Friday 24 November 2023

Review by Gus Gresham of "The Mad Road" by Laurie Cusack

As reviewer Alexandros Plasatis says on the back cover, "The Mad Road is a hooligan of a book.” It’s easy to see why as you dive headlong into these riveting, gutsy tales. If you like your fiction cosy and fluffy and all wrapped up with a pink bow, stay clear!

In the opening story, "The Bottle and the Trowel," a man walks out along a soggy rotten board on a scaffold, falls to his near-doom and ends up on life support. "You’ve got to hear this, Gerry!" his friend says at the bedside as he begins to narrate the harrowing circumstances that plague their lives. And this story could be a metaphor for the whole collection. Reading these stories feels like walking along a dodgy scaffold, hoping that the next step you take won’t send you plummeting to the ground where unknown horrors await.

"A Doc Marten boot met the crack of Desmond O’Hara’s arse" is the opening line to "Ghost Estate" in which our anti-hero faces retribution for his exploitative dealings during the years of the Celtic Tiger economy. What will become of him? 

Whether the stories are set in Ireland itself or amid London Irish communities, Cusack serves up a smorgasbord of characters who are as contrary as the day is long. In The Mad Road, we get an up-close-and-intimate perspective on these fallible lives. Lovable smooth-tongued travellers; a young man new to London whose rites of passage bring him face to face with the menacing Zen-like character known as "The Bear"; a woman on the edge making a passionate stand against social injustice; a father who will give anything to get his girl through dancing school.

What will become of any of them? As Oscar Wilde once said, "Work is the curse of the drinking classes." So if you like your fiction gritty, turbulent and off-the-leash, this is the book for you. It has heart, it has soul, it has guts. It will mess with your head.

One thing’s for sure, I’ll probably never be able to look at a building site or a coin-operated laundrette in quite the same way again.

About the Reviewer
Gus Gresham has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing (NTU) and has worked variously as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, community activist for Greenpeace, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, medical-scenario simulator and facilitator, and building surveyor. He’s had short stories published in literary magazines including Brittle Star and Under the Radar, and his most recent novel, Kyiv Trance – a dark, twisty love story and crime thriller – is available on Amazon. You can read more about Kyiv Trance on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Thursday 16 November 2023

Review by Lee Wright of "The Mirror and the Road" by William Boyd and Alistair Owen

Alistair Owen’s extensive conversations with William Boyd that took place over a two-year period are not just for smitten Boyd fans. Whether you’re an aspirant writer or a seasoned writer, whatever your chosen field – fiction, non-fiction, novel, short story, or screenplay – The Mirror and the Road makes for a fascinating interrogation into the mind of one of Britain’s best writers. The book is structured chronologically, covering Boyd’s seventeen novels, five short story collections, twelve film screenplays, five television screenplays, and three stage plays. Boyd talks about the vim and vigour of writing, about his unpublished, semi-autobiographical novels, of how his first, A Good Man in Africa, came to be written in three months flat. But what this collection of interviews does best is to show us the process and the torments that come with being a writer, digging deep into the craft and the ingredients that has produced a staggering body of work. It is a 330-page writing masterclass, full of advice about what works for Boyd, his methods and modus operandi, how his plots evolve, how he chooses what he wants to write next, the research stage before writing, the importance of finding the right title for a project, the unimportance of writing sympathetic characters and the deliberate echoes of his many literary influences – Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anton Chekhov – underlining the importance of reading. And Boyd isn’t afraid to borrow from genre fiction to power his narrative, as he did in the case of his 1993 novel, The Blue Afternoon

The book explores Boyd’s preoccupations, seeing how they interact and interconnect and how he brings these different fixations together in his novels and short stories: “Short stories are like a laboratory for me,” Boyd says. He also stresses the importance of trusting the imagination: “I’ve often written about places I’ve never been to,” he says, writing about Los Angeles before he ever went there. “I wanted to see if I could inhabit the place vicariously through my imagination.” 

It sent me back to my time studying for an MA in Creative Writing and the recommended reading list we were given. Other than David Morley’s Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, no other book on the list offered the kind of embarrassment of riches (with regards to fiction writing) that comes with these interviews. It should be on the shelf of every university library to be discovered and show what can be done with narrative and how a writer can get there.      

About the reviewer
Lee Wright has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently working towards a PhD researching memoir and film. His fiction and poetry have been published with Fairlight Books, époque press and Burning House Press.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "Revelation Freshly Erupting" by Nelly Sachs

Reading and reviewing the collected works (nine in total) of a poet originally writing in another language on Holocaust themes is challenging. This is compounded with the titanic credentials of a prolific Jewish poet (published 1947-1971), Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner. 

We owe a debt of gratitude therefore to Andrew Shanks for his unique, approximate translations from Sachs’ native German. Additionally, his powerful introductory essay allows us to glimpse, briefly, the countless hours of dedication to his art since he first discovered Sachs in 1983-4 when working as a post-grad in Marburg, Germany,

What makes his approach to this important body of work unique? Shanks describes himself as "not a brilliant" linguist, who "sets out to" produce versions that, to my ear, work as poems in English. He quotes Edward FitzGerald’s famous formula: "Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle." More than that, as a "Christian philosophic theologian," Shanks brings important knowledge and an intuitive, spiritual understanding.

This combination complements and reveals for us the subtle, existential character of poetry that uses much in the way of classical and religious / biblical motifs and the natural world to try and make sense of the worst excesses of human depravity. 

"O die Schornsteine" ("O, The Chimneys"), the opening poem of "Habitations of Death," 1947, seems to provide an exemplar for much of what is to come. Here, some of the motifs we have come to associate with Holocaust imagery are articulated only lightly - for example, "meandering dust." They have been carefully woven in to support the heaviness of the metaphysical questions they raise: "Who contrived you? Who built ...?"  

The killings are viewed through the lens of Job’s conviction that he will see God when his skin and flesh are destroyed, which proposes to the reader an unintended, beneficial consequence of the barbarism. Thus, the objectives for murder on the grounds of religion are not only subtly ridiculed, but reduced to futility and nothingness as death has the ultimate potential to overcome and be a cause for celebration.

          "And after my skin has been thus destroyed, then without my flesh I shall see God."
          - Job 9:26

         O the chimneys
         On the artfully contrived 
         Habitations of death, as Israel’s flesh
         Floated in smoke through the air
         A star, there, received it …

         ... O the chimneys!
         Meandering dust – Jeremiah’s and Jobs’s – released –
         Who contrived you, who built, stone on stone,
         For fugitive souls, this path of smoke?

That the persecuted should not become persecutors ("Star Black-Out," 1949) is another example of the lightness of touch that is characteristic. Here, the poem uses the term "Footsteps" and contextual sound as a leitmotif throughout. Although we can readily make the association with (Jack) boots and marching, direct reference only happens in the last verse. Where the previous poem used a biblical quotation, Sachs now employs several classical allusions starting with Echo:

         where in which of Echo’s grottoes
         are you stored,
         you rhythmic harbingers 
         of looming death?

... and ending with a poignant Pythagorean reference that beautifully ties off the whole aural theme of the poem:

         Footsteps of the killers 
         Over footsteps of the killed,
         what black-horror moon impelled
         the ticking circuit of those booted seconds?

         Where’s that leather squeak
         within the music of the spheres

Overall, the poetry uses a reductive, yet restrained, learned and gently sophisticated approach to deal with the horrific acts and consequences. This includes the preceding ideologies that initiated them. The diminution that results impresses upon us the sublimity and determination of the poems to reveal truth and beauty and thereby hope, no matter what. 

About the reviewer
Christine Hammond began writing poetry whilst studying English Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her early poems were published in The Gown (QUB) and Women’s News where, as one of the original members she also wrote Arts Reviews and had work published in Spare Rib.  She returned to writing again after a long absence and her poetry has been featured in a variety of anthologies including The Poet’s Place and Movement (Poetry in Motion – The Community Arts Partnership), The Sea (Rebel Poetry Ireland), all three editions of Washing Windows and Her Other Language (Arlen House). She has also been a reader at "Purely Poetry" - Open Mic Night, Belfast.

Friday 20 October 2023

Review by Gary Day of "The Omniscient Tooth Fairy" by Vic Pickup

First things first. This tooth fairy is not omniscient. One poem is called ‘Little did I know.’ Nor is she really - this may come as no surprise - a tooth fairy. As ‘Occupation’ shows, she is so much more: ‘a climbing frame,’ ‘a tissue,’ ‘a body guard’ - in other words, a mum. More tough fairy than tooth fairy.

The only reference to dental matter is in ‘Irretrievable.’ The speaker recalls not being able to retrieve her daughter’s tooth after dropping it down the sink where its ‘pale milkiness erod[es] slowly in the sewer dirt.’ This slight but powerful drama of maternal anxiety and lost innocence crops up again in the poignant yet stoical ‘Facts of life.’

Most poems in this delightful collection concern the ups and downs of the speaker’s many-sided domestic life: husband, babies, picking up children from school, shopping for a birthday, family outings. They are a beguiling mix of vividness and tenderness, streaked with darkness. Indeed why shouldn’t they be? Life isn’t all sunny side up. But even when things get on top of the speaker, humour is never far away, as in the dazzling ‘My New Fridge,’ whose ending packs quite a punch.

Outside the fraught but generally cosy domestic circle there are more ominous events such as the plight of refugees portrayed in ‘Jungle,’ which finishes with a devastatingly powerful image. ‘The Longing of Judith Kerr’ is the most lacerating poem in the volume. It asks the reader to imagine how the children murdered in the death camps could be coaxed back to life. There are also hints of personal tragedy and a keen awareness that not all is well in contemporary Britain.

The collection bounces along. Whimsical, profound, absurd, touching, joyous, courageous and deeply life-affirming. Buy it.

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author of several books including The Story of Drama: Tragedy, Comedy and Sacrifice from the Greeks to the Present. He has also edited a range of books including two volumes on British Poetry in the Twentieth Century. His debut poetry collection, The Glass Roof Falls Like Rain, is due to be published by Holland Press later this year. 

Thursday 19 October 2023

Review by Gary Day of "God's Little Artist" by Sue Hubbard

It’s not often that a poetry book comes complete with an introduction and notes but both do sterling work in providing a context for these poems about the life of the artist Gwen John whose achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by those of her more famous brother Augustus. 

Sue Hubbard brings her characteristic empathy and inventiveness to bear in telling John’s story from her life in Tenby, to her time at the Slade, to her move to Paris with Dorelia McNeill, on whom she may have had a crush, and who later lived in a ménage à trois with her brother and his wife Ida Nettleship. Gwen had to model to earn money and Hubbard concisely and dramatically evokes the humiliation such work could involve: ‘insolent hands on her small breasts.’   

The majority of poems in this splendid collection concern Gwen’s fateful relationship with the sculptor Auguste Rodin who was 36 years her senior. The verse pulls no punches in its evocation of desire: at one stage I had to loosen my collar. Hubbard is no less deft when it comes to conjuring the agony of being displaced by another in the affections of the beloved. One of her many gifts is to present love in the round, how it can abase as well as elevate: ‘she wants only to button his boots.’ 

After her affair with Rodin ended, John threw herself into her work. ‘The Poetry of Things’ is one of the standout pieces in the volume where ‘clouds of spray’ become ‘strings of prayer beads / lucent as benedictions.’ Art and religion offer a way forward for the broken self ‘only paint and prayer / can offer salvation.’ 

With its wonderfully glowing imagery this is a work to be treasured. 

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author of several books including The Story of Drama: Tragedy, Comedy and Sacrifice from the Greeks to the Present. He has also edited a range of books including two volumes on British Poetry in the Twentieth Century. His debut poetry collection, The Glass Roof Falls Like Rain, is due to be published by Holland Press later this year. 

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Review by Rebecca Reynolds of "Otherlands: A World In The Making" by Thomas Halliday

Thomas Halliday’s book is a biography of the Earth, told backwards. He starts 20,000 years ago, at the beginning of the decisive thawing of the mammoth steppe, which rings the top of the world and is home to horses, bison and the now-extinct cave lion. 

The book then travels the Earth, landing at different times and places. So there are abundant giant penguins 41 million years ago; a gorgon 253 million years ago with a painful mouth tumour and a leg which has never been the same since she fractured it hunting Bunostegos (a creature looking like a stumpy, tall crocodile); and rock-eating bacteria in the Devonian, 407 million years ago, which make the surface of the water in which they live, intolerably hot to every other lifeform, shimmer with bubbles. The climate and geological processes are given as much space as plants and animals. 

The book ends in the pre-Cambrian 550 million years ago, with no life on land, a 22-hour day before friction slows the Earth’s rotation, and the closer moon shining 15% brighter.

How does Halliday add drama and interest to processes that happen over huge timescales, mostly with no humans involved?

Firstly, he picks varied moments — differently configured landmasses and oceans, with different climates and ecosystems, for example before or after mass extinctions. Secondly, he focuses on movement. Movement of wind, waves and water and therefore of land; communities of animals migrating; individual creatures on the move. Thirdly, he mixes together disparate information — so as well as watching a short-faced bear rummaging in a mammoth carcass, we learn about Korean, Russian and European bear mythologies.

Lastly, he embraces human-centred ways of description. Literary quotations head each chapter (including Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’ — ‘Yet portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge forever be’). He chooses anthropomorphic language such as ‘cyanobacteria discovered the magic of photosynthesis,’ and is happy to translate from the academic to the literary; so the academic term ‘index fossils’ (fossils which are so abundant they can be used to date the rocks they are in) becomes ‘fossil timepieces’ later in the same paragraph. The book ends with a plea to work together to stop climate change. 

This book tells us the world will never stop being in the making, or in the unmaking.

About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds is an English language teacher and editor. She has just finished a Research Masters at Liverpool University looking at differences between reading, speaking and listening to poetry. She published her book Curiosities from the Cabinet: Words and Objects from Britain’s Museums in 2017. Website here. X: @rebrey. 

Friday 6 October 2023

Review by Margaret Royall of "Rain Falling" by Sarah Leavesley

Rain Falling is a stirring long poem, a battle-cry for action from humanity. Sarah’s innovative formatting of  her urgent message is astonishing in its very complexity. It is a poem sequence formatted in the shape of capital letters which spell out the title ‘Rain Falling.’ The poems forming each letter reveal the ravages of climate change on the planet, the extinction of many species, the neglectful role that humans have played and continue to play by their systematic failure to act effectively to halt the impending doom.

This is not an easy or comfortable read, requiring the reader to decipher the various ‘codes’ which the author employs. For instance, the first poem, formatted in a capital R shape, turns into a spectral poem where the top circle of the R joins onto the /\ shape and then reads backwards, mirroring the words above, perhaps throwing our culpability back at us. 

In the final G poem, the words at the base appear to be a jumble until you realise that they are repeated higher up but with some missed out and rearranged, so the reader has to figure out how they were first used and what changes have occurred. This unravelling suggests a parallel to the unravelling of the planet. Links in the eco chain go missing and humans are not effecting a lasting repair, which results in the chaotic weather we are now experiencing and the loss of species.

The author employs stark imagery to drive home her message: striking phrases such as 'raindrops ... falling like a skipped heartbeat,' 'ice as saving Angel,' 'slick with equilibrium,' 'nothing grew from the underbelly of our thundermakers,' 'reality’s overshimmering,' etc.

Rain Falling is a highly accomplished chapbook, intelligent and convincing. If the reader were ever sceptical about climate change, this will convince him/her to think again, and more than that, to act now, before it is too late.

About the reviewer
Margaret Royall has published five books of poetry and a memoir. Her work has appeared in print, online and in anthologies and has won or been listed in competitions. Her collection Where Flora Sings (Hedgehog Press 2020) was nominated for the Laurel Prize. She leads a Nottinghamshire poetry group and co-tutors a Hebridean writing retreat. Her next collection, Toccata and Fugue (Hedgehog Press) is due out in 2023. Website: Twitter: @RoyallMargaret Instagram: @meggiepoet

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Cockroach" by Elizabeth McGeown

The 2022 UK Slam Champion, three-time All Ulster Poetry Slam Champion, and winner of many other spoken word plaudits Elizabeth McGeown delivers up her debut full-length collection, a book version of her successful hour-long live show, Cockroach. An exploration of self-identity, from teenage awkwardness to perplexing adult encounters, we find personalities of movie stars tried on and cast off in a litmus test of affinities, the rejected cockroach character searching for answers in pop culture, in art, within seclusion and amongst perceived peers.

McGeown’s preferred style of delivery feels rapid-fire and urgent on the page; the reader is often caught up in the intensity of delivery through short lines that drive the narrative forward. Such form can threaten to become staccato, fired out like so many other spoken word performances for the sake of a neat series of rhymes. Rather, here we sense that the narrative turns against itself, the speaker questioning and analysing along the way, evoking angst and self-doubt.

Sometimes the source of such anxiety and hesitation is internal, from fibromyalgia and other medical complaints (this reviewer challenges anyone to try and find a better poem about self-applying an enema for a gastric issue), but often the sources are external; we find mention of #MeToo, and McGeown’s experiences of gatekeepers and sexism in the fields of music and the spoken word scene. We see school bullying, and the weight of expectation to conform:

          I did not pay the daily toll
          and call Angela pretty
          when the prettiest thing about her was
          the relief we felt when she left.
- "Witch"

This blends naturally with the larger search for the self that the collection is primarily concerned with, and McGeown is aware of the perverse paradox that the self is frequently defined through the company it keeps. Hence, we find various house parties, dates, the need for space and solitude conflicting with the search for meaningful company. This leads to compelling observations such as "a misfit + a misfit = a kind of sanctuary." We also see this attraction reflected in a self-deprecating style:

          A painting of a loser is vivid
          perhaps never quite so vivid
          until witnessed by another loser.
- "Villain (ix)"

Indeed, self-deprecation is something McGeown excels in, as there is enough humour, spark and playfulness to stop the poems ever descending into self-pity or despondency. Ultimately, we find an authentic voice that isn’t afraid to question or defend itself. Cockroach is postmodern mal du siècle, enjoyable and engaging from start to end, and never losing any of the energy and tension McGeown brings to her live performances.

About the reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.

Friday 22 September 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "Flatlands" by Sue Hubbard

Flatlands by Sue Hubbard retells Gallico’s The Snow Goose but to an adult audience. Two souls that don’t belong, Freda and Philip, are bonded by the welfare of an injured bird: wounds and the wounded feature heavily in this wartime story. We are still evacuated with Freda but the desolation of the Snow Goose’s stretching mudflats are shifted up the coast to a “place between somewhere and nowhere” on the shores of the Wash. Hubbard’s skilled scene setting places us in both the wilderness and the time perfectly.

On “a hot day, the sort of day for a picnic, not a war” we’re transported with Freda on a train full of sad, scared evacuees to a new home “far away from love.” We’re immersed immediately in the “melancholy of the place.” This landscape, we learn as the story unfolds, matches the aching loneliness felt by both Freda and Philip. Freda remembers paisley eiderdowns and parma violets – Hubbard treats all our senses as she juxtaposes home comforts against the relentlessly barren East coast landscape.

Throughout the book the feeling of threat and uncertainty that war brings looms large but the actual menace is revealed to be lurking within the farmhouse. It is in the very place that Freda is put for safety that the full horrors of war are first exposed. She finds sanctuary at Philip’s lighthouse and they form what Philip describes as “a strange little friendship.”

An elderly Freda is telling us the story as a documentary about Dunkirk is about to be shown at her care home. Those nursed on the The Snow Goose will know Dunkirk’s poignant part in the story. I’m paddling carefully here not to avoid mines, but spoilers. During the depths of Dunkirk’s horrors in Flatlands oddly it was the addition of a dog in the water that made me catch my breath. His fate lingers long after the page has been turned.

As I read a book I make a note of sentences that I like. There was a point early on in this book that I thought I might never finish reading it because I was writing so many down. It’s a slow-paced read but with some delightful lines.

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams is a creative soul from Leicester. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Leicester University, and lately tends to write mostly short fiction. She likes the challenge of a word limit – usually one hundred words. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies. Lisa has a weekly story slot on local community radio. She helps out a bit at Friday Flash Fiction and Blink Ink Journal. Lisa also paints and makes jewellery selling online as noodleBubble.

Thursday 21 September 2023

Review by Katherine Gallagher of "Unmothered" by A. J. Akoto


This debut-collection from Black British poet A. J. Akoto is a book of deep feeling ‒ poetry that demands to be thought about, and read aloud. It is resonant, deep-voiced with pauses: poems that question, echo back; theatrically haunting and laced with reverberations that linger.

Akoto’s masterful and resolute poems about her unresolved arguments with her estranged mother bring to mind a line from Lavinia Greenlaw's "Prayer" "for those trapped in another’s gravity." Mother and daughter, the two are trapped, intertwined, without hope of escape. The poems, resilient, despair-biting, fiercely-knowing and uncompromising, speak with the demeaning ferocity of all the "unmothered" mother-daughter alienation that has gone before.

Images of myth, primarily Medea, tantalise and predominate, reminding the speaker of her fate. Kevin Threlfall's ominous cover design, Darkness Follows, sets the pattern, the paradox of this young woman "unmothered," "undaughtered" –  indeed, this is the way it goes:

          A return. Not of last year’s summer,
          but the sense of those simmering
          childhood hours spent reading 
          under the light of solitude.

          Cool relief of those hours free
          from the prickle
          of her shadow along the wall.
- "Return of Summer"

The protagonist imagines a wished-for escape but the "prickle / of her (mother’s) shadow along the wall" is mostly there, reinforced by a dread of "haunting" and "ghost-flames," to be reckoned with.

It is an approach-avoidance conflict writ large. In the poem, "Who is to be saved?" Akoto suggests "It’s a difficult decision, / but all the same, my mother / does what she does best: saves herself. / ... Years later, she comes back, / closing out light behind her. / A shadow crosses my heart / a spider-skitter-scattering / along the muscle of my being." One thinks of reconciliation but no, the poem continues, "She also needs my darkness. / ... When I landed in the dark, / I stayed there. Yet / she holds out her hand / and I’m hers again. Even when / she recoils at my mangling, / because some bones do not heal. / and some hurts set themselves wrong, / I’m still hers." So they hold each other "trapped."

This amazing book Unmothered continues along this pattern – with light and shade but mostly dark, an exhaustive white heat of reciprocal anger, love, recriminations and sadness. I can imagine it as a theatrical piece, perhaps as a monologue with musical backing, or a presentation of assorted moods and voices, again with music. Akoto has a powerful presence and has presented an extremely powerful range of poems where the reader is continually returning to the question: Who is to be saved?

About the reviewer
Katherine Gallagher is an Australian-born North London poet. Her sixth full collection, Acres of Light (Arc Publications, 2016) – 'a joyful rinsing of the senses,' Alison Brackenbury – follows her Carnival Edge: New & Selected Poems (also with Arc, 2010). Carol Rumens chose her 'The Year of the Tree' for The Guardian’s Poem of the Week. 

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "The Wind Stills to Listen" by Deirdre Cartmill

Deirdre Cartmill’s third full-length collection is an exploration of longing and fulfilment. The first half of the collection take the reader through the fallout from a miscarriage, from the initial thrill and excitement of expectancy to the resultant grief and trauma. "Signs of Life" sums up the devastation in a neat image of the line of a pregnancy test developing like a polaroid picture:

          like a photograph emerging from a negative
          and slowly filling with the possibility of life
          But when we hand you to the doctor
          and she scans you for the first time,
          you disappear like a film exposed to light

Suddenly, given the shock of the news, motherhood and loss are seen everywhere. The flowers of a petal "fold into a womb"; the would-be parents' relationship gets compared to "pages joined by a perforated edge | and how little it takes to tear them apart." The fragility of life is exposed.

Deprived of motherhood, the poems take up the theme of observation. In "Fishmarket Pas de Deux," the speaker does not take part in the absurd dance reencountered in the poem; instead they "partake by watching." The mothering instinct is transposed onto the image of a child scavenging for food in "Daily Bread," the image seeming to haunt as a ghost, demanding to be seen, filling a void perhaps where a child should be. And yet, again, the speaker will only "watch and wait, and do nothing." In the opening poem, "Between Crossing and Passing," we are told that ghosts will do "anything to sate that unmet need | to be seen, heard." Cartmill places the unfilled mother between mourning the past and grasping at the future. We are shown a traffic light turning green, and told that "everything seems possible now," yet elsewhere we find "a trail of pawprints" that "lead nowhere," and we are left to wonder what possible direction the narrator is left free to take.

However, in the suitably-named haikai sequence, "Crossing Points," we find a key image encompassing both connection and separation:

          Window reflections.
          Me superimposed on you.
          joined without touching.

Cartmill excels in creating significance in seemingly minor images, using the material world as symbols for the turmoil felt whilst trying to make sense of what life has delivered – or failed to deliver. By the time we reach "Intercession," there is supplication, where Cartmill read to "let the reflection of Christ | washed over my upturned face." Now, with a different form of superimposition, the collection moves into a sequence taking up the majority of the book, told through the figure of Mary Magdalene. We see a blossoming faith, the ontogenesis of a personal and intimate relationship with Christ.

Magdalene starts off much as Cartmill, an observer, "reaching out, unable to touch." Yet soon, we see her move past observation and into participation, as she finds "my home in him" and eventually is invited to even preach alongside Jesus, the two becoming the one voice, and again, we find yet further superimposition.

Cartmill uses the Christ story to bring consolation and fulfilment; just as some nuns are encouraged to move any sexual desire they make have onto the Christ figure, the reader can’t help but draw comparisons and parallels between this faith helping to ease the pain of miscarriage. And indeed, Cartmill does not shy away from the intimacy that people speculate Christ and Magdalene may have held: "I watch each muscle flex," "his hand is on my waist," "his breath lifts each hair on my neck." One may stop to wonder why such emphasis on the physicality of the relationship, yet such human elements help us buy in to the intensity of feeling here.

Whatever one’s own personal views on faith and theology, the reader will still be caught up in the story, one that is emboldening, feminist, and inspiring. What we are left with is a resolution that offers a different form of motherhood, as Cartmill expertly squares the circle of the narrative to show us a surrogate relationship found through belief:

          So I speak of all God has told us,
          of how God gave birth to us
          as we give birth to men
          who shun us, break us, rape us

          - yet we do not stop giving birth.

Once more, publisher Arlen House offers up an engaging and stimulating collection, and after ten years since Cartmill’s last volume, we find that she has only strengthen her resolve, compassion and storytelling craft.

About the reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Review by Katherine Hetzel of "Jötunheim" by Constantine

Jötunheim is the sequel to The Cats of Charnwood. It's a time-travelling, dream-space jumping adventure which takes the Guardian cats Bailey and Scruff back 1200 years to a Charnwood not yet impacted by man’s need for stone, in a bid to find a new world for the Jotnar (giants) before humans can wipe them out.

Having travelled to the 9th century, Bailey and Scruff need the help of Leif, a human boy; Fala, a young giant; the cats of Osgathorpe; and a young Old One, in order to save the giants and prevent the pools of Kapol-Tok– doorways to other worlds – from being sealed or lost forever in the future.

As is often the way, time travel and world-hopping can be confusing, but interspersed as it is with Norse mythology and information about the geography of Charnwood, the reader is easily carried along with Scruff and Bailey to the end of their journey.

Written by a neurodiverse author with neurodiverse and reluctant readers in mind, the story is structured with lots of short chapters and section breaks to aid concentration, and often grounds the reader as to who is speaking or thinking so as not to lose track. In the early edition I read, there were punctuation errors, but if you can see beyond those the story being told is original and – as a Charnwood girl myself – is interesting in both the history and myths it presents. The book can be read alone, but reading The Cats of Charnwood first might help a reader to settle into the cats’ world more quickly. 

About the reviewer
Katherine Hetzel is an ex-microbiologist-and-egg-pickler turned children's author, writing fantasy adventure novels for middle grade readers. She's also a volunteer librarian two afternoons a week in a local primary school, and enjoys encouraging pupils of all ages to explore the world of books. To find out more, visit her website here

You can read more about Jötunheim on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Saturday 9 September 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "The Night Jar" by Louise Peterkin

The cover art of Louise Peterkin’s The Night Jar sets the tone for a collection that is stylish and understated, yet beautifully theatrical. 

Be prepared for the poems to take you on a Carroll-esque transport of delights. Like Alice, you’ll experience a colourful cast, often led by women appearing to  inhabit the interstices of fantasy and reality. Yet somehow, no matter where the dramas are played out, they remain elegantly embedded in the relatable, ordinary script and emotional spectrum of our daily lives. Lives that include love, faith, relationship ennui, sexuality, freedom, joy, disappointment, longing, ambition, loss and escape from routine oppression. 

In a four-episode vignette we are introduced to the adventures of a recalcitrant nun in "Sister Agnieska Runs Away to the Circus." Here, the Big Top is described as a "yummy mirage" and early on the skilful use of tense and double entendre convey the poem's "fallen" theme: 

          … the twirling, the leaping and the curving
          for the love of God, the love 
          of the falling …

          … You know now balance 
          is an act of sheer faith.

"Snake" is both visceral and anthropomorphic. It articulates the ending of a relationship, carefully planned and executed:

          No one suspected I could be so snakey..
          ... I was long gone.
          My skin like hosiery on the floor

The motif is extended with "snakey" witticisms and a well-placed dramatic exclamation:

          I nudged to the East with panache …

          ... there were clues …

          sodden shirts twisting 
          round my arm like a bracelet
          the spiced tomb of the laundry basket.

The bird image in the final verse is both delicate and self-contained, with a Haiku resonance that only adds to the sensory experience: 

         How lithe I am I have wriggled free!
         I hiss like Peter Lorre. A small bird
         fizzes like seltzer inside me. 

Peterkin’s debut is a fine piece of work. Intelligent and exquisitely crafted, the poems are highly visual and immersive. Reading them will leave you satiated, yet still looking forward to the next production. 

About the reviewer
Christine Hammond began writing poetry whilst studying English at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her early poems were published in The Gown (QUB), The Female Line (NIWRM) and Women’s News where, as one of the original members, she also wrote Arts Reviews and had work published in Spare Rib. She returned to writing again after a long absence and her poetry has been featured in a variety of anthologies including The Poet’s Place and Movement (Poetry in Motion – The Community Arts Partnership), The Sea (Rebel Poetry Ireland), all three editions of Washing Windows and Her Other Language (Arlen House). She has also been a reader at Purely Poetry - Open Mic Night, Belfast.

You can read more about The Night Jar by Louise Peterkin on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Sensitive to Temperature" by Serena Alagappan

Sensitive to Temperature is one of the latest releases from New Poets List, an imprint of The Poetry Business which fosters new poetry by writers between the ages of 17 and 24. Within, Alagappan finds correlations between our landscapes and ourselves, using the fragility of both the human body and human relationships to highlight environmental concerns. We see wind erosion as a stand-in for human contact ("will you make time for me? || the steep lee of those aeolian landforms") and a skyscape reimagined as part of the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems:

           expels birds like a throat swallows stones,
           like a stomach stills a swarm of butterflies.
           The sky wheezes with its wind, loses its
           breath, belches thunder, hearts beats shocks
           of electricity

The imagery and metaphors go beyond mere anthropomorphism, to suggest that really humanity and earth need to be thought of as one. In "Aurora," a laceration and the resulting blood flow is compared to a sunrise ("a gash in the sky"). "White Bows" transforms wind turbines into "waving hands ... white bows in cerulean hair." "The Body Keeps the Score" compels the reader to "Stick a fist in the || earth and find dust on your palms." Just as a landscape leaves an impression on the mind, and exploring it takes a physical toil on the body, humanity leaves indelible impressions on the earth too. All these juxtapositions and parallels help remind us that we are undivorcable from the world, that one is dependent on the other.

We are, however, reminded that life persists: "how after nuclear disaster, mushrooms grow on reactor walls" ("After the Mushroom at the End of the World"). The poem goes on to tell us of "a kind of love" that is "unequal between two parties," guiltily condemning us for being guilty perhaps of not loving the world enough. We also have the idea of a mushroom cloud like air waltzing with "open legs and a rising skirt." Alagapan peppers the poems with these delightful curios of contrast: how a grab machine full of prizes can be "like Christmas morning,"  the source of the River Thames as "a mountain crush into liquid matter" or a tornado "tastes cars then hurls them back," reminiscent of the sky belching thunder from earlier.

Elsewhere, we are met with Alagappan's reverence for the world: "Holy" lists instances of awe-inspiring natural occurrences, from the growth of a potato to a volcano, balancing the tricky dual reality of nature as destroyer as well as creator. We find intertextuality in the use of negative space in architecture ("Nostalgia Architects") and the space in an empty lunch box ("Tiffin"), but also in the in the space between humanity and God in "Red Moon," addressed in an ill-fitting metaphor of a hand across the eyes. The poem speaks of "your pain" and "when your heart | broke," odd abstracts that stand out against a collection that is usual exact and original in its language.

As with any eco-poems, or indeed any poems with a strong message, the danger is that the poetry with take second place behind the arguments. However, there is plenty on offer here to assure us that Alagappan is a thoughtful and skilled poet, never slipping into diatribe or grandstanding, and conjuring up original situations and contexts in which to explore her intentions.

About the Reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA. 

Monday 4 September 2023

Review by Tracey Foster of "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan


          Red runs through
          like a weeping wound -
          a scab twice picked.
- Tracey Foster

There's a red thread that runs deeply through Flanagan's Booker Prize-winning novel. From the very first, we are faced with a stubborn blood blister under the nail that preoccupies the protagonist Dorrigo Evans as a small child and diverts his attention away from a critical act that will come back to haunt him as a middle-aged man. The blister can only be resolved by a red-hot kitchen knife that makes a hole in the nail, a blade with 'globules of fat' that will take on much more sinister appearance during Dorrigo's time as POW in Burma. This is a story of one man's life and death and the connections he makes in between.

          A world of dew
          and in every dew drop
          a world of struggle.
- Issa

Flanagan is an expert at fluctuating between different time frames and takes us from youth to old age and any point in between, weaving a tale that is multi-layered and interconnected. Characters talk to us through the third-person narration as we begin to join up the dots. His paramour, Amy, is first seen wearing a red camellia in her hair and this becomes such a potent symbol that in later life Dorrigo has a camellia bush cut down after he moves to a new house with his family.

          A bee
          staggers out
          of the peony.
- Basho

Flanagan has a personal connection to the torturous conditions the POWs suffered during the building of the Burma railway. His own father was a POW at this time and died on the day that he finished writing the novel. These gruesome, gut-wrenching tales can only come from one who has heard of this first hand. We can only hope that these stories bear witness to a dark period of humanity that we shall never see the likes of again.

          Only the monkeys 
          can laugh - in the heat
          of the jungle.
- Tracey Foster

The title of the novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, takes its cue from the Japanese poet Basho's book of the same name. This poet's journeys and poems became the first form of haibun writing, prose interspersed with haiku. Flanagan drops haiku into the text to break up the chapters and add another layer of emotion to the story. After savagely beating a POW to near death, a guard tells Dorrigo,

          A world of pain
          if the cherry blossoms,
          it blossoms.
- Basho

Guards who dispense relentless barbaric punishments on the POW are shown swapping haiku favourites in their quiet moments displaying a discordant relationship between humanity and nature. The haikus act as rest breaks to the violence, diverting and regrouping our emotions before the next chapter. Later on, another guard is asked to reflect on his life in old age and write a traditional death poem, left behind for his loved ones. As we hope and await absolution he recites

          Winter ice
          melts into clear water.
          Clear is my heart.

This novel is a harrowing tale of love, loss, torture, pain and release. As readers, we long for resolution, a glimpse of a happy ending but as Flanagan emphasises, life is just simply not like that. We take what we can and make the best of things. Maybe that is our strength, to endure and leave behind a tale to tell. This is one tale that Flanagan was born to tell. 

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, Wayward Literature and The Arts Council and she writes on her own blog site The Small Sublime found here.

Wednesday 30 August 2023

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Kyiv Trance" by Gus Gresham

Beautifully researched − Kyiv Trance is a stone-cold classic − Brilliant in its execution − Gresham's crime thriller is truly mesmerizing  −  Utterly unputdownable − Outstanding!

Blah, blah, blah … How many times have you read over-hyped blurb like this? Too many, I know, but this text is the real deal … honest to god, cross my heart and hope to die!

For starters Gresham’s subject matter couldn’t be more topical. Everyone wants to know about Kyiv now – our sympathies go out to Ukraine in all its adversity. Moreover, there is a hunger to be better informed about its people, culture and way of life. I think we all agree there’s no better way to satisfy that hunger than racing through a sizzling page turner!

Gresham’s atmospheric opening, for instance, draws the reader right into the subterranean bowel of Kyiv: "Richard was riding the improbably long escalators again. From deep down behind him, he could still hear accordion music and the husky voice of the old busker in the strains of a Slavic folksong. It wasn’t necessary to understand Ukrainian to know that the song was about tragedy and loss."

Throughout razor-sharp Kyiv Trance you glean an understanding of Ukraine’s unique Orange Revolution, which was bloodless-civil disobedience after the fraudulent elections of 2004/2005. Gresham, skilfully, sprinkles and captures the zeitgeist moments of a nation that was on the cusp of democratic change, during that tumultuous period. 

The impressive juxtaposition of a maniac on the loose, as this political turmoil is  unfolding, reads very well. Alongside this, Gresham’s haunted protagonist Richard Farr battles to make sense of it all after falling head over heels with beautiful Nadya. There is a lot going on within Kyiv Trance but as a reader you are never lost, as the seamless flashbacks and back story are handled deftly.

They also say good writing is about how you handle detail − keeping your ear to the ground is paramount − Kyiv Trance royally delivers on that score: "Bar Zavtra’s music system was playing Ella Fitzgerald. ‘How Deep is the Ocean?’ Her voice had to compete with the shopping-centre Muzak – some soulless atrocity that sounded like a panpipe rendition of Motorhead’s ‘The Ace of Spades.’"

I was reminded of Martin Cruz Smith’s dynamic thriller Gorky Park to some extent as I read Gresham’s text − both plots are set in the east and are meditations on political power whilst examining the social fabric close-up through the lens of the crime thriller genre. Both highlight how systems work and how people strive and survive within those systems. Kyiv Trance is a blast and brilliantly observed.

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack (PhD) studied Creative Writing at Leicester University. He writes from the gut − from the underground − about the underdog. His collection of short stories The Mad Road is out in September. He is now an actor-simulator, writer and community advocate.

You can read more about Kyiv Trance by Gus Gresham, as well as an excerpt from the novel, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Review by Kim Wiltshire of "Orfeo's Last Act" by Michelene Wandor

Orfeo’s Last Act is an ambitious dual-narrative novel, telling the tale of the Renaissance Jewish musician Salamone Rossi and the modern-day Professor of English Emilia Constantine. During an early music conference, Emilia finds the original last act of what is considered one of the first operas, Orfeo, in a trunk in an old manor house in East Anglia – left by Rossi when he was working there as a teacher over 400 years ago. The find reveals Rossi, and not Monteverdi, to be the original composer of this fifth act, and gives Emilia a dilemma in terms of what to do with this discovery. 

The novel is well researched with a firm understanding of the historical era; the writer clearly understands her music and there is a nice reimagining of how this final act might have been created. 

The novel’s structure itself is interesting, with the Renaissance strand on the left-hand page and the modern strand on the right-hand page; at first, I wasn’t sure how to read the book – all the first part then all the second part, or alternate strands. I suspect that it can be left up to the reader how they choose to read it. I chose to read the first part in its entirety, then the second part, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has tried reading alternate chapters, to know whether this gives a different sense of the intertwined stories. 

The story rattles along at a fair pace, and there is a huge cast of characters to get to know alongside a vivid sense of how life was for Jewish communities in Europe during the Renaissance, which comes across very clearly. Indeed, there is much research and scholarship that has gone into this novel, and clearly this is a really important era and subject for the author, as the back cover tells us that she has an early music group and plays the music of Rossi herself, which is a lovely addendum to the book. 

About the reviewer
Dr Kim Wiltshire is a playwright and writer whose research involves theatre / writing for social change and arts for health. She is currently a British Academy Innovation Fellow and is a Reader and Programme Leader for Creative Writing at Edge Hill University.

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "The Last Spring of the World" by Maureen Boyle


Following on from her powerful 2017 debut, The Work of a Winter, Maureen Boyle continues her blossoming relationship with Irish publisher Arlen House. Included in the collection is the sequence ‘Strabane,’ originally published as a separate volume alongside photography by Malachi O’Doherty. Strabane is a small town in County Tyrone, near when Boyle grew up: through the prism of the town, we see a rich and innocent childhood, slowly infringed upon by the rising ‘Troubles’ across Northern Ireland.

In the opening poem, a sort of prelude for the entire collection, Boyle asks:

          How could there never be another spring?
          How could we live without the sense
          of the earth surging into labour

The entirety of the work on offer here is an attempt to answer these questions, of feeling the simplicity and ataraxia of springtime, balanced against infringing adulthood, political unrest, and ultimately, the knowledge of death. Early on in ‘Strabane,’ we are treated to pastoral scene of a weir and a salmon leap, caught up in its natural grandeur, when suddenly, unexpectedly, we are hit with the line 'and where two little brothers drowned.' Similarly, after more idylls of glamour and shopping trips, the first line of the next sequence begins 'And then something came to blow the past away.' It is on such knifepoints that innocence can be lost and which Boyle remarkably conveys.

The study of Strabane brings to mind Damian Smyth’s own studies of Downpatrick, a microcosm of the world used to explore life in general, although Boyle’s style is closer to the prosaic ease of Durcan: there is intimacy and familiarity here. The sequence ‘Namesake’ recounts the life of a close relative, and we read of a life as if it was someone sharing stories at a wake. Similarly, in ‘Luscus,’ we get the account of how the author lost an eye as a child, Boyle choosing to focus on the tenderness experienced from the ocularist afterwards, rather than the tragedy itself.

However considerate the chosen tone and filtering of memory may be, tragedy creeps in however, often in the form of death. ‘Bypass,’ another sequence (Boyle is evidently fond of the form, and in the sequences that stand out strongest in the collection), speculates that 'There must have been a day | when you held my hand for the last time.' Elsewhere, the question is posed: 'What is it like | to wake for the last time?' Boyle rightfully affords to herself these ruminations, but also realises that one must move onwards from remembrances to new milestones. Hence we have ‘First Time,’ a playful yet poignant account of an initial sexual experience:

          It felt like a mix of Christmas and a trip to the dentist.

          The thing itself was a surprise – the shy manoeuvrings,
          the shock of fitting into place

New outlooks come into being, and the tone is optimistic, hungry and excited: 'You must learn everything afresh'; 'Hope arrives with the lilacs.' And yet the lure and pull of the past, of childhood and her hometown, clings to the poetry, as if through words Boyle is measuring the distance between childhood and adulthood. ‘Enclosure’ tells of closed gates 'to keep the children in | and safe'; in ‘Crossing the Alps,’ we are warned that 'All this play' is just

         a way to prepare us
         for the real danger that lay
         always, just beyond our gates,
         our ages and our lives

These lines perhaps serve as a perverse irony, coming in the book just become ‘Luscus’ and the loss of an eye, an accident that happened at home. Yet Boyle manages to successfully juggle these mixed fronts of threat, of childhood, of mixed reflection and adult examination. The Last Spring of the World serves as another stand-out collection from Boyle, who is fast becoming a premier voice within Irish poetry, and indeed deserves to be recognised outside of that field as well.

About the Reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.

Sunday 6 August 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "Scablands and Other Stories" by Jonathan Taylor

The Scablands are vast barren areas in the USA riddled with fissures. A scab is a person that breaks a picket line during industrial action. A scab is hard and unattractive. A scab covers an area that has been hurt, and needs time to heal. This book is not set in America.

Buckle in as we head on this lyrical journey to the Scablands: the stories vary in length, some barely a page, others develop in over thirty. The city setting has a park, shops and even a Lovers Walk. It sounds divine but we soon realise it’s a place "brimful of loneliness" packed with "affection-starved strangers." This is very much a book of "sorrowful voices." Don’t worry - you can buy a hug from a booth for £2 there if it gets a bit much.

There’s suicide, amputation, self harm and ever-unfulfilled wishes. The lonely converge here, but Taylor’s poetic use of language ensures reading is a joy not a chore. His use of humour helps too: a homeless guy talks about moving to somewhere more palatial, and "it might even have walls." There are flickering glimmers of hope for the characters: a university place or a lottery ticket may provide a way out, although the offer of a different life is not necessarily wanted. What isn’t said is important, the gaps the reader completes themselves, asfor example in the poignant line: "A girl eternally eleven."

To take a specific story without ruining the book for you - "Till Life" is a delightful puzzle of a story. It covers the working day of a shop-girl. Taylor piques our interest with titbits like a secret tea-cosy in a pocket. He prompts the reader to question what he’s telling us. We realise things aren’t straightforward when Mrs Parker is more than just a boss and manager. We unpick the peppered little clues, such as an accident, a hospital stay and the necessity of care, in order to reveal the actual story beneath. 

Many of the characters stay with you to the next story. At times, as the story finishes it actually feels like just the start of their story – particularly "A Sentimental Story." An earworm appears in three separate stories; a Dr’s name reappears later on. In my haste to review I’ve read the stories too quickly to decipher links. These characters deserve a less galloped read, which I have already begun.

The images created in these stories linger long after the book has been shut: an Andy Pandy Nightdress, a soldier digging in the mud, a girl on a till trying to pause her life and a biography completely crossed out in red pen. The stories in Scablands may be short, but Taylor’s superb word weaving skill ensures the tales last so much longer than their actual length. 

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams is a creative soul from Leicester. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Leicester University, and lately tends to write mostly short fiction. She likes the challenge of a word limit – usually one hundred words. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies. Lisa has a weekly story slot on local community radio. She helps out a bit at Friday Flash Fiction and Blink Ink Journal. A regular stall holder at Leicester's new Art Fair, Lisa also sells online as noodleBubble.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Review by Tracey Foster of "Punk: Rage and Revolution," Leicester Museums and Art Galleries

The current exhibition at Leicester museums and art galleries explores the brief but electrifying period that encompasses the explosion of the punk scene in the UK, with a particular focus on the key movers with connections to Leicester.

On the cusp of being a teenager in 1977, I can clearly remember the shockwaves that followed the death of Elvis Presley and the furore in the news around the end of Rock and Roll. My weekly dose of culture fix watching Top of the Pops showed how torn the nation was, balanced on a record needle between the worlds of disco, cheesy pop, prog rock and punk. The last was a gut reaction against the rest, a rebellion against the norm, the staid and static. Punk was born out of a resistance to the establishment who had screwed up the prospects for its youth, with high unemployment, nationwide strikes, violence in Northern Ireland and financial crashes. This period was epitomised by power strikes and the darkness that we were plunged into. Stuck at home, freezing by candlelight, the time was right for anarchy in the UK.

This exhibition cleverly plunges us back into those times using audio, video and many newspaper clippings. We are transported back to that period to understand the rage and rebellion that emerged from it. Many artefacts have survived from the period and are displayed in conjunction with dialogue that enhances the narrative and brings us the personal. Local voices have contributed to the displays and loaned their own histories to the sets, reliving the period and effect on the city at that time. 

For me, it took me back to my youth and gave clarity to it. Younger visitors may begin to see connections to today and understand the need to have a voice, to make yourself heard. A lack of technology and interconnectivity did not stop the word from spreading in the 70s. Fanzines and press releases made sure that youth culture connected and prospered. Leicester’s scene is fondly remembered and extolled: pubs like The Hind, Princess Charlotte and the Globe welcomed the punks and well-known bands from The Jam, The Clash, The Dammed played at Leicester venues. Creatives from Leicester went on to be involved in the punk fashion scene in London and become the recorders of the time, photographers, photojournalists and movie makers - highly influential names such as David Parkinson, Stephane Raynor, Helen Robinson and Roger K Burton to name a few. Their part in the movement and lasting influences are given credit and much-needed respect from the city that spawned them.

The one element that personally resonated with me was the highlighting of the female voice. Fearless and provocative, Punk set out to empower women in a time of masculine dominance. Girls deliberately set out to create a narrative around ‘what a woman was,’ a rebellion against the male gaze and objectification of the female form that dominated the media and removed our voice. They created band names to deliberately reclaim the gross disrespect for the female body, such as The Slits, Penetration and the Adverts. The Feminist movement started around the same time, but punks became the face of anarchy, a middle finger to the establishment and conformity.  

The 70s was also a period of race riots and the rise of the national front movement. This exhibition also seeks to make connections to the reggae music and collaborations that formed at that time, black and white finding themselves outcast from society and reacting to racism together. Bands like Aswad, UB40 and Steel Pulse found themselves speaking out about injustice and intolerance, and found unity with punks who identified with their message. Bands who covered work from The Clash to The Police led to a resurgence in the Ska movement and united disenfranchised youth further. 

This exhibition is exhaustive and timely, looking back at a period of unrest and  unrivalled creativity that might spark others to reflect upon our current predicament and react accordingly. We can only hope. Rosie Ann Boxall of Soft Touch Arts says: "What excites me most about the exhibition is the conversations that have taken place between the generations. Hopefully we've created an environment where people feel that they can talk to each other.

The exhibition is on at the New Walk Museum and the Soft Touch Arts Centre until 3rd September. A summer programme of events to celebrate this exhibition is planned across August including a Punk Festival Weekender at the O2 Academy. For more info about this exhibition and any other events please follow the link to the website for further videos, interviews, playlist and catalogue bookstore here.


About the reviewer
Tracey Foster was too young to be a punk but has set store by its reactive stance ever since and would like to think herself a rebel at heart. She 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 CommaPress, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature and The Arts Council and she writes on her own blog site The Small Sublime found here.