring Press, No Avoiding It, Can’t Take Me Anywhere and Service Cancelled, and a volume of political satires, Mad Parade, with Smokestack Books.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Review by Rosa Fernandez of “Cracked Asphalt” by Sree Sen

From the moment I read the dedication at the beginning of Sree Sen’s collection of twenty poems (‘for all those taking up odd jobs to afford poetry’) I knew I would enjoy the contents of Cracked Asphalt. While I may never have moved whole countries to make life work, I have transplanted to other cities, and it is that sense of attempting to reorient yourself into a new environment that lines like ‘tiny weeds crack open / the asphalt of my journey’ capture beautifully.

This selection is a journey in itself, beginning simply with our protagonist having arrived and already dreaming of return, and as the poems progress we build more of a picture of this new life adventure. The second poem ‘frames’ captures this simply and effectively: ‘200 doors felt my knuckle’ perfectly summarises the slog of the door-to-door fundraising job, and the lines ‘my hand … can’t make the journey / from plate to mouth’ perfectly encapsulates the exhaustion of this kind of (almost) thankless job; having been there myself it had a real physical resonance.

The finer detail and emotional depth grows through the collection and I enjoyed the simplicity of description and piercing contrasts; from one kind of belonging in a ‘Mumbai apartment’ to Dublin where it is ‘easier to love’ free from expectation and constraints. The simple brief elegance of ‘pray’ and ‘love’ as two tiny emotional flashes to the longer thoughtfulness of ‘parable of the lost cause’ which travels from the mundane daily actions out to the edges of the universe.

The warmth of these poems is perhaps best summed up in the final poem ‘Kala Ghoda’ and the ‘tripwires of nostalgia’; we end with ‘bellies warm & full of rum,’ a delicious description for this enjoyable and moving collection.

About the reviewer
Rosa Fernandez is a slam-winning poet and sometime proofreader. She also enjoys wearing silly hats. 

Monday 14 November 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "The Meanwhile Sites" by Pete Green

The Meanwhile Sites is a term, according to Google Books, "used increasingly by urban planners to refer to locations that are earmarked for future development, it is a book about places like this, and situations like this, and their relationships with people, and the oppositions of marginality against mainstream, renewability against finitude, utility against intangible value, and the changing forms of physical, cultural and psychological landscapes in a post-industrial age.” Quite a mouthful and perhaps the beauty of Pete Green’s work is that you don’t actually need the definition to understand their work as it is an obvious howl into the air about an increasingly globalised world that is attacking everything that Everyman would have stood for.

I admire Green's reminiscences of a life well spent, of a world abused, of a time when life was simpler, because the world was more simple. Their use of metaphor is stunning and in every poem we can unpick meaning and streams of consciousness as they remind us of what once was and of what now has become - the rewards for letting the developer march over us, the trader destroy our banks, the politicians who betray their promises.

These are very political poems that sweep over continents in their journey to show us what has happened through neglect and tolerance of the various political and economic processes put in place. "I am the king of Belgium" delivers us to exactly the world we have created, the world we have inherited - a world that we perhaps will never recapture as we seem to have gone too far. "The Money Tree" shows us what has been taken away, what society has lost and what can again never be recovered.

I love the experimentalism of Green's works; they give us diverse ways of promoting or pursuing a point. Not for Green a simple way - their work jumps out from the page lightly and dark, as nuanced and creative, their talent obvious and deep. Complex language, historical and literary references abound. Green shows that they understand what they are writing about. The reader can feel their anger, feel their regret.

The notes at the back of the book are useful as they show what inspired Green, though to see the finished article from the few words of inspiration is often a wonderfully mystic journey with a surprise at the end of each line, of each verse or stanza. Green challenges us. They demand that we think about their words. Their words implore us to think about the world we live in, a world that is gradually being taken away from us, a world that Green references from neolithic times to the present - a world where there is still some hope, but is there still time?

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

Sunday 13 November 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Scenes from Life on Earth" by Kathryn Simmonds

Saying that someone or something is clever is often seen as an insult, and a rather patronising one at that. But in this case, when I say that the poems of Kathryn Simmonds are clever, I mean it in the broadest possible sense. 

Kathryn Simmonds persuades us with her use of language and rhythm, appearance and tone, that her world is a world that we should enter. She draws us in with the simplicity of her writing, that disguises so many ideas and displays of talent.

We see the depth of her feelings for her mother. She mourns and we mourn with her as her pain surrounds us, dragging us into her words. These are words that envelop and create another world that we can co-exist in; a world that recognises bereavement, that shows us what loss can do, far beyond the immediate numbness and anger, but at least a measure of closure. Memories are combined with stories and images from her childhood that reflect so easily her love for her mother. Light touches shine in each poem as a remembrance is shared and happiness recalled. We see that one can move on towards, if not acceptance, a future that can keep the good things close to heart. Her poems are a celebration of life, a festival of death and an awareness of memory and how it is so important once a loved one has gone.

Some of her phrases are visceral. Others as delicate as silk. But they stick in our minds. Simmonds finds humour where we least expect it, beauty when we are looking into shadows. She observes life and death for us, as her imagination flies about her world - a world that becomes ours.

Life could be so complicated as could death, but Simmonds simplifies it and welcomes us with open arms. Witty and charming. Her good grace, her good humour overcomes sadness. The humour draws us in and wraps its arms about us. Her poem "Equinox" sums it all up so easily, so perfectly, and we can feel precisely what she means.

Kathryn Simmonds is so clever.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

You can read another review by Jane Simmons of Scenes from Life on Earth, by Kathryn Simmonds, on Everybody's Reviewing here

Friday 11 November 2022

Review by Fiona Linday of "Marrying Across Borders" by Sheela Burrell


It was an absolute pleasure to read Sheela’s generous memoirs, Marrying Across Borders. This most enlightening read shows her informed perspective on international marriage, giving others tips for thriving in the UK. They say to write what you would like to read; Sheela has filled a gap for those couples adapting to new surroundings and cultures. As well as us gleaning from her integration and connection with her family and friends, she cleverly elicits the experience of others in cross-cultural marriages. That was through a questionnaire to extend her Malaysian perspective.

This self-help book is presented striking a natural tone. Much humour and honesty keep us hooked in enjoying this helpful tool. I think it prepares those in cross-cultural marriages for smoother integration.

I particularly enjoyed the social and cultural norms chapter where Sheila says of her marriage: “When two people from different cultures fall in love, they come as two uniquely wrapped packages with intricate layers of beliefs and rules from their own culture ... We realised that we needed to respect and compromise as a couple in a cross-cultural relationship when it came to each other’s culture.”

Her story covers current topics to encourage cohesion within families. So the reader learns about misconceptions and better understands rich cultures. The layout is easy to dip into for valuable insight to engage newcomers as challenges present themselves or consume as a gripping memoir. I highly recommend this as a valuable resource to those welcoming couples in a cross-cultural marriage.

About the reviewer
Fiona Linday is an East Midland’s writer, coach and creative mentor. First published with the young adult Get Over It, Adventures, Onwards and Upwards. Then followed a prize-winning short story, ‘Off the Beaten Track,’ and the Unique Writing Publications Story Award for ‘Love’ prose non-fiction. There is a YA eBook anthology of short stories, The Heavenly Road Trip with Help For Writers. More recently, she enjoys facilitating with Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester University learners editing Family Matters: An Anthology of New Writing, 2019, and Making Our World Better, Dahlia Publishing, 2022. These projects were Arts Council supported. Her inspirational collection is Count Our Blessings, Onwards & Upwards, 2021. Presently, she is pitching a resilience-building, wildlife picture book series seeking a publisher. Her website is here. You can read more about Making Our World Better on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Thursday 10 November 2022

Review by Laura Besley of "The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing" by Hannah Storm

As Russia continues to invade neighbouring Ukraine, it feels particularly poignant to be reading – or in my case rereading – Hannah Storm’s flash collection, The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing (Reflex Press, 2021). One of its main themes is the effects of war – on individuals and what they lose as a consequence, or on a rare occasion gain, although hardly ever through choice. Further themes explored are the power struggles between men and women, and violence against women in particular, as well as the kaleidoscope of experience and emotion surrounding motherhood. 

The opening story, ‘Sarajevo Rose,’ is directly about war and the displacement Damir suffers where his name no longer means peace, but ‘scorn’ and ‘stranger’ and ‘the soiled sheets of a bedsit he [can] scarcely afford.’ Even stories not directly about war are peppered with war-like phrases, such as in the title story: ‘[h]e weapons his words’ and ‘the sound of its freedom pops like gunfire.’ Or in the case of ‘The Huntsman,’ a story about a teenager’s first French kiss, there is a distinct feeling of battle, or enemies fighting, as a ‘terrified’ Sarah locks herself in the toilet and ‘pray[s] the lock will hold.’

‘When I go to war, they loan me a flak jacket, a big blue thing designed for men’: ‘Bulletproof’ is one of several stories about women reporting on warzones, being forced to survive, and forced upon, in a world dominated by – often dominating – men, mined presumably from the author’s own journalistic experiences. 

Combining the themes of war, displacement and motherhood is the story ‘Behind the Mountains, More Mountains’ in which the main character ‘[gives] birth to a daughter, the child of men, the child of a history and country she would never really know.’

The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing is a deep and heartfelt collection, which never shies away from the painful experiences of war, its effects, and those affected by it. 

About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea. 

Tuesday 8 November 2022

Review by Thilsana Gias of "The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly" by Sun-Mi Hwang


What do you think of when you hear the word "fable"? Your mind might soar to Aesop's The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse or if you are prone to harrowing school flashbacks, Orwell's Animal Farm

But unlike these examples, Sun-Mi Hwang's fabulist novel features a protagonist that we can actually get behind and cheer on - a humble and endearing little chicken called Sprout. 

Sprout is by no means a one-dimensional character - through her struggles and sacrifices for motherhood, we see a vivid portrayal of the complexity of human emotion, allowing the character to transcend the simple role of a moral-inspiring creature and become her own valid being with a fierce sense of determination in a cruel and lonely world: "Just because you're the same kind doesn't mean you're all one happy family. The important thing is to understand each other."

Sprout's voice is deliberately portrayed as very plain and honest (given her upbringing as a lowly caged hen) and contrasts with the chiding voices of harsher and more arrogant animals that set the confining social expectations and standards of farmyard life. Consequently, it is through Sprout's uncomfortable interactions with these creatures that we realise the novel is an allegory for the trials and tribulations that immigrant mothers experience in a harsh and judgemental society. 

Now, more than ever, exposure to such voices has become an utmost necessity as we see daily news reports featuring refugees of war and environmental disaster struggling to build nests for themselves and their children; facing hostility from governments, communities and even the very lands and seas they traverse on their arduous journeys. Therefore, having these disturbing realities presented to us in the colourful yet unforgiving backdrop of the natural world allows us to focus on humanity of a yearning mother without much political noise or confusion.

Perhaps what is most captivating about the novel is how beautiful the setting looks to the protagonist despite the hardships she faces in it - we are treated to lovely descriptions and illustrations of acacia trees which evolve and change with the seasons alongside Sprout, who tries to find hope wherever she can.

If you are still wondering why you should read a book about a chicken, know that Sprout's heart-wrenching story, full of daring escapes, sinister weasels and holes of death, has a rather magnetic quality, drawing international audiences of all ages and even inspiring a comic and popular animated film. So, if there's a moral here, it's that birds of a feather flock together and that maybe, just maybe, great minds think alike.

About the reviewer
Thilsana Gias is an MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Leicester and a secondary school English Teacher. She spends her days trying to find time to write and crying every time a child confuses Romeo and Juliet with Rapunzel: "Romeo, Romeo, let down your hair!"

Thursday 27 October 2022

Review by Tracey Foster of "Modern Nature" by Derek Jarman

There’s an omnipresent overseer throughout Jarman’s Modern Nature. It manifests in different forms as he switches from daily records of the garden at Prospect Cottage, to a memoir of his childhood and life as a film producer - from the looming presence of Dungeness power station, felt through the thickest fog as his home faced ravaging seas, to the oppressive rule of the teachers at boarding school, ever vigilant for deviant behaviour.

Covering a period from the beginning of 1989 through to September the following year, he begins with the great storm that plunged the cottage into darkness, leaving him with only the beam of the lighthouse to see by. As he watches timbers fly from fishermen’s cottages and hears the wind cry like a banshee around him, he takes us back to Kansas and his nightmare dreams of Oz: "The Wizard of Oz reminds me of the frightening power of movies to move. I’m glad it had a happy ending."

The great city of Emerald, lit up like Dungeness station, is another presence that overshadows the narrative - a hint that we don’t always get what we truly wish for. 

Jarman bought Prospect with his father’s inheritance and moved there when his HIV status became public. The memoir is very poignant as he turned to face his death. Many of his friends had already succumbed to this vicious disease and he must have known that his time was running out as he built a garden in a savage microclimate. Many plants died, succumbed to the salt sprays, turned black and calcified. The temperatures could swing from intense dry heat to bitter blasts, but he persisted and replanted after every storm, gathering stones thrown up by the surges to decorate his patch.  A keen gardener and wide reader, he knew his plants and makes references to their mythical past, cultural symbolism, and power to heal. The prose is beautiful and melancholic: "Today, Dungeness glowed under a pewter sky – shimmering emeralds, arsenic, sap, sage and Verdigris greens washed bright, moss in little islands set off against pink pebbles, glowing yellow banks of gorse, the deep russet of dead bracken, and pale ochre of reeds in clumps set against the willow spinney."

This symphony of colour, intense like no other landscape, is filmic and harks back to the technicolour washes of Oz. A film-maker throughout, he sets scene after scene for us and is mindful of our reaction. During this period of writing, he was also filming War Requiem and includes the scene of poppies from the garden, buzzing with bees.

          Scarlet Poppies
          This is a Poppy
          A flower of cornfield and wasteland
          Bloody red
          Sepals Two
          Soon falling
          Petals four
          Stamens many
          Stigma rayed
          Many seeded
          For sprinkling on bread
          The staff of life
          Woven in wreaths
          In memory of the dead
          Bringer of dreams
          And sweet forgetfulness. 

I can clearly remember the towering black obelisk of 1980s public information films, warning us about the AIDS epidemic. A newly-qualified teacher at the time, I was working under the shadow of Section 28 which forbade schools from "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." Jarman’s experience of the prejudices and persecution he faced during this period whilst watching his friends "shrivel and parch like the landscape" is harrowing. From his refuge at Prospect, the nature is encompassing and assuaging but also a grim reminder that our time in the garden is finite. The debris he collects from the shores after high tides is dragged back and used to create a sculpture garden of decay, where distorted metal hums to the sound of bees - inspiring him to paint and write.

          No dragons will spring from these circles.
          These stones will not dance or clap hands at the solstice.
          Beached on the shingle,
          They lock up their memories,
          Upright as sentinels
          In the dry grass.

Name dropping throughout his close contacts and work diary, this book will appeal to anyone who is interested in media of the period, but it is the plants who steal the show. It is they he turned to at the end of his day and Prospect Cottage that was his refuge at the end of his life.

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine and The Arts Council.

Saturday 22 October 2022

Review by Gary Day of "The Past Is a Dangerous Driver" by Neal Mason


We live in a world which tolerates the past only as costume drama. Politicians, business people and management theorists are always urging us to ‘make it new.’ So it’s a delight to alight on a poet who understands that we can’t shake off the past as easily a dog does water. Neal Mason’s appreciation of this simple truth is one of the many riches of his collection. His poems, with their often striking images and subtle rhymes, feelingly explore the contradictory nature of the past, how it is both remote and ever present; how can it unfold like a rose or go off like a bomb.  

‘Lineage’ explores the speaker’s relationship with a man who may or may not have been his father. It is family drama, history and detective story, pulsing with conflicting emotions and packed with memorable and haunting phrases: ‘I accelerate through gaps / in history’s traffic to the cottage whose shell / lies in the future where it fell.’

‘Reflected on Water’ is a journey along the Thames with the speaker encountering key figures and events from British history. It teems with allusions and illustrates one of Mason’s themes, that a present without a past is like a world without gravity. Time travel is the subject of ‘The Stratagem,’ a poem that mixes up past and present in disturbing ways, all the more so because of its elegant setting. Sometimes Mason adopts the persona of inanimate objects such as nitrate or trees and imagines how they might view their part in history. My favourite in the collection is ‘The Museum of Lost Art,’ a witty, moving piece on what can never be retrieved: Venus’ arm, the library of Alexandria.

Mason riffs on Eliot’s Four Quartets but his focus is on the many faces of time rather than its redemptive properties.  

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author or editor of a dozen books including a two volume history of modern British poetry. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has been actively involved in amateur theatre for many years.

Friday 21 October 2022

Review by Jane Simmons of "Standing Up with Blake" by Philip Dunn

Philip Dunn’s work has already won him many local admirers, and now his keenly-awaited first collection introduces his work and his poetic voice to a wider audience, beyond the place where ‘the alchemy of dyke and drain / make liquid silver of the leaden skies.’

The opening poems explode into life, taking the reader from the Trump presidency by way of Blake and his visions of angels to the impoverishment of language through the removal of words from the dictionary, the extinction of lambs and lions, and the coming of a world which ‘will henceforth only ever home whatever never takes a breath.’ 

The political and the personal cross paths throughout the collection: it is only ever a small step from internet trolling to political violence, and from the evils of social media to the i-phone literate seven year-old who does not know his own surname or family address.

Dunn knows the value of approaching his subject ‘slant’ – using the song of a blackbird to plunge the reader into WW1 trenches, or skilfully exploiting intertextuality, such as when he uses the title ‘Cant and Culpability’ to make pointed comment on current politics or employs a reference to Jenny Joseph in an example of the wry or self-deprecating humour which is another characteristic of his work.

These poems do not just resonate with concerns about past and current political situations and about social change. Elsewhere, there are poems of considerable tenderness: for the awkward boy, uprooted from his familiar surroundings and hearing ‘the unmistakeable voice of exile’; for first love, ‘the boy on the green bench / burning like a grazed knee’; for relatives becoming increasingly frail in old age; and for a friend struggling with a dementia diagnosis.

Altogether, this is a collection which was well worth the wait.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher – and now a PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib Magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for the Butcher’s Dog Magazine.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Review by Jane Simmons of "Scenes from Life on Earth," by Kathryn Simmonds

Scenes from Life on Earth is the third collection of poems from Kathryn Simmonds, the follow-up to her 2008 Forward Prize-winning debut collection Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren) and her second collection Visitations (Seren 2013).

The new collection addresses the loss of the poet’s mother, how we grieve, and how we remember those we love; it also explores the related themes of motherhood, of life and death, and how to live in the modern world.

These are big themes, but Simmonds is not afraid to visit them or to explore their mysteries through the prism of her religious faith. That is not to say that the poems themselves are religious poems, or that faith dominates the collection: although there are references to Christ and poems which reference familiar Biblical narratives such as the story of Jonah and the whale, the poet is just as likely to address her big questions or arrive at her celebration of the living or the dead through perceptive observations of the natural world. The meetings of the physical and metaphysical worlds are also sign-posted in the titles of several of the poems which reference tipping points in the week, the months, and the year: 'Wednesday Morning,' 'April,' 'November,' 'Solstice,' 'Equinox.'

Lessons are taught by children, who are presented in ways which might remind the reader of Blake or Wordsworth, but also by plants, birds, insects or even garden weeds and pests such as dandelions or slugs. The war on weeds in 'Dandelion' is mistaken – the plants should be celebrated for their joyous enthusiasm for 'more life.' Elsewhere, the poet asserts that it is better to be a leaf 

          walk about all day, 
          tormented by a brain

The messages from nature are asserted once more in the closing lines of the final poem which provides the title for the collection:

          I loved the trees because
          they had redemption down, 
          oh God be glorified, I loved the trees! 
          The way they ate their old regrets 
                                                   and made them into leaves.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher – and now a PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib Magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for the Butcher’s Dog Magazine.

Friday 7 October 2022

Review by Robert Hamberger of "What the Trumpet Taught Me" by Kim Moore


Kim Moore’s What the Trumpet Taught Me is an exciting, innovative experiment with the memoir form. It uses precise vignettes of a girl and woman’s experiences with music (specifically, learning to play a cornet and trumpet over the years). These snapshots are short pieces of prose or prose-poetry – often barely longer than a page – which link chronologically to explore themes of family, education, class, gender, sexism, creativity, community, work, desire, bereavement, performance, power and self-empowerment. One of the book's joys is the skilful way that Moore explores these major issues through the prisms of a trumpet and one woman’s life and reflections. 

Given her expertise as a poet, Moore consistently plays a poet’s notes: observation and imagery, rhythm and atmosphere. The writing is absorbing throughout, virtually always in the present tense, which helps to retain its visceral immediacy. I learned too about the history of the cornet and trumpet, technical terms like single tonguing and triple tonguing, the first, second and third valve slide. It’s packed with stunning, painful insights. Here’s one: ‘I think back to all the men I’ve been taught by and my relief when they only do their job, my gratitude.’ 

Just over halfway through the book there’s a chilling depiction of an abusive relationship. The narrative trembles from its after-effects, and the reader wants the narrator to reclaim herself, feels relieved when she does so. Her trumpet remains a positive presence, companion and instrument of ultimate triumph. What the Trumpet Taught Me gives us music as stirring as any brass or soul band. It’s an engrossing and moving achievement. 

About the reviewer
Robert Hamberger’s fourth poetry collection Blue Wallpaper (Waterloo Press) was shortlisted for the 2020 Polari prize. His prose memoir with poems A Length of Road: Finding Myself in the Footsteps of John Clare was published by John Murray in 2021.  

You can read more about What the Trumpet Taught Me by Kim Moore on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Thursday 29 September 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived," by Michelene Wandor

Like London buses, good books come about in pairs.

Having read and reviewed Michelene Wandor’s Critical-Creative Writing: Two Sides of the Same Coin, I delved into an earlier book of hers about Creative Writing, and was at once captivated and intrigued, and it is not often that I have felt that about a non-fiction book. We can only admire Wandor’s own bibliography and in this book we can see why she has become such a successful writer. She ‘gets’ Creative Writing and this book will help the reader to ‘get’ it as well.

In The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived, Wandor has written the first history of Creative Writing, within it analysing the often complex relationship with English, literary studies and cultural theory. Scholarly, though not prescriptive, and challenging, her book presents us with an  inquisitive approach to Creative Writing that asks the reader, no challenges the reader, to look into their own practice and to see what they can add to the subject. 

Wandor looks at Creative Writing’s position in higher education, and what its future is and investigates and critiques the methodology of the workshop approach that we know so well, asking is this the right approach. Wandor looks for strategies for change in Creative Writing.  Should we be content with past practice or do we need something radically new in our approach as students, teachers and especially writers? This really is a ‘must read.’

There is so much in the book that we can learn from and can add to our own best Creative Writing practice. As Professor Philip Martin, former Pro Vice-Chancellor at DMU, says “A compelling, exciting read …” and its not often you can say that about an academic text!

The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else is an indispensable read for teachers and students, and all those who are worried about the future of Creative Writing, especially under our current government who seem to view creativity in all forms as subversive.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

Saturday 24 September 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Critical-Creative Writing: Two Sides of the Same Coin" by Michelene Wandor

In life, as in academia, how often do you think, “if only they had written a book about …?”

Well, I’ve found the one that I’ve been missing all this time and Michelene Wandor’s text would have been ideal for me when I set out upon my PhD. Not only that, it would be perfect at whatever level you are studying. It is that sort of book. It bridges the gap between the Creative Writing how-to handbooks, and the myriad anthologies of Literary and Cultural Theory.

This is wonderful as it divulges the roots of the concepts which determine a critical study of Creative Writing. There is a fascinating introduction to the roots of Creative Writing as an academic subject - an area alongside English that is under threat from our so-called rulers. We need to beware their machinations, too many Universities have suffered because of them, and through them, a generation of students may miss out on what we took for granted.

In this book, we can read up about how images in the Old Testament are echoed in the classical texts of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, which then lead us onto Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats and nineteenth-century realism, not forgetting to harvest the thoughts of such eminencies as Sidney, Bacon and Johnson before them. And Shakespeare of course. We read about the development of twentieth-century literary criticism as well as the development of the foundations of Literary and Cultural Theory.

This is a perfect entrée at any level and, once picked up, is truly a book that will be riven with underlining and annotating. The way it is structured gives you a taster of a world of literature that you can follow up in your own time, using the pointers and aide-memoires that Wandor has printed. We can see what each writer is promising us the reader and then from that to us the writer. We learn from the imaginative writing of, amongst others, Bakhtin, Barthes, Browning, Burke, Eliot, James, Kant, Leavis, Montaigne, Milton, Pope, Ruskin, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, Woolf, and many others, providing the reader with a bank of knowledge and sometimes disparate views, that only help to challenge us about what we are writing, as well as reading.

This is a text that can happily be used in lectures, workshops, essay writing, research and seminars, as well as an enjoyable insight into creative writing and critical theory. As Wandor writes, “It is about thinking about writing, and about ways of thinking about thinking about writing.”

This is a must have book for a student of Creative Writing, as well as those looking for inspiration in their own work.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

You can read more about Critical-Creative Writing by Michelene Wandor on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 5 September 2022

Interview with Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison, photograph by Brian David Stevens

Melissa Harrison is a novelist and nature writer

Melissa contributes a monthly Nature Notebook column to The Times and writes for the FT Weekend, the Guardian and the New Statesman. Her most recent novel, All Among the Barley, was the UK winner of the European Union Prize for Literature. It was a Waterstones Paperback of the Year and a Book of the Year in the Observer, the New Statesman and the Irish Times. Her previous books have been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (At Hawthorn Time) and the Wainwright Prize (Rain). She lives in Suffolk.

Melissa is represented by Jenny Hewson at Lutyens & Rubinstein. She can be found on Twitter at @M_Z_Harrison. 

Interviewed by Joe Bedford

JB: I’d like to start by asking how you feel about the tradition of the English rural novel to which At Hawthorn Time and All Among the Barley belong. As a genre which was immensely popular especially in the interwar period, and seems to be in resurgence now (I’m thinking of writers like Tim Pears, Claire Fuller and yourself), how do you see your work speaking to that canon? Do you feel, when writing, that you are entering a dialogue with Hardy, Lawrence, the interwar writers and others?

MH: You’re absolutely right: rural novels have a long history in this country, but reached a peak of popularity in the years after the First World War, part of a wave of countryside writing that included dozens of farming memoirs like Adrian Bell’s hugely popular Corduroy trilogy, and a rash of motoring and walking guides such as Grigson’s Shell Country Alphabet. Some of these books were aimed at helping the (still relatively recent) phenomenon of ‘townies’ reconnect with their rural roots; others were a reaction against the new horrors of mechanised warfare, and a balm for the social and economic upheavals that followed. The boom in nature writing we’ve seen for the last 10–15 years has its roots in some of the same soil.

I wouldn’t personally include Lawrence as part of the interwar tradition of rural writing – his primary concerns are people and ideas rather than place, I’d say – but you’re right, it’s certainly a period I have a deep and complex relationship with. I suppose I want to interrogate the image of rural England that was conjured up in those years, or if not conjured up, buffed to a high shine. Nostalgic even at the time, I find the vision of farmland and villages and market towns captured by many of those books utterly alluring: it feels rooted inside me, part of my inner architecture, something lost that I long for in a bone-deep way, as I long for the ordered, bucolic rural landscapes drawn by Charles Tunnicliffe and Ronald Lampitt in the Ladybird books of the 1940s and 50s and elsewhere. But at the same time I’m deeply suspicious of this longing, knowing full well how reactionary, excluding, unjust and frankly unhealthy that fantasy of England was then, and still is in the wrong hands today.

My mother was born and brought up in what’s now Pakistan, in the last days of the British Raj. Her mother was Anglo-Indian, her father a British school teacher: national identity, for both women, was never clear-cut, given the prejudices and political complications of that period in that place. My five siblings were born in India; I’m the only one in my family who was born here, in commuter-belt Surrey: a place where none of us had roots. In the foothills of the Himalayas, Mum grew up speaking Urdu and hearing talk of ‘home,’ a country she’d never visited, yet when she came here she missed the country of her birth for the rest of her days. The books she loved best – and that she read to us when we were small – were stories of English rural life: Cider With Rosie, Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, Lark Rise to Candleford, the Miss Read books, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and nature novels like Watership Down, A Black Fox Running, Tarka the Otter, Duncton Wood and BB’s The Little Grey Men books; even The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings contributed, I think, to a reading culture which was intensely romantic (and elegiac) about the English countryside – although the rural villages and farms it described could be found nowhere around us in the Home Counties of the 1970s and 80s. My continued fascination with that kind of writing feels a bit like picking at a scab, I suppose: nostalgia for an imagined rural past is a faultline in our national psyche that also runs through mine, and I find it hard to leave its contradictions alone.

JB: Running with that theme of looking back, I’m also interested in your attitudes to nostalgia, both in your own work and elsewhere. You’ve written that ‘political and social nostalgia may be dangerous, but ecologically it’s unavoidable’ (Stubborn Light), which feels like a nuanced view on nostalgia as a potentially useful conservationist tool – something active, akin to what Svetlana Boym calls ‘reflective nostalgia.’ What are your feelings on the role nostalgia has to play in conserving our environment, and in the ways you yourself approach the natural world as a writer?

MH: If you’re at all engaged with the current crisis you’ll know that we’re facing ongoing losses and extinctions, some of which may yet be ameliorated but many of which are now unavoidable. Yet one of our greatest blind spots is to the rate of diminishment, captured by the term ‘baseline shift.’ We each take as a norm the state of nature in our childhoods, and though we may notice the losses that occur ‘on our watch’ (and many of us never do), it’s very hard for us to understand the far, far greater losses that have occurred across greater sweeps of time. And here, nature writing can prove to be invaluable. The world I grew up in was much richer in wildlife than the one I inhabit now, and I grieve for the nightly hedgehogs, lesser spotted woodpeckers, great crested newts and flocks of lapwing on the Somerset Levels that I remember from when I was a child; but in rural writing from earlier in the 20th century, and beyond, I read of creatures like corncrakes that I have never and may never see in the wild, and of abundance – flocks, swarms, shoals – I can’t even imagine. It’s impossible to read those accounts without a keen sense of nostalgia, and rightly so: we can and should use that feeling as a spur to try and restore species and landscapes not to their condition in our youth but to a carrying capacity we may never have experienced ourselves. That doesn’t, in my view, mean picking a date in the past and somehow rolling back time to try to recreate it; it means working in the here and now to great a newly rich, dynamic and resilient ecosystem that responds to the pressures but also the technologies we have today. And books are part of that toolkit: as I’ve mentioned before, stories are powerful: they can drive engagement and connection, and create change. They can also be a way for us to collectively process our grief, and can be a vital act of witness – a memorial, even – just as books written a century ago are today.

You mentioned the writer and cultural theorist Svetlana Boym. The distinction she makes between what she defines as two types of nostalgia is interesting: 'Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt' (‘Nostalgia,’ in Atlas of Transformation). Going by that definition I’d agree that reflective nostalgia is central to the kind of writing I do. Certainly, I don’t believe in restoring the past intact – or in any version of ‘absolute truth.’ Any truth we can approach in our own lives is always partial, culturally inflected, temporally unstable and subjective. There is no ‘view from nowhere,’ and we’re in trouble if we believe otherwise.

JB: Tied to that theme of nostalgia, I’m interested in the tensions between place and identity that come to the fore not just in All Among the Barley, but in your non-fiction as well. You’ve written about the ‘very real dangers in tying national identity to place … because it leaves no room for change’ (Article for Foyles, 2019), but also about how ‘connecting with and defending our “home patches” is a powerful way to protect the environment’ (Stubborn Light). I wonder how you feel about the tension between these two ideas, and how that continuum from localism to nationalism (and even fascism) is handled in your work.

MH: It's crucial that we nature- and place-writers don’t fall into the trap of believing that only a certain set of people with a prolonged history of living in a place really ‘belong’ there, or can appreciate or understand it. If we do that, then any change to the social make-up of an area becomes a threat – and we cannot afford that kind of thinking in an age of climate breakdown and mass population movement. We absolutely must cultivate a way of thinking that is flexible and open and welcoming of change when we create stories and narratives about place – because, as I’ve mentioned already, stories are incredibly powerful.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that as someone bewitched by history, heritage and tradition, welcoming change would be difficult. I love nothing more than to discover an ancient dialect word for a wildflower, or a regional method for laying a hedge; I’m fascinated by folklore and the hyper-local forms of culture that have been preserved in large part by groups of people interacting in a prolonged manner with the specific geography of a place. But there’s only a conflict between caring about tradition and welcoming change if you see the past as a fixed entity, and change as a new thing. Yet we are a nation built on constant immigration: over and over we’ve folded into ourselves the gifts other cultures have brought us us, adding to, not erasing, our set of stories about these isles. All we need to do in this current moment is to keep doing what we’ve been doing for centuries, rather than believing in the (frankly ahistorical) idea of static national, regional or local identities.

When it comes to conservation, the beauty of looking after a ‘home patch’ is that anyone can do it, no matter their cultural background or how long they’ve lived in a particular spot. Whether it’s a garden, a street tree, a park with a ‘Friends’ society or a local nature reserve, everyone can find somewhere to connect to and develop a sense of custodianship for. Entering into an imaginative and emotional relationship with a ‘home patch’ – watching it grow and change, finding out what lives there and what those things need, protecting it from damage – can bring enormous benefits, both for people and for the natural world. Added up, garden by garden, tree by tree, park by park, that kind of care can utterly transform an area’s richness in wildlife, as well as its custodians’ mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health, and their feeling of belonging and rootedness, too.

JB: At the height of the pandemic, a set of posters (falsely attached to Extinction Rebellion) were circulated claiming that ‘humanity is the disease, coronavirus is the cure.’ Reflections of this kind of anti-humanist, deep ecological theory (including problematic aspects like population ethics) are something I sometimes recognise in what is otherwise very mainstream contemporary nature writing (though not, I should point out, in your own). Is this a phenomenon that you’ve noticed in nature writing, and how robust do you feel nature writing is in handling these complex feelings of blame towards the human population?

MH: Right now there’s a real danger of nature writing (and nature writers) being co-opted by both the very far left and the very far right – who, of course, are not very far apart. We can’t afford to be naïve about the potential for texts lauding pure and untouched nature and bemoaning the sullying influence of humankind being used by these groups to promote dark ideologies, often in a way that begins fairly uncontroversially (and sometimes lyrically and persuasively) but leads somewhere very unpleasant indeed.

It seems to me that if what truly exercises you right now is the ecological effect of rising population levels you should be advocating for women’s education and improved access to contraception and abortion, supporting migration into countries with falling birth rates and an ageing tax base, and working to help new citizens connect with and care for the natural world in their adopted homes (which means making access possible, but not dictating the form in which it occurs). Yet I don’t see many eco-fascists doing that work.

We all also need to think carefully about the language we use around native and non-native wildlife so that we using it much more mindfully. Many native species, such as bracken, behave invasively and are causing enormous issues; many introduced species, such as little owls, are not only unproblematic, but beloved. We need to assess species (and people) as individuals, rather than drawing damaging equivalencies between country of origin and intrinsic worth. How we talk about ring-necked parakeets or yellow-legged hornets may seem like a small matter, but frankly, I feel it’s often where we let our pants show.

Finally, you mentioned the idea of ‘blame’ towards the human population, and this, I think, is where a lot of resistance to the changes we need to make is stemming from. None of us like being blamed, so we try to shift that blame on to others, or on to species, or to rid ourselves of the discomfort we simply switch off from the entire notion of engaging with the problems we currently face. But there’s a difference between something being your fault and it being your responsibility. It’s not your fault, or mine, that we are where we are. We were born into the world as it is now, and must live in it: we are not to blame. But that doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility to try and lessen the losses to come, while we still can.

JB: Finally I’d like to touch on something I discussed recently in my interview with the author Will Burns. In Will’s novel The Paper Lantern, our capacity for hope in the face of the degradation of the countryside is stretched to breaking point, as it is for many of us when we read about the continuing challenges our landscape faces. That said, how do you envision the future of the English countryside? Does it have a future, and if so, what do you think that future might look like?

MH: Of course: England’s villages, with all their varied, vernacular architecture, aren’t going to be pulled down, and we’re still going to need to grow food, which means the farmland we’re used to seeing will survive, too; in fact, it’s likely to become more and more important that we produce as much food as possible at home, and that requires land. For many people, those villages, set between rolling green fields (or golden ones in summer) are the epitome of rural beauty – despite the fact that although they look unchanging and bucolic, under modern agricultural systems those fields can be staggeringly empty of wildlife (not for nothing did the naturalist Chris Baines once say that if you want to make farmland more biodiverse the best thing you can do is build houses on it, as urban areas are often far richer in wildlife than intensively farmed land). So yes, in that sense, the English countryside has a future.

But I’m guessing that when you talk about hope you mean hope for a countryside that’s species-rich as well as productive, a home for hedgehogs, nightingales, turtle doves, otters, purple emperors, water voles, stag beetles, song thrushes and all the other forms of non-human life that make this country their home. And here I think it’s important to move away from the ‘hope / no hope’ binary: if we fall into that trap, we’re effectively letting ourselves off the hook by saying either that everything is going to be fine so nothing needs to be done, or that the battle is already lost so there’s no point making any effort. The truth is, everything isn’t going to be OK, but how bad things get is in large part still up to us.

I think of what’s coming down the line as a bottleneck. There are going to be more extinctions, and further falls in abundance, but how many species we get through that bottleneck depends on the work we all put in now. And it really will take all of us. Not everyone has the singlemindedness necessary to be an activist; some of us are thinkers or communicators, some are community mobilisers, some have political or public-facing skills, some have the ability to guide children in a way that benefits the world to come, to influence an employer or to flex their economic muscles to bring about change. We can’t each take on all of those roles, and that’s OK. But I think we should all be taking on at least a couple.

And there are enough good things happening to counterbalance the bad. I usually avoid the term ‘rewilding’ as I think a lot of the discourse around it has become polarised and toxic – for which the environmental movement should shoulder a lot of responsibility – but the energy that is currently being generated around restorative and regenerative forms of land use is absolutely staggering to me. From individuals to farmers to landowners and councils, there has been a dramatic and sudden sea-change in people’s understanding of what land might be for that has occurred at a deep, perceptual level and is still gathering pace. Just as much of the degradation of our countryside took years to become apparent, this shift will take decades to fully show results, and there’s very good reason to be hopeful about what those results might be.

Hand-in-hand with that ongoing process, Brexit – for all its terrible effects – has given us the opportunity to change how we pay farmers and landowners to manage land, and what we ask them to provide. We’re still kicking about in the weeds, which is causing all sorts of problems for farmers who need to be able to plan ahead, and many of the most exciting initial proposals have predictably been watered down, but I do think we’ll end up with something better for nature than we had before. And finally, the burgeoning movement for improved access to the countryside is interesting. The pandemic did what nature writers like me could only have dreamed of: connected many people with their inner need for nature, got them outdoors, looking for solace and finding it. And with that has come a growing appreciation that access isn’t always easy or equitable, and that there are barriers – economic, cultural, social, practical – for many groups when it comes to outdoor activities other people take for granted.

I’d like to see a countryside where farmers are supported to produce high-value crops on the most productive land while helping marginal land to become truly species-rich; where dozens more oases of true rewilding such as Knepp are connected to each other by thick hedges, strips of woodland and other wildlife corridors so that creatures can move across intensively farmed land; where rivers are rewiggled and beavers used to restore wetlands, locking up carbon and preventing flooding downstream (and with a sensible management system such as exists in Bavaria). I’d like to see more gardens, parks and entire villages allowed to become overgrown and ‘untidy,’ rich in insects and birds and full of decay and dynamic, changing, connected habitats; and I’d like to see people from all sorts of backgrounds finding their way into the British countryside, making rich new connections with it, and feeling welcome there.

About the interviewer
Joe Bedford is a writer from Doncaster, UK. He is currently a PhD Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. His short stories have been published widely, including in Litro, Structo and MIR Online, and have won numerous prizes including the Leicester Writes Prize 2022. His debut novel A Bad Decade for Good People will be released by Parthian Books in Summer 2023. For more information see Joe's website here.