Category: creative writing M.A. (Page 1 of 5)

Edwin Smith revisited – Catching Light

Back in October 2014 (now three years ago) I was on the first term of a Creative Writing M.A. at NTU.

I was also with uncanny timing commissioned (the first and so far the only time I been commissioned) by R.I.B.A. through Apple and Snakes to write in response to a lovely collection of Edwin Smith Photographs at R.I.B.A. that autumn.

I missed my course deadline but fulfilled the commission and promptly left a course that frankly I should not have been on at that time. The £500 fee almost covered my first term fees!

The RIBA website has ‘mislaid’ the entire project basically  so I publishing whole thing here instead.

Here is the work which is one of the best things I done so far and as I not as flavour of the month as certain other poets hasn’t been seen since unless you delve deep into my obscure back catalogue.

Apple and Snakes put up a blog post of the recordings we all made as well..again not heard much of that from RIBA either they probably ticking various ‘engagement’ boxes.

Listen to all the poems here: http://applesandsnakesblog.org/blog/edwinify-yourself#more

I am indebted to Roy Hammans who actually developed the last image after Smith’s death who provided informative advice throughout and is probably the single most knowledgeable person about Smith and his work.

EDWIN SMITH – Catching Light

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”― Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin, Berlin Stories, (1945)

 

 

  1. Kodak Box Brownie No.2 Model F. 127 Roll Film 1927

 

Camden Town Bedroom 1935

 

 

Trembling in a gloomy Camden Town bedroom surrounded by brown paper

The teenage boy gently prises the camera from the leather case, undoes the catch

Traces the word BROWNIE[i] along the fake leather strap, caresses the box

The textured cardboard leatherette warm to the touch, he raises it to his eyes

Spins around to catch a glimpse of lace curtains breathing in and out

Then a pause, stops breathing, squints through spectacle glass and a blurry lens

No film, just retina, lens and glass glinting, quiet suburban air between the wars

Shutter pressed, the first image, undeveloped, untaken, unrecorded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. ICA IDEAL 205 Glass Plate 9×12 1935

 

 

Opticians London 1935

 

 

 

A present from Marx and Nash[ii], same fake black leather case but much stronger

A hint of steel, hands now more relaxed, a world at his fingertips

The box finally clicks open, bellows a tiny lung, rangefinder, spirit level

Suddenly in Vogue, a London Atget spinning around fairs, cafes, Oxford Street

Zeiss Ikon Tessar 135mm f4.5 precision German lens and Compur shutter
The shop windows buzz with reflections, his spectacles stare back after

Nights spent in Lund Humphries[iii] experimenting with solutions, final prints

Days mixing it with emigrants and socialites, Focal Press tricks, ghost images.[iv]

 

 

         

 

 

 

 

 

  1. CONTAX II 5cm Sonnar Lens 35mm 1936

 

Kentish Town 1936

N.B. The curators got this wrong is in fact in East End probably Limehouse or Whitechapel as the Poster behind the gent is for a show at Hackney Wick and architecturally Kentish Town simply doesn’t match this setting.

 

 

Modernism in Kentish Town, a lens named after the sun, Sonnar

The lure of speed, futurism, the 35mm film spooling out of the movies

Twisting on that light yellow filter, ½ a second at F4, the march of progress

Back to black-outs, air-raid fears, black shirts, Agfa Isochrom, Kodak Nikko

The thrill of a world intoxicated with power[v], dancing on a ledge, never falling

Café de Paris, Heppenstall, Orwell, men talking in gangs carrying knives

His finger presses the shutter on Laura Knight and Coco, the ballet, the fairs

Spin Pennies from Heaven, Zeppelins over the docks[vi], Germany calling.

 

 

 

 

  1. THORNTON-PICKARD RUBY Quarter Plate 1904

 

St Lawrence, Bradford –on-Avon, Wiltshire 1950

 

Post-War, Deep England after Evans[vii], ash in the mouth, misericord darkness,

Light trickle slowly through lens, cat-one, cat-two, cat-three, whispered

People have become ghosts, 27 and a half minutes[viii], divining, digging into time

A mahogany box worn to a gleam in a suitcase, mahogany tripod, Leeds, England

So solid, a step back from the sirens, modernist black and white, the emblems

Slow drizzle and fade, tilts into spires and thickets, empty barns, rigs of the time

His glinting spectacles at the viewfinder, crouching like a sniper, waiting

Hiding his camera under vestry tables, a quiet man in a corner, hooded.

 

 

  1. GRAFLEX SPEED GRAPHIC Roll Film 1960

 

Fylindales, Yorkshire 1969

 

 

Movement, travel, portables, Made in New York, focal plane, press camera

The fruits of success, lease-lend to never had it so good, the wide angle

The New Europe, Ireland, Italy, Greece and France, the Ensign Autorange

Searching for the same mellow light, that photograph in the mind always

Then back weeks later to the darkroom in deepest England, the bleaching
Hours lightening shadows, clearing highlights with Potassium Ferricyanide,[ix] poison

Chemical arts, sleights of hand, shade in the palm of the hand, fission and fusion

His collecting eye adding the coin to the wishing well, staring at the sun.[x]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. ENSIGN AUTORANGE 820 120 roll film 1955

 

Stubble Burning – Last film developed 1993 by Roy Hammans

 

 

‘Co-operating with the Inevitable’ he called it, “bend with the stream”

Holding the Ensign Autorange up to the light it reflects in his spectacles

Bought in 1955 the last camera he held, English made, Walthamstow

The firm almost disappeared when in 1940 the offices in Holborn bombed

All surviving he stands with Olive to watch stubble burning in 1971

Squinting through a crisp and sharp Ross Xpres lens at the flaring

Feeling the silver body in the palm, the faux leather Ensign logo

Epsilon shutter pressed, a last image, taken, undeveloped, catches light forever.[xi]

 

© Shaun Belcher 2014

 

[i] Edwin Smith redeemed the Kodak Box Brownie by collecting Corn-Flake packet coupons probably in 1927  (EWELL, 2008)p.11.

[ii] Friend Enid Marx gave Edwin Smith a ‘better camera’ in 1935 shortly after he got married Olive Smith reports this as the Contax but as Ewell points out that not released until 1936. (EWELL, 2008)p.13.

[iii] Enid Marx was connected to The Royal College and Smith’s photographs came to the attention of Paul Nash who encouraged Smith and gave him access to the darkrooms at the publisher Lund Humphries. (EWELL, 2008)

[iv] Smith co-wrote and published a series of Focal Press guides from 1938-1940.(SMITH, 1940)

[v] Ewell reports the trip Smith made with his sponsor Sir Albert Talbot Wilson MP, a fervent pro-Nazi, to Germany at this time. (EWELL, 2008)p.19.

[vi] The German airship Graf Zeppelin made ‘spying’ raids probably equipped with aerial photography equipment of a high resolution on the 30th June 1936 and this was reported in Hansard on the 8th July 1936. The Parliamentary exchange highlights the naivety of some in Government which bordered on complicity. (Hansard, 1936)

[vii] Frederick H. Evans, British ‘Pictorialist’ photographer famous for the ‘Sea of Steps’ photograph taken in Wells Cathedral which Smith took a version of in 1956. A major influence on the Cathedral and Parish Church series.

[viii] Smith would time exposures using the cat phrase and replace the lens cap on exposures that could last up to 27 minutes thus removing all trace of human activity. (EWELL, 2008)p.52.

[ix] Smith mixed his own chemicals. After his death a large amount of Potassium Ferricyanide was found in his possession. The chemical is a poison and the Ilford Manual of Photography recommends disposing in drains with plenty of water to reduce the risk. Source: Roy Hammans note to article ‘Ways of Working’ on The Weeping Ash photography website. Accessed 31.10.2014. (HAMMANS, 2011)

[x] The Edwin Smith RIBA exhibition highlights the ‘trick’ Smith used during the Fylindales printing of placing a coin on the paper to ‘create’an image of the sun where none had been.

[xi] The circumstances of this last roll of film being left in Smith’s camera and only being developed years later are detailed on the Weeping Ash website. Source: ‘The Last Exposures’. Accessed 31.10.2014. (HAMMANS, 2011)

 

 

Bibliography

 

EWELL, R., 2008. Evocations of Place. 1st ed. London: Merrell:RIBA.

HAMMANS, R., 2011. Edwin Smith Working Methods. [Online]
Available at: http://www.fine-photographs.co.uk/index.php/life-work/ways-of-working
[Accessed 31 10 2014].

HAMMANS, R., 2011. The Last Exposures. [Online]
Available at: http://www.fine-photographs.co.uk/index.php/related-material/the-last-exposures
[Accessed 31 10 2014].

Hansard, 1936. GERMAN AIRSHIP “HINDENBURG.”. [Online]
Available at: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1936/jul/08/german-airship-hindenburg
[Accessed 31 10 2014].

SMITH, E., 1940. In: All the Photo-Tricks. London: Focal Press.

 

 

Well I Never….until now…..chocks away Henry..

aerophoto2-1024x742

The past two weeks have been both liberating and slightly scary. Having jumped ship so to speak from the Cruise liner NTU ( currently headed for Corporate Tax Haven Islands with a monetising Captain whilst flying a pure blue Tory ensign) I have had a few days to ponder what next…

I currently have two phd applications in one of which I have written off and cannot comment on until I given some more information but I not expecting much. The second I much more optimistic about BUT I have to factor in that at my age I may not be successful. Organisations run on ‘outcomes’ and that means long term outcomes from an academic career when done a PhD. At 57 I may not have so much time as others. If that the case then my last PhD application will be done and dusted by Easter and time to move on….to ..what…

Life post-Academic may be beckoning and it quite exciting to meet someone like Henry Normal last night who not tainted by the academic environment. So there is water on Mars then…at the moment I feel like Major Tom having been stuck in a Tin Can for 8 years. I will not be going back to academic teaching..I done that..it over. I would love to do a really good PhD then become a researcher..a reader say..but that it with Academia. HE teaching no.

henry

It was interesting to talk to Henry Normal who had gone the exact opposite way to me. Started writing poetry early then got involved in TV and then started writing again recently following his father’s death. I wrote fairly steadily through the 90’s but the Naughties were tainted by the diagnosis and subsequent deaths in 2004 of first my father and then my mother in 2012 from cancers. That pretty much ended my relationship with Oxfordshire too..symbolically the Salt pamphlet ‘Last Farmer’ went in my mother’s coffin. Done and Dusted….

Until now. I have finally thrown off the mantle of Academic Teacher which I never felt entirely happy with. Especially as the Progressive Rightists Corporate Zealots ripped the heart and soul out of the system and impose what is fast becoming a training regime staffed entirely by a compliant workforce.

I have started to think positively about writing again…and narrative..how it comes out I no idea but at least I have time to think about it. Even the aborted NTU MA was too precious and compressed to really feel able to get on with it….

I had simply exchanged one outcome regime for another..only this time on the wrong side of the fence.

So if there is anything poetry wise left in the tank it will probably happen now.

Chocks away like the early flyers above……I may fly.. I may crash …

but at least I holding the control stick this time.

The Broken Brush: Writing and Painting?

brush

I have not posted in this writing blog for a while due to a full-time commitment to painting in preparation for the Lady Bay Arts show in West Bridgford on the weekend of 16th and 17th May.

The actual physical act of painting has made me look at my writing ‘block’ in a different way and also with the benefit of hindsight my writing ‘career’ post M.A. in Creative Writing. ‘Doing’ rather than ‘thinking about doing’ which my writing has been sabotaged by has become a useful tool. I painting again because ignoring theory and influences and simply engaging directly in practice as Picasso says:

“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

I am only able to paint like I am now because of time off on career break and I made the right decision in leaving writing behind for a while. At this point in my life and with seven years teaching in an art school and an MA in Fine Art recently completed my head was always in a ‘art’ place. Trying to drop all that and go down a writing MA route was a mistake but one I had to make to lay at least two ghosts.

1. My possible grandfather. If nothing else the MA course laid to rest that particular ghost. I feel free of that burden now. Having ‘revealed’ it I actually made it less not more important.

2. I have to ‘do’ a MA in Creative Writing to be a writer…complete tosh but sadly a attitude that all to prevalent in this city. I have met many people claiming to be writers with MAs and many without. In both cases I’d say about 10% are actually writers….about same quota goes for the rest of the arts. Postgraduate arts academic qualifications are mostly for people who want to impress their friends and a small percentage of students who want to work in academia.

So post ‘academic writing’ which is I reckon totally shot now what shall I do…

Good question I no idea…answers on a postcard please.

The only thing for certain is I will want to do it… if and when it starts again.

It could be songwriting, poetry…historical research..or music reviewing again which I always enjoyed.

As they say watch this space..literally all writing news will be posted here.

As Harland Howard said when songs rejected for the umpteenth time..

‘Always smile, shake their hands and walk away’…..:-)

Dead Cat Bounce

other

The photo above shows in their entirety the new  poetry books I  have aquired since the defining moment of the Salt pamphlet ‘Last Farmer’ in December 2010. The only other books missing are the Helen Mort Wordsworth trust pamphlet and my fellow Salt Modern Voices. I have separated them as I regard December 2010 as a break point between what I have done and what I might one day do. There is no specific intent in their collection. Indeed many are personal connections e.g. Rosie I have worked with and Tony Curtis I liaised with over a Ray Howard-Jones exhibition. Martin Malone I helped with web stuff on Interpreter’s House which I used to help run the web side of. Alan Baker is someone I got to know through the web but not met in person yet despite sharing this city:-)

December 2010 I was 51 years old and had stopped publishing in magazines (not through any great plan) around 1999 which about the same time the well of words dried up. There was a brief ‘dead cat bounce’ in 2006-7 when this blog originally started. Wayne Burrows selected three poems from those written then for an East Midlands issue of Staple and I was briefly an original member of the Nottingham Writer’s Studio.

From 2008 until September 2014 I neither read, thought about or had any contact with poets or poetry apart from the Salt Publication and subsequent Salt Modern Voices TOUR  in 2011. This felt like a dead poet reading as I read some poems that over 20 years old! I was also dealing with my mother’s serious illness so my thoughts not really on the task at hand.

This was of course the perfect preparation for an M.A. in Creative Writing! In fact signing on to the course was a deliberate act of  forcing myself to see what left in the tank..if anything and in that it was entirely successful. I had stopped serious painting years ago and had stopped writing but somehow I still believed I was a functioning poet and painter…I have smashed that idea once and for all now.

I thought I could pick up the past but the past didn’t agree. In fact when it came to writing an influences essay I floundered then I quit. I wrote the Edwin Smith commission poem during that first term with absolutely no influences at all. This is apparently not possible according to Creative Writing wisdom. Whatever influences can be detected are so buried even I was not aware of them!

So as I wrote in the previous post I raking over the ashes to see what might be left and what I might be doing in the future. I am sure that whatever I might do from now on is going to have be starting from scratch. If nothing else the career break has done its job…given me time to sort this out…no more delusions.This has led to some soul-searching and some interesting insights. Apologies for the naval-gazing but after all isn’t that what most poetry is these days?

 

NEW HORIZONS…..can the Dead cat be revived?

I have come to a couple of interesting conclusions and this goes hand in hand with my fine art painting career (non-career). When I seriously donned the ‘poet’ cap back in the early 1990’s I was heavily influenced by Raymond Carver and Simon Armitage and determined to produce a ‘democratic muse’ i.e. a poetry of simple expressions and familial history that anyone in my extended family back in Oxfordshire could read and by extension anybody could read. I held firmly to this through my extended stay in Edinburgh and some of that attitude I found mirrored in some contemporary Scottish poetry. I was heavily influenced whilst there by Stewart Conn, William Neill and Norman McCaig. Indeed I met and corresponded with the first two on a regular basis. Left-wing, working-class and place-centred it all fitted and was reinforced by a series of night-classes with Murdo MacDonald and Craig Cairns I attended at Edinburgh University. I felt part of the Scottish scene and felt supported as a poet in a way I have never felt since in Oxford or Nottingham. I think this is because I am a ‘class-based’ poet and that doesn’t go down well with certain elements in England. I am talking about the Oxbridge stranglehold on literary life that leads many to affect pseudo middle-class characteristics in both speech and thought. I ain’t like that my duck.

I also steered heavily towards figuration in my artworks from the mid 1980’s onwards too as the reality of grinding poverty hit home. The irony is that democratic poems and figurative art got me nowhere so I might as well have been an iconoclastic avant-guardist for all the good it did me. Which brings me to the point of this short essay.

My first encounter with poetry was American and Objectivist….through William Carlos Williams I discovered Tomlinson and Bunting and Pound. One of my favourite critics (still is) was Eric Mottram and I lapped up his conversations with Tomlinson. A very modernist and international outlook at a young age. The collected poems ‘Diesel on Gravel’ which collates the first ten years I re-read last night and it starts in an experimental WCW / Imagist / Pasternak vein and slowly adopts traditional forms before crashing through the Carver plain-speaking barrier around 1986. Then in the nineties I became more and more conservative to the point where Simon Smith accused me of being on an entirely different bus to himself.

I realise now that this went hand in hand with a lack of persistence in abstract painting too and a steer toward the graphic and familiar.

I am now at a point in my life where I can once more steer back into uncharted waters so to speak. I long ago gave up thinking that my art would make me a living which the most sensible thing I said since I walked away from my dad’s shovel. I can earn livings elsewhere like many a modernist.

So the image above is curious. I need to move forwards but not as randomly as above. I am beginning to sniff out a route. Alan Baker and Paul Sutton fit into a political/modernist/post-modernist area I interested in..a post OTHER anthology kind of sea Andrew Taylor also swims in.

Matt Merritt I found fascinating because he not embedded in academia. He also referred to Tomas Transformer who I hadn’t thought about since Edinburgh. I was heavily influenced by Robin Fulton and he had deep Scandinavian connections. These are the horizons I lost in Oxford. I ignored poetry and poetry ignored me in Oxford because it was locked behind steel wire and bricks. I once conned my way into a Les Murray reading inside a University building but I was treated like dog-mess on the pristine undergrad’s shoes. Being a University employee was to be a minion and one was always kept in one’s place…..always second in line basically.

Here are two of Fulton’s books and the Bloodaxe Transtromer collected collection translated by Fulton from 1987. I also include Nicholson’s majestic ‘Poem, Purpose and Place’ from my Scottish days too:-)

place

Let’s go to Sacramento…Diesel on Gravel again

OK so this is news that stays news as they say…

In 1963-4 Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers Workshop..he drove to Sacramento. I have just metaphorically done the same only I don’t have a car and cannot drive (his was a battered Chevrolet not a Cadillac by the way).

I hinted at this news in previous posts but now as the paperwork almost complete I can say it.

I have left the NTU Creative Writing course. I completed one term.

The previous Fine Art M.A.was too recently completed. Too many personal politics and career questions clouded my decision-making (a hangover from various complications within the School of Art and Design). Most of all I simply couldn’t face yet more modern educational tick-boxing (we call it learning outcome grids, I know I have written and marked hundreds of them) when all I wanted to do was write and make stuff. I didn’t feel like I had left work at all and I was paying for it.  Not a good feeling. I really enjoyed David Belbin’s rigorous ‘prose poem’ classes and most of the core lectures.

I simply made a mistake by pursuing yet another M.A. within my own institution but this decision was shaped by practicalities and mostly financial considerations to do with travel. I originally looked at Sheffield University and Hallam and even Lincoln. I didn’t consider Nottingham University because I felt that would be undermining NTU to go there.

In the end I simply didn’t feel comfortable in a class mostly 30 years younger to be honest. I was swimming upstream in muddy water from the get-go a bit like one of Carver’s fish ( see a poem below written in 1989 before most in class were born!). I wish all the class and their tutors every success and look forward to the Anthology launch:-)

The experience has helped me determine that I am not an ‘academic’ poet. Never was and never will be. I may be an academic art researcher we shall see.

I now attend monthly poetry sessions at the Nottingham Writers Studio and feel far more relaxed and creative. In all other respects things have been going very well and I could not be happier.

I intend to create as much ‘stuff’ as possible in the next few months I have left on ‘career break’ before returning to NTU SAD in July 2015.

There more than one way to catch a fish after all…

The image above is a cover of a self-made booklet of poems I made in 1990 when working at The London Poetry Library it is in their collection it is titled ‘Diesel on Gravel’

diesel

Its title and its contents reflect my discovery of Carver in 1985 through his book ‘Fires’. It contains a poem ‘Searching for a tomb’ which relates directly to the A.E.Coppard story told in another post here
http://www.shaunbelcher.com/writing/?p=1071
Neither of us knew who that particular fish was then…

The one thing I have done properly whilst on the course, even if it made for a ‘bad’ essay, was excavating and confronting the Coppard ‘legacy’ if there is one. It was good for me to do it. I finally discovered new facts about him and read his work properly. That ghost is now laid to rest somewhere in an Oxfordshire graveyard.

Time to move on…

Which wraps everything up nicely.

Here the poem:

 

Searching for a tomb 1989

Sun shone warm on the bonnet
as we pulled up the gravel drive.
The old rectory stood deserted.
The congregation had been dwindling
these five years and twenty.

My father’s wellington’s flap
as he strides off through the wet grass.
I have a photo of him
sitting in his stepfather’s arms
holding a team of horses
pulling a plough aged about ten.

Here we are
Two figures caught in the open.
Standing in a churchyard.
Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire
On a frosty November evening.

My father is circling the headstones
and green iron crosses, looking.

A flock of doves twist and jink
in the blue air above us.

We stare down like two men on a bridge.
Staring into clear and shallow sunlit water
searching for the shadow of a fish.

The father he has never seen.
The grandfather I will never meet.

 

 

My First Short Story

grey

 

My first ever short story.

The Leash

We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…

The leash to the greyhound tightened around her red raw hand. Across the river the lights of the car factory flickered and bounced in the water and she finally let go. The dog hesitated,then was gone, streaking off across the frosty ground toward the derelict bandstand that was disappearing in the dusk. She watched the dog circle the bandstand and head back across the icy grass. She suddenly thought of the family car her father drove when she was a child. The memory of warm leatherette seats and chrome trim around the dashboard vividly came to mind. Sometimes it smelt of his mistress. A sweet smell that was different to her mother. She wondered about the furtive kissing and hasty meetings that must have happened in that old car. She thought of his hand resting on the back seat on another cheap night out holding a cigarette. There was always a cigarette. Most times the car just smelt of the stubbed out butts in the ashtray. She remembered the ash swirling up and over her when the door opened once and her angry mother brushing it off her party dress.

The dog bounded away then returned. She always did. Her sides panting with the exertion of a few laps of the park. One time the dog had just kept going. She went home and had taken the back of Jimmy’s hand when she told him. He told her off for being ‘so fuckin stupid’. The two of them spent hours in another twilight looking for the pale grey dog. They were about to give up when she suddenly appeared from some bushes. Her right paw was dripping blood and leaving red paw marks on the tarmac path. It was probably caused by a broken bottle left in the undergrowth by the drunks that used the bandstand during the day or one of the teenagers who collected there of an evening. Jimmy said he’d never trust her with the dog again. A class dog in its day so he said,so he’d be walking her now. Just him. It didn’t last long. After a week he gave up walking her every night. He preferred the pub and his mates after a day as a plumber’s mate. So here they were again, her and that dog, circling the same dumb riverside park. The council estate behind them ricocheted to the sound of joy-riders cars and helicopters overhead as usual on a Sunday evening. She’d always liked the dog, more than Jimmy if she was honest. The dog was gentle and curled up at her feet when Jimmy shouted at her or showed her the back of his hand.

She bent forward and just managed to catch a hold of the collar. Felt the studs scratch the back of her hand as she struggled to attach the lead. Finally it was secure and she tugged the dog gently back towards captivity. They started the slow walk back down the side street that led home from the park. She watched the frost on the chain-link glisten. It was almost festive. The moon and stars above were fast being hidden by cloud as rain clouds came in. The quarter-moon above flashed and then disappeared like a coin in a drain. A woman in high heels and a tight dress careered into her, obviously in a hurry. The stupid woman almost fell over the dog’s lead. She shivered, just a little, then heard the first siren. Then another and blue lights flashing in the bay windows of the houses at the top of their street. Distant foreign and English voices merged as they echoed down the street toward her. She heard crying. Loud men’s voices shouting. Then she saw the van. Jimmy’s van. It was parked at a weird angle, half on, half off the pavement. She felt confused. It wasn’t time for him to be back from the pub yet. Every Sunday evening he’d leave her cooking mid-afternoon to watch the football and be back by seven. Always. It was half past six. Then she saw him sat on the pavement head in hands, not moving. Sat on the frosty pavement with a police-woman standing over him speaking into a radio. The police-woman’s hand on his shoulder half in sympathy, half restraining. As she got closer the voices became clearer but the foreign accents still confused her. The dog sensed Jimmy and started tugging hard on the leash. She wanted to go to him but held them both back.

Then she saw the bundle of rags under the front wheel. At least that what she thought it was until the shape of a small child’s shoe became clear. A paramedic was cutting the clothing from the child’s legs. The body was so still. She was now close enough to see a dark pool of what must be blood. Shone like a patch oil in the headlights. A woman in a long dress was being held back by a large bearded man. Other men were arriving or coming out of a local house. There was a lot of shouting in a language she did not understand. She had never talked to the people down the road. Jimmy said they were immigrants, or worse asylum seekers. Jimmy wasn’t the type to mix with anybody he didn’t know let alone their sort. He locked his tools away each night just in case after they had moved in. He’d heard stories down the pub. She stopped and could now see things clearly. Nobody seemed to see her or the dog. Jimmy’s van door was open. She could see the mess inside. Empty beer cans, empty sandwich wrappers. She stopped dead. Heart racing. The dog dragging at her outstretched hand which was now raw from holding on. Clouds still scudding across the quarter moon and the pavement glistening white under the streetlights. She could hear Jimmy sobbing now. Something was being said to him. A policeman got out of a second police car and pushed a breathalyzer at him. Head down at first Jimmy didn’t see it. The sobbing was making his body rock like the dog panting earlier. She’d never seen him cry. He was the tough guy. Always. The big man when out with his mates. He did things his way always. She just stayed out of the way. Most evenings she’d spend in that dimly lit front room with the telly on. Sometimes she’d light a cigarette from one of Jimmy’s smuggled packs even though she was trying to give up. Occasionally if lucky she’d treat herself to a single glass of cheap white wine from Tesco. She never got to join in the lad’s nights outs. ‘Girls was not allowed’, that was what Jimmy said. Most nights it was just her and the dog, watching Eastenders or some shit.

All of that had just changed. A third police car passed her and an ambulance pulled in behind. She couldn’t quite take it all in but like the clouds above her things were changing and moving on. The dog still tugged hard on the lead trying to join in the action. Suddenly there was a burst of activity and the child was lifted into the back of the ambulance at the same time as Jimmy was finally pulled to his feet and led to the second police car. There was a small bundle of rags left on the pavement soaked in blood. The second car disappeared with Jimmy. The ambulance left and there was just the first police woman inside her car now talking to her radio. She got out and started winding blue and white tape around Jimmy’s van and up on to the pavement.

She felt like she’d been watching T.V. Nothing seemed quite real. This was not the kind of thing that happened to her. Everything had a dull routine. Now this. She eased the tight lead on her fingers to try and get some circulation into her frozen fingers. The dog continued to pull at the leash. It was getting agitated and started to bark. She had to do something. Instead of walking past the police woman she turned and hauled the dog back towards the darkened path and the park where they’d come from. The dog sensed something had changed. She did too. She tried to take it all in. She wanted to be in their front room as if nothing had happened. Back in that dimly lit space with the dusty cheese-plant, the dodgy video player and the telly. She walked back around the park in the exact same pattern as before. She even pulled the lead off the dog but she just stared back at her and didn’t move. She shouted ‘go on…off you go’ but nothing. She gave up knelt down and held her tight and re-attached the collar. She could feel the dog’s heart pounding through its bony chest. She knew things like this happened to other people but she still couldn’t relate it to her and Jimmy. She remembered her mum used to say….’you don’t know what you don’t know’. It had never made any sense before. She started crying. She led the dog towards what used to be home.

She started to think about the child. Was it dead. Was Jimmy in really big trouble? What was happening? She was shivering from being out in the cold too long. Turning into their street again she saw the police woman driving toward them leaving the blue and white tape flapping around the van. She summoned up the courage to walk past on the other side of the road. The bundle of rags was still on the pavement glistening with frost under the street-light. She started to feel sick. She passed the house the people had come out of earlier. All the lights were on and she saw men talking in the front room. There were even more men than she remembered and more people arriving as she got to their front door. The key turned easily for the first time in months. She usually had to wrestle with it. The door swung open. The main light was on. Jimmy must have been back whilst they were at the park which was odd. Suddenly she could smell stale ash and the sweet smell of sex just like in her father’s car. Maybe she was imagining it. There were a couple of empty beer cans on the table. She didn’t remember them being there earlier.

She felt sick and let the dog go, still on its lead, then ran to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet bowl. She looked in the mirror. She wiped the blur of mascara from round her eyes and rinsed the taste of sick from her mouth. She stood there listening to the familiar sound of the dog lapping water from its bowl downstairs. She’d left the front door open and could hear foreign voices from down the road again. A siren could be heard but far away. Somebody else’s problem. Finally she went downstairs and closed the door. She sat for what seemed like ages looking at the cream plastic receiver on the wall. It never rang. Suddenly she went to the kitchen and fed the dog, grabbed some packets of crisps from the kitchen cupboard and went back upstairs to the bedroom. It took ten minutes to cram her few clothes into her old holiday suitcase. Grabbing her thickest coat she started explaining to the dog why they were leaving. She picked up the trailing leash and pulled the dog after her. They passed the blue and white tape, the frosted van, and the now stiff and frozen bundle of blood-stained rags and were gone.

Thanks Ray….and Tess.

 

 

 

 

Get in, Get Out: Writing the Short Story ‘The Leash’

‘Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.’[1]

These words are from Raymond Carver’s 1985 collection ‘Fires’ which was a starting point for my own engagement with the idea of writing short stories. Apart from a few false starts, which were closer to prose poetry than the traditional short story, ‘The Leash’ is my first attempt at the form. From the 1980s onwards I was drawn to the works of Thomas McGuane, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason and Jayne Anne Phillips. I became familiar with the concept of ‘dirty realism’ as defining American fiction from this period. The notion of ‘Sudden Fiction’ (the title of a 1986 anthology[2] also known as ‘Flash Fiction’ or ‘Short Short Fiction’) appealed as it related to song-writing in its brevity. It was a style I felt familiar with both artistically and politically and it connected to the kind of music and lyric-writing I was engaged in. I wrote poetry but did not consider myself a prose writer. I have found the process of starting from zero in fiction very difficult. Far more difficult than I expected. Having lost the connection to writing poetry until recently and not reading fiction I found myself a complete beginner again. Apart from the Americans the most important writers to me historically were Chekhov (discovered through Carver) and Scottish and Irish writers. I did not and still do not consider myself as part of a particularly ‘English’ scene or style.

To ‘jump-start’ so to speak the learning process I read as many and various short stories as I could in the first term. The emphasis in class on constant reading producing writing made perfect sense to me and it was the reading that I lacked. I read as many short stories as I could including Rick Bass, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, John Burnside, Matthew Licht, John McGahern, Arthur Machen, Mark Strand, Joy Williams, John Romano etc. I liked some, hated others but used each reading experience and published an online critique for each as ‘Daily Shorts[3]. This experience was really useful as it started me analysing exactly what I might want from the fiction I wrote. The writers I selected were sometimes deliberate e.g. poets who wrote fiction like Carver and Burnside and other writers which outside my comfort zone like Machen and Romano (a scriptwriter). I found the experience both pleasurable as I reacquainted myself with past heroes like McGahern and Carver and also troubling as I struggled with more contemporary short story writers like Gaffney and Licht. My age was a factor that also coloured my experience here and in class as the generational changes in writing fiction, the new ideas of what fiction was or could be and the emphasis on generic styles like fantasy and historical fiction helped to challenge my ‘older white male’ literary boundaries. I have now completed two 2000 word pieces of fiction. The first of these in hindsight was where I made most of my mistakes. Leaving aside the number of ‘as’ or the over long sentences I now feel that jumping in at the deep end with a pseudo-historical Zeppelin spy novel with embedded images in the manner of W.G. Sebald [4]may have been a tad ambitious. However just the physical act of creating 2000 words was a major achievement for somebody who had not got past 1000 words of any fiction before. My bizarre version of ‘Riddle of The Sands’ set on the Norfolk coast received the feedback it deserved and although there were good ideas embedded in the piece it has gone into the bottom draw for now.

‘The Leash’ is my first short story. It is just under 2000 words and the statement at the beginning is a reminder to myself of what I trying to do which draws on both A.E.Coppard[5] and Jonathan Taylor’s introductions [6]concerning the ‘orality’ of specifically short fiction.

We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…

It is simply a note to self….do not run, walk. Craft before imagination. Get in and get out. Write about what you know first. Written in one go no editing it relates to how I write poetry now. As a young man I constantly rewrote pieces to the point of destruction. I employed similar techniques in painting often losing work because of over working. Having hand-written it (important to me as this how I write best) I then re-edited a couple of times on the laptop. This feels right to me. I have read many descriptions of writing technique and this what suits me best others may have different approaches. I am happier with the story. It relates to a poem called ‘Greyhound in Frost’ written in 2002 but takes a completely different approach to the mid-1990s subject matter. It is my first attempt to write from a third person narrator point of view about a female character which means it not completely ‘authentic’ but I did my best. I still struggle with the idea of dialogue. It may form part of a sequence of short stories to be called ‘The Oxford Stories’. I think it is the first time I have found a ‘voice’ that like my poetry in fiction. Political, realist, working-class it is definitely not academic, historical nor particularly English in terms of influence. I have more in common with James Kelman than any Oxbridge writer…..hence the greyhound in the story is a tip of my hat to all of that.

Endnotes

[1] Raymond Carver, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.

[2] Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction:American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)

[3] Shaun Belcher, ‘Daily Shorts,(2014) < http://www.shaunbelcher.com/writing/?cat=49 > [accessed 5 January 2015]

[4] W.G.Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (London: Collins Harvill, 1998)

[5] A.E. Coppard, ‘Foreword’ in ’The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951)

[6] Jonathan Taylor, ed., Overheard: Stories to read aloud (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012)

Bibliography

Coppard, A. E., ‘Foreword’ in ’The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951)

Taylor, Jonathan, ed., Overheard: Stories to read aloud (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012)

Carver, Raymond, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.

Sebald, W. G., The Rings of Saturn (London: Collins Harvill, 1998)

Shapard, Robert and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction: American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)

How to stop being a poet.

poetry


For my creative writing course I have to produce an ‘Influence’ essay by next Monday and it proving to be a really hard call for me. Not because the essay in itself difficult (see previous post) but because it like a blood-letting leach to a sick patient in terms of the whys and wherefores of why I stopped reading and writing poetry.

I stopped reading poetry in 2002 when I moved to Nottingham. I was concentrating on writing song lyrics from then until the release of the Moon Over the Downs in 2003 which based on the relaunched Americana fanzine Flyinshoes which I launched and edited from 1999 until 2004.

I also did not have my poetry collection with me until 2004 as it was stored at my parents because of a lack of room in my seedy one bed flat. I had written a few ‘post-break-up’ poems in 2002 following the end of a 7 year relationship with a Spanish woman and a couple of poems which simple therapy when I found myself in a dark place like ‘Greyhound in frost’ (Full original title “On Regarding a Distant Prospect of Oxford with Greyhound in Foreground on a Frosty Morning” )which I submitted in annoyance to The Guardian in 2004 just to show certain people that I could actually write. That Ruth Fainlight chose it (Alan Sillitoe’s wife) lent the whole thing a certain irony.

The complete lack of help at that time from the ‘great and the good’here in Nottingham was a major factor with various local writer attitudes being along the lines of ‘you’re from Oxford therefore posh’ typical and similar to some attitudes I encountered in Scotland too.I was told by a local poet that the only way I would ‘get on’ was to kow-tow and help at events by moving chairs…I said fuck off. A lot of these provincial attitudes have disappeared in last ten years thank god and the Nottingham Writer’s Studio is a far more open organisation than it was to start with. I helped the then fledgling Writer’s Studio get off the ground by setting up a WordPress…which surprise surprise brought in enough initial members to keep it going ( I knew this the rest of the founders seemed oblivious to the web and were too focused on their own careers).

I gave up on writing in 2004 and trained as a teacher ironically specialising at first in ‘Basic Skills’ i.e. maths and english. Then freelanced web work, then in 2007 started as a web lecturer at NTU School of Art and Design. That was good for art but my poetry was irrelevant to most there and still is. The Head of Art research stood up and managed to forget exactly what subject it was I had been published for in 2010 which about sums it up…announcing this to the entire School was a bonus. Thanks.

The only support I ever received from Nottingham from 2001-2011 was in 2007 when Wayne Burrows asked for some poems for an East Midlands edition of Staple.

I also joined the ‘Inside Out’ group of poets working in prisons which was fabulous but didn’t help me write at all. I was just surviving on ‘drip-down’ from various arts council funded initiatives and a little freelance work. This lack of interest in my writing came after a miserable few years being a minion employed by Oxford University where the lack of interest from the ‘literati’ was deafening and this fateful combination almost finished off all ideas of me being a poet. Through the Oxford years ( Full story HERE) I kept going as a writer through the support of Richard Price and Southfields alone nobody in Oxford cared less frankly .The divide between ‘Town and Gown’ was and is healthy.

I eventually stopped writing poetry altogether with just an occasional poem leaking out haphazardly. I also stopped reading poetry completely. Job done…or so I thought….again ironically the rest of my life finally got on track. I met (Gun Chimes) then married Emma in 2010 and finally had a mortgage after a lifetime of poverty and substandard poor accommodation. So life was better and no poems to worry about.

Then in 2010 I asked Chris Emery at Salt about P.O.D. (print on demand) as I knew he was interested in the subject as I tried to pull an art project together for my then just starting M.A. in Fine Art at NTU SAD. To my surprise Chris Emery said send me some poems and this resulted in the publication of the’Last Farmer’ pamphlet. A pamphlet consisting mostly of published works and the majority of those from the period 1992-2000. Poems I had written almost 20 years before! I must have been the only poet doing a tour to support a book who no longer read or wrote poetry…..it was strange. An experience made doubly strange by the fact I was also dealing with my mother’s final phase cancer treatment. Another overwhelming reason for moving away from poetry that based in my case very closely on my family and local Oxfordshire history was the death of my father from pancreatic cancer in 2004 and my mother in 2010. I had other more important things to deal with.

So that’s how you do it..stop writing poetry.

Move to another city…live in poverty…lose both parents to cancer…
stop writing..stop reading….

then give up entirely ….simples..

 I covered all of this in a post in 2012 after a serious illness.

CODA

Ten years later try and get back to where you should have been all along by enrolling on a Creative Writing Course.

Starting  again ……painful but the only way.

Influences……fucking hell do you think a writer has any influence compared to the above ….NO or MAYBE YES but again it ain’t the story anybody expecting.

Watch this space….

 

Barns and Stars…..aiming at the stars?

barnsandstarsFinally got five minutes to sit down and catch up with myself and all the threads I have started off…

I have not had a chance this week to read and critique a short story as I have been doing because of so much else going on. Busy is good but not when it gets this busy.

Today I managed to record a version of the Edwin Smith poem for RIBA. Still have no idea how they going to use it. Perhaps as a board and a pair of headphones in the show?

I also recorded a bonkers new song as the recording studio set up. This song ‘Dark Grey Clouds’ (see below) I wrote Wednesday and shows the fiction classes having an effect even if not directly on my fiction. I struggling with the fiction work-shopping as I feel I have a lot of ground that I probably will not make up as most of the other students either been writing fiction for years or are straight off Creative Writing B.A.’s. As a beginner in this area at least I learning. The whole point of doing this course has not been to get another M.A. ( I have one already that enough) but to generate the necessary pressure to do something rather than sit on my arse for a  valuable year off.

That it certainly doing. Happenstance gave me the Edwin Smith commission in week one which upset my studying a bit but been thoroughly enjoyable and produced what I think one of my best poems. When able will share.

I have now been asked next week to perform ‘visual scribing’ (live cartooning) at a Product Design Research workshop…basically drawing ideas for vacuum cleaners:-)

The money handy but again distracting. I also in early stages of drafting a PhD proposal for the NTU Vice Chancellor’s Bursary in Phenomenology of Drawing’ which logically builds on my art and design research. It a snowball in hell but just writing it makes a point after this summer’s events. Again I will share full story when able….

I have also this week made first tentative steps towards two projects alongside Creative Writing ( I hope over next two years to produce at least one book of poetry tentatively entitled ‘The Dark Horses’ and get one short story published as I said I a newbie there…) and an LP/CD joint/collaborative or solo called ‘Barns and Stars’ (see above and below).

Finally I started to plan a solo painting/drawing show late 2015-2016 that rounds up the work shown at Drawology/Nottingham Open and make me paint again as the studio sitting there waiting….

That’s all folks….I ain’t getting a wage but I happier than been in years as long as I keep the light/heat on Emma happy and if I win lottery I agreed to buy her a horse.

So on we go….so here a little tune of Lo-fi weird americana…Jim White without a band Skip Spence on a suburban lawn..David Lynch’s Berkshire cousin…

He He

 

 

 

First fiction for work-shopping: ‘Flying Fish’

 

The first chapter involves all of the above :-)

I have finally after 30 years of thinking about it produced 2000 words of prose fiction which a relief as I had built up a mental block of ever actually doing it because I have been so immersed in art and poetry. The document has been sent to my class for discussion Tuesday evening so I am not posting the actual document until after the work-shopping.

I not sure it short story length already maybe 7000 do-able but it could be the start of a novel! Not quite the story I expected either but that the beauty of the internet one can find wormholes that set you off down a new path. In this case the mention of ‘spies’ in Norfolk set me off on a completely different angle to the original plot:-).

I was a big fan of action stories as a kid and consumed vast amounts of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, W.E.Johns,Ian Fleming, Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley etc etc.

viveroSparkling_Cyanide_First_Edition_Cover_1945 zebra

Who would have thought that would come back to me now but it is fun…. 🙂

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