Thursday 30 June 2022

Review by Sally Evans of "The Last Days of Petrol" by Bridget Khursheed

This first poetry book by Bridget Khursheed, who lives in the Borders near Melrose, is full of powerful, distinctive poems, mostly about countryside phenomena, with a sense of continuity through ecological awareness and awareness of the present. Its seventy-eight pages, packed with poems, display a certainty of vocabulary, rhythm and phrase unusual in a first book of poems. There’s the same certainty about line ends in the poems, which vary from page width to a few having very short lines.

Some of these poems are essentially ‘nature’ poems, some imply family and children, a few are quietly polemic, like the poem about Helen Duncan, a well-researched and unusual take on the Scottish woman who became involved in Churchill’s war propaganda, or the title poem, about frantic car messages round the country, descending to

           empty journeys,
           fast except by speed cameras,

           and the trip to the shops
           things nobody needs packed
           by a teenager …

Whether these poems are set in her local Borders with their unknown lanes and riversides, Edinburgh’s Easter Road, Kelvingrove, the Eildons, or Darnick, Khursheed’s strong sense of place gives a background to the range of poems, in which there is always a link between the clearly pictured observations and the observer. In City wood above the bypass,

           I am walking through the machine-gun wood,
           looking for siskins.

and then we are told what she finds:

          the path is needled
          and high above the pitched notes of crossbill
          and goldcrest
          are the blown wires that tear up the sky

to the surprise conclusion:

         I am looking for siskins in the pinewood
         and instead I find only me.

All he vocabulary is precise and consistent. There are a few country words: cleavers, scroggs (perhaps the most obscure, meaning crabapples), technical words when wanted, freshly used words: 'Toys abraded  / into nightmare in the silence,' or 'Rucksacked, the baby cries for home.'  

With so many people publishing poems these days, and it’s a good feature of Scottish culture that poetry can thrive in this way, not too much is generally expected of a first book. But this one raises the game. It raises the hopes and discoveries of the poetry reader and shows us a live, properly managed, healthy, modern, country Scottish English. Not a line wrong, not a word out of place.

About the reviewer
Sally Evans edited Poetry Scotland from 1997-2018, and was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 2022. 

You can read a review of Sally Evans's novel, Wildgoose: A Tale of Two Poets, on Everybody's Reviewing here

Wednesday 29 June 2022

Review by Tracey Foster of "Let's Ride Leicester Literary Tour," on Saturday 25 June 2022

Saturday was a good day to go on a bike ride. What a great way to see the backstreets and alleyways of our city! I must admit, I was a little nervous as I signed up to join the "Let’s Ride Leicester Literary Tour" to visit the key sites and places associated with our great writers, Joe Orton and Sue Townsend. The scale of the ride looked daunting, but the pace was slow enough to enjoy it. 

The University of Leicester’s Dr Emma Parker talked us through the relevant history and gave us a valuable insight into the life of Joe Orton from his humble beginnings, making plays in his garden with his sisters, to applying for a place at the Little Theatre. The subsequent demolition of his childhood home took away our sense of place as Emma read snippets from his teenage diary and his sister’s memoir (Leonie Orton, I Had It In Me). We also visited the University’s David Wilson Library that houses a ceramic pot made by Joe Orton’s niece, Rachel Barnett and a stencil artwork by street artist Stewy. We also stopped off at a local kebab shop that has been decorated by Leicester City Council with an image of Joe Orton to celebrate his success.

The highlight of the tour was the stop at the Pork Pie Library in the middle of the Saffron Lane estate where both writers grew up and visited in their youths. This magnificent old building has now acquired listed status and has retained some of the original interiors and fixtures. The head librarian Tracey Inchley was very keen to welcome us and gave us a fascinating talk about the library and its historical connections to the two writers. We saw the board game made by teenagers working on a 2017 exhibition about Joe Orton by Soft Touch Arts that reflected the struggles and pitfalls of growing up on the Saffron Lane Council Estate. Peter Simmonds talked enthusiastically about Sue Townsend as the reluctant writer, and creator of Adrian Mole, who never broadcasted her fame but remained faithful to her beloved Leicester all her life. He read snippets of Mole wisdom outside the buildings that were related to the text.

Combining gentle exercise with insight into two local literary heroes was a great idea and a tour that was well worth the effort. I recommend this event to the keen reader and the gentle cyclist alike. Many thanks to all those who were involved with organising and presenting on the day.

If you’d like to give it a go, this ride will run again during Leicester Comedy Festival / LGBT History Month in February. 

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 has taken the 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.

Friday 24 June 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Paper Crusade" by Michelle Penn

The poems here echo Shakespeare's Tempest and are a response to The Tempest Replica, a dance performance choreographed by Crystal Pite.

How often do you
sit and read a poem
and are transported
Different world?
To storms and sea?
To wars and death?
And meet
absolute power, 
an evil colonialism, 
the wild exotic environment, 
music and 
Who is 
The daughter?
The father?
Is the winged spirit truly
Ariel or
Who are the white suited
paper masked
Who do they fight?
And why?
We follow the journey.
The words draw us in
each chosen for
their immaculate 
Willingly we
The words
unwavering in their 
Drawn in
to a parallel 
of sprites and fancy
war and death.
A perfect mix
For any reader.
Of any age.
For any Age.

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.

Thursday 23 June 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "The Cry of the Icemark" by Stuart Hill


This is a thrilling fantasy novel from Stuart Hill's acclaimed Icemark series. Written mainly at the tills of Waterstones in Leicester during the stores quiet times, this is an epic contribution to the fantasy world. The book was reissued mid-Covid and is well worth a read. 

When her beloved father dies in battle, the fourteen-year-old Thirrin becomes Queen of the Icemark, a tiny kingdom situated between dangerous neighbours. Thirrin needs to raise an army to protect her people from the seemingly invincible Imperial invaders. She searches for allies far beyond her kingdoms borders, and meets former enemies in the Land-of-the-Ghosts and the frozen Hub of the World. But the one question that haunts her is: can she save her kingdom?

Thirrin is a true Warrior Queen and a major force in Hill’s fantasy world.

The book and others in the Icemark Trilogy deserves a new audience, a new generation of readers who will delight in the battles in the Icemark.

It is beautifully written, a true page turner that rampages across the pages, drawing the reader into the story, delighting them as they enter the vivid imagination of Stuart Hill.

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.

Wednesday 22 June 2022

Interview with Philip Tew

Philip Tew is a writer of fiction, a poet and an academic who focuses on the Anglo-American novel from 1920 to the present, especially avant-garde fiction. After a varied career, he became Professor of English at Brunel University London where he completed a second doctorate in Creative writing (Fiction) awarded in 2016. He retired in August 2021 and was made Professor Emeritus at Brunel. He lived in Leicester from 1972 to 1981 and toward the end of that time taught in several local schools, at one of which Jon Wilkins was a colleague.  

Interviewed by Jon Wilkins

JW: Tell us about yourself and your time in Leicester. 

PT: I came to Leicester in 1972 as a student at Leicester University, studying law, but I changed to American Studies after my first year. Also, in that first year I met a local woman from Welford who was a fellow student and a keen Foxes fan. I stayed on after graduation in 1976, getting married during the great heatwave of that summer. I thought about joining the RAF, but I didn’t want my hair cut short, and my wife would not contemplate leaving the area. Instead, I trained for a year at Leicester Polytechnic, at their Scraptoft site, to become a teacher, a PGCE, with my main teaching practice at a middle school in Wigston. I think it’s now South Wigston High School, for 11-16 year-olds, previously 10-14 under the Leicestershire Plan. I was mentored by a great older chap who’d gone into the profession straight out of the army. He wore a suit. I was casual and scruffy. After lots of interviews where my face clearly didn’t fit (or was it my non-posh London accent perhaps?), I found my first job at Lancaster Boys’ School, a secondary modern offering single sex education. That’s where Jon and I first met as colleagues, and became friends. As you know well it was a pretty grim place in which to work back then.  After my separation from my wife I disappeared back down to the smoke, as Sue Townsend used to call it. More of her in my responses to other questions below. 

I had an ambivalent relationship with Leicester, because I missed London and wanted out of teaching, but couldn’t see me doing that in the city as it was then. Looking back I enjoyed the sports, the pubs and the crowd of people I hung around with. I loved my house which we bought for about six grand in South Knighton in maybe late 1977. However, I found everything recurred, the same people at exceedingly similar parties, same crowd in two or three pubs, and same Waitrose every Friday evening. I wanted more from life. We drank in the Cradock, the Clarendon, the Magazine; I went for occasional pints with a character called Chris Challis (again more on him below) in the Rifle Butts. It’s mostly in my novel, Afterlives, apart from the shopping.  

JW: What was the literary scene like in Leicester in late 1970s?

PT: The literary scene locally, for me that was brilliant, with lots of poetry groups, workshops and magazines, writing workshops and a plethora of alternative bookshops. The university and the polytechnic ran events and writers’ groups, so did local people. There was one night class I attended run by Rosalin Brackenbury (née Crabtree), a skilled writer in the Woolfian mould, who now lives in Key West, Florida and appeared to be still active in 2019. 

Overall, it was a very lively scene, very supportive. I saw Ginsberg, Bunting, McGough, Adrian Henri, Graham Greene and many other lesser names. I suppose the local poet, Chris Challis, was a kind of mentor to me, although I didn’t realise it at the time. He was a quirky but very generous guy, a definite long-hair from the 1950s and 1960s. He’s a key character in my first published novel, Afterlives (2019). During my time in Leicester I wrote and published poetry in various magazines, even gave readings on occasions when Challis was the headline act. I remember one at Nene College in Northampton—where he was writer-in-residence—and another in the Vaults, a traditional pub in the market place in Uppingham. Aged twenty-five I spent my second summer holidays while a teacher writing a novel entitled Swallows in the Sky, a crappy, juvenile title adapted from Junket’s ‘Ode to Autumn.’ I tapped away during late July and August at my ancient portable, bottle of Tippex to hand, upstairs in my terraced house in South Knighton. Later, I published several scenes as short stories in the university arts magazine, Luciad. Another guy, an English lecturer at the university, J.C. ‘Ian’ Hilson (1946-1980), encouraged me in this. However, unfortunately just as the eighties began he died on 9th June in an accident when his car was struck by a speeding motorcycle doing about a ton along London Road, going into town I believe. Such a waste, a real tragedy as Ian was only about thirty-four! He’d read my first novel, which he thought showed great promise, but I never did a thing with it in the aftermath of his death, somehow couldn’t bring myself to return to it. 

JW: You started a literary magazine in Leicester, tell us about it.

PT: A group of us got together, not sure how and where, to think about a Leicester-based arts magazine, which we bid for funding. It was a monthly I think, with reviews, an events page and interviews etc., the usual mix. We had local authority and Arts Council funding, and we had to present a business plan for this support. However, the first pair of main editors immediately shifted direction and they spent most of our money on a launch hosted by the theatre in town, the Haymarket, then by the Clock Tower, trying to find long-term, generous advertisers. We had caterers and lots of booze. The returns were negligible. Our title was magazine (lower case, imagining that made some sort of statement). We managed three issues, but the printer held back the third because of our debts. 

I liked Sue Townsend a great deal, met through Challis. She too had been encouraged to write by him. Together we persuaded her to contribute a feature to magazine, which was the diary of a teenager, Nigel Mole. She changed the name later, advised it was too close to the Nigel Molesworth stories by Geoffrey Willans, illustrated by Ronald Searle. I recall laying out the second issue of magazine on a huge pine table in Sue Townsend’s house in Highfields, drinking copious amounts of wine and beer. As we all now know, Sue went on to deserved fame and success, but she remained as grounded and modest as when I first met her in her years of struggle. I remember her well from workshops at the Phoenix Theatre where she’d gained a bursary. This was opposite the Magazine pub, one of my favourite city-centre hostelries. Sue—after whom the arts centre was renamed in 2015—would have been working on Womberang, which was performed at the Soho Poly in London in 1979. Many people have forgotten she was a gifted and funny playwright.  It was the news of her death in April 2014 (on my car radio) that persuaded me to start writing fiction again.

JW: BS Johnson, the subject of your doctoral thesis was a huge influence. Tell us why.

PT: Well, he was a working-class Londoner, working on experimental fiction, a sub-genre I’m drawn too. There’s something brutally honest and puritan about Jonson’s fiction, whose style is very controlled and compelling. There’s not a hint of bourgeois sensibilities. These were all things to which I aspired when younger, but could not achieve. When I decided to undertake a doctorate he was the obvious choice, plus back then he was much neglected, almost forgotten, so limited secondary sources which gave me the space to be original, and not face screeds of reading in my preparation. That would be very different today, as much scholarly work has appeared on this author and still does. For anyone unfamiliar with his work (especially aspirant writers) I’d highly recommend Albert Angelo and Trawl

JW: Which Leicester writers influenced you?

PT: At the time that I lived there, Chris Challis, Sue Townsend and Rosalind Brackenbury, plus Malcolm Bradbury, Colin Wilson and Joe Orton. They offered an example of how one might turn the everyday into significant modes of creative expression. I think of all of them Orton intrigued me most. And at that time I hadn’t twigged the slenderest of Leicester connections of Julian Barnes, as first he’d only produced his first novel, Metroland, which was only six months old when leaving, but he is a Foxes fan. 

JW: What informs your writing today?

PT: My past life and the world of the university sector as it evolved institutionally over the past forty or fifty years. I’m often concerned with issues of sexual fidelity, and the degradation of personal relationships after betrayal. I’m also motivated by what I mostly don’t find in British fiction. There are many writers who for me, whatever the merits of their novels, just don’t get how it is to be an ordinary person. I want B. S. Johnson’s stark honesty, the well-observed mundane cynicisms and singular interconnections of an early Muriel Spark, but mostly we get bourgeois niceties, even when and where the world purveyed is bleak. So, what mostly informs my writing is seeking to achieve is to capture the subtleties and nuances of everyday life in a fictional or quasi-fictional format, so very much B.S. Johnson again. Although my style is very different from his, the underlying ambitions are very similar. 

JW: How has your writing developed since you left Leicester?

PT: A huge amount: I think it’s far more fluent, well-edited and thoughtful, and certainly many readers seem to think so. I left Leicester when I was almost twenty-seven, so still a young man, but I was very troubled by the vicissitudes of my personal life, my divorce. And, I knew I was still learning to write. After a break of a year or so, I continued writing and tried to find publication after that for a period of maybe fifteen years, but without much success. So somewhat disillusioned, I abandoned fiction as a creative practitioner. After having completed a doctorate on Johnson, I turned to academic writing after that and produced as author, editor or by various collaborations twenty-seven volumes. A twenty-eighth will appear next year, a final one I think. Now I focus on fiction and occasional poetry, as I have done since 2014.  

JW: How much has Leicester influenced your writing? There are a lot of echoes in your stories.

PT: For me Leicester is all about the ambivalence, of living somewhere that has great merits, but you’d rather be elsewhere, needing a return to your roots. However, as I age, the city also represents a phase of my youth, one full of passions and energy, a phase of my life I enjoy revisiting. Plus, I had so many good friends and met so many interesting writers in an environment you might not anticipate doing so. Echoes is correct: Leicester resonates within me, confuses me, and delights me in equal measure. All of which is fertile ground for a writer of poetry and fiction. 

JW: Tell us about your novels and which one(s) you are happiest with.

PT: Afterlives involves an extended autobiographical reflection of all the creative people I had known, many of whom had died, mostly without much public success. I was not only convinced that they were good writers, but that my interactions with them also offered certain insights into creativity. My fictional alter ego is Jim Dent, the protagonist. However, this is certainly not a memoir, and has lots of fictional elements. You might consider my life as being used like a clothes hanger, in essence a framework upon which I can set out new and different sets of clothes. Hence it provides a chronology, a logic of existence, places and certain people, but they are all adapted to convey the nuances of life I mentioned earlier, with a touch of hubris here, amity there, an element of spirit, nostalgia, feeling, 

Fragmentary Lives is a companion piece, but is fully fictionalized. In it the past is explored in three interconnected novellas. The first novella, ‘Another Long Weekend,’ incorporates my time as a play-leader for the Greater London Council (GLC) and explores the tensions and loyalties of male friendship when facing a mutual object of desire. The second, ‘Swimming the Goldfish Bowl,’ features Luke Windsor, a young doctoral student drawn into the machinations of an attractive, but hard-faced blonde who moves into lodgings in the house in Tufnell Park he shares. The third, ‘After the Revolution (Failed to Materialize),’ explores retrospectively the presumptive political idealism of the hard left during the seventies and eighties. 

My second novel, Clark Gable and his Plastic Duck, is set in 1991 and centres on Bill Pugh, another play-leader working for the GLC. In this alternate reality Thatcher has lost the Falklands War and after a failed premiership of Michael Foot, followed by a misguided one led by Michael Heseltine, Alan Clark has become Prime Minister. He initiates a right-wing government, an effective coup. Protests and a bombing campaign follow. Pugh is more concerned with his failed romance and the arrival of an attractive female co-worker. A privatized new security apparatus (modelled in part on the wartime SOE) hires thugs to enforce a new orthodoxy and Pugh comes to their attention after the surprise visit of a school-friend, Connie Chidley. This prompts a host of memories, some highly uncomfortable. Their lives are once again intertwined, with notable consequences for both. 

JW: What are you working on now?

PT: I’m finishing off what I consider to be my best novel to date, Heroes and Villains. My son agrees, and he’s an excellent judge of these things. This narrative has various experimental elements, and it has three narrative perspectives set out in three different sections, following a different account of the tribulations of Luke Windsor. Overall, his struggle animates the narrative. If I said any more all suspense would be lost.  

JW: Having read the earlier drafts of Heroes and Villains I can attest to the fact that it will be well worth a read when published. I will be writing a review on Everybody’s Reviewing when it comes out. Phil returned to London after various adventures at home and abroad and now works out of his garden shed in Enfield. I love the nods to Leicester in his writing, evidence of the positive influence our fair city has had upon Phil.

About the interviewer
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 Jon Wilkins's review of Clark Gable and His Plastic Duck by Philip Tew on Everybody's Reviewing here

Tuesday 21 June 2022

Review by Tracey Foster of "Islands of Abandonment" by Cal Flyn

In post-war bombed-out Britain, nature crept over and slowly reclaimed the wasteland in our towns, leading the director of Kew Gardens E. J. Salisbury to write about ‘the rapid clothing of blackened scars of war by the green mantle of vegetation.’ This book too is a hymn to the rewilding of a post-human landscape.

Travelling to all the remotest parts of the world post industrialisation, Flyn describes in beautiful prose the quiet, calming effect of nature’s restorative powers. Places that are regarded as cast off, inhuman dead zones - abandoned industrial waste, derelict buildings, nuclear fallout areas - all are found to have let nature creep in and take over: 'The glasshouse stands chest-deep in thistles. They grow tightly packed, straight up, soft heads fluffed and overripe, coming loose at the sides, ruffled by the draughts that seep through the broken panes. Thistledown hangs in the air, shifting on almost imperceptible currents, moving slowly through shafts of light.'

The nuclear test zone of Bikini Atoll, used exclusively in the 40s and 50s, was found in 2008 to contain a lagoon of kaleidoscopic life and be one of the most impressive underwater reefs on earth. Time and time again Flyn explores examples of nature moving in as man moves out. Nature thrives as she is left alone to repair what we have damaged. But Flyn gives us a word of warning: ‘these are not stories of redemption but restoration,’ for the land is always immeasurably altered and never replaced. 

A note of hope comes from recent science that shows that after competing with a global market, 63 million hectares of Soviet farmland was abandoned and is now contributing to the carbon capture of 7.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Part of this was the huge area around the nuclear plant of Chernobyl that was abandoned in 1986. Flyn's visit to the rewilded region takes on even more poignancy since the outbreak of the current war in Ukraine. How much has now been lost after so many gains will need to be told another day. 

This book is not just based on scientific study. Flyn also references a wider literature heritage from Milton’s Paradise Lost, to T. S. Elliot’s Wasteland and H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. This book should appeal to all as it draws from so many backgrounds. 

Flyn recently won the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award and spoke about her childhood in a wheelchair. Born with one leg shorter than the other, she underwent over twenty operations before the age of fifteen and was determined to not let this stop her. In this book she describes climbing under barbed wire and into derelict buildings to reach every part of the post-human landscape and takes her time to note every leaf and moss patch.

Quoted in the Sunday Times, she said, ‘some people have described my book as polemic, but I see it as anti-polemic.’ Can we ever replace what we have lost? Looking across the industrial New Jersey Bay she is reminded of the sculptor Robert Smithson: 'It does feel like a landscape of abandoned futures: where derelict mills and warehouses stand awkwardly along the waterfront, and clapboard houses in white and baby blue crowd between the ankles of bridges and flyovers and stacks of disused shipping containers a hundred metres high tower over everything and, away to the west, the sun going down.'

As the sun goes down, we all hope that nature can put a plaster on our man-made wounds and at least help to heal some of the damage that we have created: 'We are in the midst of a huge self-directed experiment in rewilding. Because abandonment is rewilding. This should be a book of darkness, a litany of the worst places in the world. In fact, it is a story of redemption.' 

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 has taken the 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.

Friday 17 June 2022

Review by Rosa Fernandez of "Delusions of Grandeur" by David Parkin

I was delighted to discover that the cover of Delusions of Grandeur referred to Blackadder, because that’s what I immediately thought of when I saw it. I was then pleased to discover on reading that David Parkin’s tribute went further, but I won’t spoil that for anyone yet to read this fascinating book.

Having experienced somewhat debilitating mental health problems myself in the past, I was interested to read Parkin’s account of his experiences being sectioned, and the book moves between his own recalled account, his notes during his time on the wards, and the doctors’ notes about him during the whole episode. This combination of sources gives us a fuller appreciation of the events and allows us to enjoy contrasts which make for a lot of the humour in the work.

Parkin refers to himself as a ‘genius,’ ‘mentally positive’ and ‘clever and hilarious,’ all of which is briskly undercut by the notes that state that he ‘continue[s] to overvalue self’; while problematic mental health is clearly nothing to joke about, it’s clear that Parkin wants us to be entertained by the daftness of his predicament. I find it hard to believe he’d have committed much of this to page had he not thought it would be entertaining.

That being said, and perhaps inevitably, the tale takes a darker turn and things get serious. Parkin takes us into his gloom and we await the outcome, although like many stories we know that there will be a happy ending because he lives to tell the tale, as it were. Even the observations about him take on a new softness, and the two disparate views converge at last. The note that ends the book is a joyous message of hope; you’ll need to read the book to find it out.  

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

Monday 13 June 2022

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic" by Sarah James

The front cover of Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic by Sarah James makes it very clear that much of the material found within this poetry collection is going to deal with impact of living with type one diabetes - charting what it feels like to have to continually deal with the highs and lows of living with the condition.  

The poems that deal directly with what it felt like for the author to be diagnosed at the age of six are incredibly thought-provoking and moving. In ‘Admitted Nov 30, 1981, age 6: diabetes mellitus,’ James recalls the painful experience of teaching her 'fingers to force the need deep into an orange … First an orange, then my leg / The world shrinks, small as this sphere.' Whilst in ‘Diabetes’ unwell of Night Hypos,’ the child is plagued by 'Flesh sweats and shivers, the brain quakes.' To show the shifts in high and low blood sugar levels, the poet has individual words and phrases scatter and then re-configure towards the end of the page in rigid, claustrophobic constriction.

James proceeds to map her journey with diabetes and the route to some sort of acceptance, within herself, first and foremost. Intriguingly, this is coupled with a second narrative: that of a dead sister whose life ended as the younger twin’s began. In ‘Not quite the changeling,’ James admits 'I was born from my dead sister – embryo berthed in her water-logged lungs, bones moulded in her absence.' For the poet, that point in time when she came into the world comes to signify that moment for all of us when the path we are on hints at what could be or might have been: the possibilities of other selves and other identities. In ‘Constantly Reliving,’ we learn 'The girl who isn’t my sister / won’t stop laughing / at the narrative she’s made of me.'

James is an extraordinary poet. She is often wildly inventive but also respectful of traditional forms, imbuing each of her poems with a confessional tone that is reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Carol Ann Duffy. Like the very best of the female poets, she examines what it is to be a modern woman and alive to the potential of life, employing unique methods to share her experiences with those willing to listen. James herself notes in the ‘Foreword’ to the collection, ‘Diabetes happens to be one ghost implicitly looking over my shoulder when I write.’ The power of this collection is in the fact it uncovers and dissects the ghosts that haunt not only James, but each of us – shaping our nightmares as well as our dreams. 

About the reviewer     
Paul Taylor-McCartney has recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A Literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall.

You can read more about Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic by Sarah James on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Tuesday 7 June 2022

Review by Rosa Fernandez of "Spillway: New and Selected Poems" by Ian Pople


I confess I was unaware of Ian Pople’s work prior to reading Spillway, but in many ways that has allowed me to get to know the full range of his work with this collection, one that includes selections from his previous publications with the addition of some new poems. As this suggests, it is a large and engrossing series, and one I enjoyed gently meandering through. 

The first selection, from The Glass Enclosure, takes us all the way back to 1996, and from then to the present there are clear themes that return consistently. Nature and weather and place are all important in Pople’s writing and many of my favourite mentions were of trees, often named specifically as in ‘guava trees’ or ‘silver birches.’ Water flows in and throughout, hence the ‘spillway’ of the title, and you can definitely see the influence of Pople’s interest in American poetry with the wide landscapes that he describes.

Pople’s poems often explore and reference faith, with winter described as a ‘sacrament’ and numerous references to church, the Easter story, verses and lambs; in so doing the poems seem to take on a timeless quality. This, combined with the beautifully described bleaker landscapes, put me in mind of R. S. Thomas at times, although a sprinkling of names throughout indicate plentiful inspiration from others, particularly jazz musicians as in the poem ‘William Matthews’ about Charles Mingus.

Pople is well travelled, and Spillway begins with poems about Manchester and the Sudan and ends on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, visiting many other places in between; ‘Athens’ and ‘Giverny’ get their own poems. A life well lived and comprehensively documented, Spillway is a collection for all weathers, all places, and many appreciative readers.

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

You can read more about Spillway by Ian Pople on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 6 June 2022

Review by Neil Fulwood of "Following Teisa" by Judi Sutherland

Judi Sutherland’s book-length river poem begins with these lines:

          How it wells up from nowhere to chase
          gravity downhill, becomes a rill,
          a rickle of old stones, then hurtles rocks,
          purls and pools in reeds, broadens, welcomes in
          the tribute of the lesser streams …

The sense of motion, the ebb and flow of Sutherland’s cadences, the unforced use of alliteration and internal rhyme: everything coheres into an exquisite aesthetic statement of intent which is developed and delivered on as the book progresses.

Following Teisa - the word is the ancient name of the River Tees - has its root (or should I say its wellspring?) in an earlier book-length poetical work, Teisa: A Descriptive Poem of the River Teese, its Towns and Antiquities, by Anne Wilson, apparently self-published in 1778 and long since forgotten. Sutherland includes a facsimile of Wilson’s title page along with a short but informative introduction providing context on Wilson’s life and work, as well as setting out her own stall.

Sutherland’s achievements in Following Teisa are certainly not to be under-appreciated: the book functions with equal success as a work of poetry, an evocation of the natural world, a travelogue and a social document. Each stage of her journey is carefully delineated with relevant place names, while a scattering of beautifully rendered line drawings by Holly Magdalene Scott perfectly complement Sutherland’s words.

Only two other works came to mind as I read Following Teisa: Nancy Gaffield’s Meridian and Alan Baker’s Riverrun; Following Teisa deserves to stand head and shoulders alongside  them. By turns lyrical, contemplative, urgent and incisive, it is a joy. 

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. Smokestack Books will publish his new collection, Mad Parade, in July 2022.

You can read another review of Judi Sutherland's Following Teisa by Sally Evans on Everybody's Reviewing here