Poetry and theology in lockdown

“Walk under the full moon” by Mara ~earth light~ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hannah Hunt, Honorary Associate, FASS, Soc Sci & Global Studies

How has lockdown impacted your local community? And how can you stay creative when so much is in flux, and expected ways of being together are denied us? These are questions I have addressed over the last year in my work with Leeds Church Institute as their poet-theologian in virtual residence. LCI is a charitable, faith-based organisation which fosters continuing learning, mutual support and engagement with the arts.

In a previous life, I studied the theology of the early eastern Christian church, and LCI’s invitation to become their poet-theologian in virtual residence drew on my academic credentials as a theologian as well as my skills as a poet. For a year, starting last April, my task was to reflect in a spiritual manner about the impact on the communities of Leeds of the lockdown – using poetry as a medium. Week by week I distilled the statistics, rumours, anecdotes, experiences and fast-moving changes in rules and regulations governing our public and private lives, and sifted them into a 500 word blog. I drew on visual arts, music and the Bible, and both my own poetry and poetry of other poets which resonated with my experiences.

Sometimes I found that a poem I had written some time ago found new voice. Other poems grew new roots in this rich soil (and yes, as a gardener I know the benefit of waste products in compost heaps!) I found the ratio of thinking/research time to writing time meant comparatively little time actually sat in front of the screen; as a poet, I describe myself as a kinaesthetic writer: I need to literally ‘take a poem for a walk.’

As the weeks went by, I found I could not confine myself to Leeds. The Black Lives matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, the devastating explosion in Beirut, the tragic loss of lives of migrants attempting to reach sanctuary in the UK all featured alongside the success of Leeds United, the fortnightly filming of snippets of The One Show on my street, and other more local lockdown phenomena. There are perhaps many opportunities to write about one’s ideas and experiences but it was exciting to be paid as a professional writer/theologian to conduct this reflection.

I should say that in sympathy with the ‘continuing education’ ethos of both LCI and indeed the OU, all my postgraduate degrees (MA, PhD in Theology and MA in Creative Writing) were undertaken as a busy adult, juggling family and work commitments. I am so grateful that despite the rigours of lockdown, its isolation, its loneliness, its anxieties, I have been able to engage in new creativity to share with others.

Hannah Hunt (AL A335, A332).

These are some of the issues addressed in my latest book Reflections: A poet-theologian in lockdown Leeds, published by Maytree Press in February 2021. In addition to my work as an associate lecturer teaching level 3 English Literature and Religious Studies I have a portfolio of activities as a poet, editor and convenor of literary events in my adopted home city of Leeds. I publish my poetry under the name Hannah Stone.

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Belfast film poem awarded Berlin prize

Creative Writing Associate Lecturer Csilla Toldy has won an award for Best Street Art Film at the Berlin Underground Film Festival for her film poem ‘Belfast Exposed’. Sally O’Reilly interviewed her about her work and how this project developed.

Still from ‘Belfast Exposed’ by Csilla Toldy.

You can watch Csilla’s video on Youtube here

How does ‘Belfast Exposed’ relate to your previous practice as a writer/poet? How long have you been working with images?

I have been writing poetry for much longer than making video poems, but because I am a scriptwriter and I had an interest in art films and experimental films, I started to research video poetry as an artform. After making my first video poem (Point) with the support of Northern Ireland Screen, and having been selected with another (Hommage) to the Videoholica Video Art Festival in Varna, I was invited as a speaker for the Mix2 Conference of Digital Writing at Bath Spa University, where I delivered a paper on “Metaphors in videopoetry”. This paper is now published on academia.edu.

Is place in general and Belfast/Northern Ireland in particular important in your work more generally?

Yes, I wrote many poems about the cities I visited, and place is important in my prose as well. I lived in many different places during my life, and being on the move, on foot or by vehicle always inspires me.

How did you come to write this? What came first, words or images, or did it evolve in a different way? Was the idea of using multiple voices to create a choral effect there from the beginning?

I wrote the poem in the voice of a Syrian immigrant around 2015, when the migrant crisis started in Europe. It became one in a series of poems that I wrote about cities and I read them at venues in Belfast, Dublin and Bray. In 2019 I was selected to take part in the New Voices of Ireland Series 7 organised by the Centre for Creative Practices in Ireland. They select 10 migrant artists for each series and Series 7 had the theme of Cultural Memory – Transition, Temporality, Transcultures. I used the voices of my co-artists and put out a call for local speakers on Facebook to give me their voices for the film. I was interested in the diversity of accents. The idea was that I would use the footage of Belfast in movement with special focus on the murals and use the voices of migrants and locals mixed as a soundscape. People could interpret the poem as they pleased. The choral effect was developed during the editing phase.

Can you tell me about the process of producing it? How long did it take?

Filming happened during a couple of afternoons. I knew the places I wanted to show, East Belfast and West Belfast, the two hemispheres with their opposing murals, but we start the film in the Cathedral Quarter, the cultural hub of the city where the gay bar the Kremlin is situated with its Lenin Statue and the rainbow flags. I found this always exhilarating, for I grew up in socialist Hungary in the shadow of this icon. Each, the Protestant and the Catholic communities have marked their territories with their murals, of course, but the film finishes with the Rise sculpture created by Wolfgang Buttress, symbolising unity. Collecting the voices took longer and editing took about a week, which I did on my computer.

When did you receive the award? Was there a virtual ceremony? (Shame not to go to Berlin!)

I heard about being short listed at the beginning of a week in October and by the end of that week I got the award. It all happened very quickly. It is a shame that they had to cancel the physical event, but they will screen all the winning films next year and I am hoping to go to Berlin then.

What are you working on now? And do you have future plans for similar collaborations/multi media work?

Around this time last year I was commissioned by the Executive Office of Northern Ireland to create a public artwork for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. I worked on this video poem in the first ten weeks of 2020. The launch was planned for 15th April, the day when the British liberated the last camp, Bergen-Belsen, but the pandemic made this impossible. The finished video poem, “Here I Stand” will be launched on Holocaust Memorial Day 2021, on 27th January online on the website of the Executive Office and the Holocaust Memorial Fund. It was a great honour to work on this film and it was a deeply emotional journey. For this, I wrote the poem at the same time when I applied, so it started with the text as well, but I created a story board in tandem. I travelled to Paris and Budapest to shoot and I used archive footage as well. The poem was inspired by the story of a boy, who survived Auschwitz because he lied about his age. His mother told him to join the other line and go with his older brother and thus she saved his life. The poem is voiced by the mother and the son as an old man, looking back. Alongside the video poem, I made a 30-minute reportage with survivors of genocides in the 20th Century for educational purpose. I am very upset about the rise of the far right in Western countries, including Hungary and Germany and even the UK, and I feel that living witnesses have to be given a voice. I was privileged to interview survivors from Auschwitz, Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia, and asked them what their message was for the youth of today.

My next commission is an eco-video poem for Earth Day 2021. This will have multiple translations of the same poem about the earth, which I wrote at the age of 18 in Hungarian, originally. I asked the translators to voice the poem for me in their own language. I am trying to get voices from each continent, and even in languages that are on the brink of extinction. I started to collate the footage during lockdown. It will be the same field and the same beach over the seasons, near the place I live, but you can imagine that the beach is polluted with the debris from the sea, plastic and…masks! This is work in progress, but I am hoping to raise awareness for environmental issues as well, and the often-neglected fact that the earth is our shared home.

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Gender and Otherness in the Humanities (GOTH)

Interview with (Peg) M A Katritzky, Senior Research Fellow, Department of English & Creative Writing

Can you tell me more about Gender and Otherness in the Humanities (GOTH)?

In 2019, GiTH (Gender in the Humanities) a research group active in the Arts Faculty of The Open University from around 1990 to 2013, was relaunched as GOTH (The Centre for Research into Gender and Otherness in the Humanities). A substantial US award funded the launching of GOTH as a Research Centre based in the OU’s School of Arts and Humanities, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and a three year GOTH Doctoral Studentship, awarded to Chris Dobson in 2020.

Our annual programme of events, planned and guided by our Committee and Advisory Board, is designed to appeal at various levels. We support OU researchers and postgraduates with specialist interests wishing to strengthen their interdisciplinary network; additionally, we welcome all OU employees and postgraduates with more general GOTH-related interests wishing to meet colleagues and enjoy a cultural experience, at whatever level of engagement. GOTH currently has more than 50 members.

Are you talking about the Humanities at any time, or is there a focus in terms of historical period?

We welcome collaboration with the Faculty’s historically focused research groups, such as those for the Classical, Medieval & Early Modern and Post-Colonial periods. Rather than having a specific historical focus, we aim to support members’ GOTH-related research interests. In connection with one of these, ShAC, I published a book chapter (“Margaret Cavendish’s Female Fairground Performers”) in The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage, 2020 (see publicity poster with Bernardine Evaristo below). GOTH provides a platform for members’ research bids, and has recently submitted a GOTH-based bid for European funding for EURO-PPP (Trans-European Performance, Practice and Patronage as Cultural Heritage). If successful, this collaborative international three year project will examine live travelling performance of every period, with particular emphasis on the present.

Poster for The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage, 2020

What events are you holding online? Are there ways in which lockdown and online meetings gives a group like GOTH greater global reach?

For now, we are adapting our regular events to the pandemic by going online with our entire events programme, and maximizing current opportunities to attract inspirational overseas presenters and widen participation:

* The live performances at our October 2019 launch party led to requests for more live theatre visits. While that’s on hold, Christine Plastow led an October 2020 online viewing of the recorded livestreamed production of By Jove Theatre Company’s Medea LIVE, followed by lively online discussion; more performances will follow.

* Our first Reading Group (‘Nationalism and Feminism’) was a live event led by Suman Gupta in January 2020; on 3 December 2020, Francesca Benatti will go online with our second Reading Group (‘Digital Comics’).

* Similarly, the first GOTH / Health & Wellbeing PRA Joint Annual NetWorkshop was held live in January 2020, with around 20 delegates enjoying excellent presentations by PG Kim Pratt and postdoc Sally Blackburn-Daniels, and an informative funding workshop led by Shaf Towheed (English) and Gaynor Henry-Edwards (WELS), followed by a Research Showcase of members’ recent publications and funding successes. The second Joint Annual NetWorkshop (4 Feb 2021), featuring OU speakers Sophie-Grace Chappell (keynote, Philosophy) and Naomi Barker (Music) will be online.

* Our inaugural GOTH Awayday was to Hardwick Hall in May 2019. Plans for London Awaydays led by Clare Taylor and Gemma Allen are on hold while the Committee explores options for moving our Awaydays online.

* The Annual GOTH Research Symposia, funded by a modest US follow-on award in 2020, were planned as specialist invitation-only residential research workshops. The first (20-21 May 2021) has moved online; we are honoured that GOTH board member Noémie Ndiaye (University of Chicago) has agreed to present the keynote.

* An exciting new development is the monthly GOTH PG Forum. Postgraduate convenors Chris Dobson and Sharon Wiseman (English) and Kim Pratt (Classics) welcome all OU postgraduates with GOTH-related interests on the first Thursday of each month. They first met on 5 November 2020; future activities include a takeaway party on December 3.

What would you like to see GOTH achieve?

Essentially, GOTH seeks to promote an awareness of the centrality of diversity to an understanding of the humanities, both within the OU and in society more broadly. We aim to support the GOTH-related activities and interdisciplinary exchanges of OU colleagues and postgraduates. More generally, we seek to continue the OU tradition of providing conventional academic institutions with helpful templates for online events, ever more relevant in the current circumstances.

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‘Things we cannot know’: Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat

Alistair Daniel, Associate Lecturer, Creative Writing

In June 1885, three Frenchmen – the prince Edmond de Polignac, Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, and the ‘celebrity gynaecologist’ Dr Samuel Jean Pozzi – arrived in London. They went shopping, had dinner with Henry James, and went home. It’s a thin premise for a story, fictional or real, yet from it Julian Barnes has woven a typically rich and absorbing tapestry in The Man in the Red Coat (2019).

From A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989) to Levels of Life (2013), Barnes has spent a long and garlanded career eluding categorisation and The Man in the Red Coat is no exception. Is it a group biography, a biography, or something else? As a portrait of its three protagonists it’s more than lopsided, since Barnes largely ignores Polignac in favour of Montesquiou and Pozzi, both of whom make fascinating subjects in their own right. Montesquiou was a snob with a taste for cruelty, picking up talented boyfriends and destroying them when he grew bored. The dark allure of his character was not lost on artists of the time, and the count appears in several novels, including Huysmans’ À rebours (1884) and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27). He was also the model for Whistler’s Arrangement in Gold and Black (1891-2). It’s perhaps this artistic over-representation that encourages Barnes to focus on Pozzi, himself the subject of Sargent’s Dr Pozzi at Home (1881), a portrait that provides the cover, the title and the inspiration for this book.

Image of book cover for ‘The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes.

If Barnes recounts Montesquiou’s bad behaviour with relish, his sympathies lie firmly with Pozzi, a pioneering surgeon whose innovations in hygiene and surgical technique radically improved survival rates, particularly for bullet wounds to the gut. He treated both public and private patients and was tireless in his promotion of high medical standards all over the world. He was also something of an international playboy, hobnobbing with celebrities and taking mistresses to Bayreuth. Nor did his professionalism prevent him from seducing his patients, and Barnes is careful to trace the impact of his behaviour on his long-suffering family through the journals of his outraged daughter Catherine.

Pozzi himself kept no journal, and it’s perhaps for this reason that The Man in the Red Coat sidesteps conventional biography. In fact, for long stretches the book neglects Pozzi in favour of a stroll through fin de siècle Paris, with Barnes as flâneur and guide. It’s a world populated by artists, including Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, the Goncourt brothers, Huysmans, Proust and a host of less illustrious figures, like the Symbolist poet and novelist Jean Lorrain, who wasted his talent in endless feuds (he once fought a duel with Proust).

Writing in the fragmentary, episodic style familiar from his recent fiction (The Sense of an Ending, The Noise of Time), Barnes grants himself licence to stray into any area that takes his fancy – the Dreyfus affair, duelling culture, Oscar Wilde’s tour of the US – and in many ways The Man in the Red Coat reads as a compendium of familiar Barnesian enthusiasms, including Flaubert, literary style, the nature of biography and 19th-century France. As a result the book, while never less than entertaining, is more extended essay than biography, a companion piece to Something to Declare (2002), his essay collection on French culture, liberally sprinkled with colour plates and photo cards of fin de siècle celebrities. It meanders, with frequent detours, through Pozzi’s life in loose chronology, before eventually arriving at his demise.

One of Barnes’ preoccupations – here as elsewhere – is with the challenges of historical memory. ‘“We cannot know”’, he writes, ‘is one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language,’ and in a late section entitled ‘Things we cannot know’, Barnes lists some of the unanswerable questions that surround Pozzi’s life. Many novelists would view the gaps in the historical record as an opportunity, as Barnes is well aware: ‘All these matters could,’ he notes, ‘be solved in a novel.’ Which begs the question: why didn’t he weave a novel out of such rich – and tantalisingly incomplete – material? After all, he has done it before: both Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and Arthur and George (2005) made fiction from nineteenth-century lives. It’s a question that only intensifies at the book’s denouement, when a disgruntled patient shoots Pozzi in the gut and the most celebrated surgeon of the age suddenly finds himself under the knife. Here Pozzi’s life assumes the pattern of art. For some novelists the symmetry would be irresistible (Ian McEwan made a similarly ironic plot twist the climax of Saturday). But Barnes is unmoved. As a novelist he is allergic to neat plotting and glib denouements and, as Sebastian Groes and Peter Childs have pointed out, ‘the unanswered and unresolved meanings of life and death suffuse all Barnes’s work’ (2011, p. 9). In Barnes’ view, it is not the job of fiction to stitch life into pleasing patterns and shapes. It’s only in non-fiction that ‘we have to allow things to happen – because they did – which are glib and implausible and moralistic’ (Barnes, 2019, p. 258). It’s this commitment to life’s complexity, and the limits of knowledge, that accounts for the book’s episodic structure, a structure that, through its gaps and silences, its detours and shifts in focus and tone, embraces mystery, leaves loose ends untied and offers more questions than answers. In Flaubert’s Parrot, Geoffrey Braithwaite likens biography to a fishing net, ‘a collection of holes tied together’ (Barnes, 1984, p. 38). Nearly 40 years on from that award-winning novel Barnes is still fishing in these philosophical waters, hauling lost treasures from the deep, inspecting the flotsam, and contemplating all the things lost at sea.

The Man in the Red Coat is available in hardback.

Barnes, J. (1984), Flaubert’s Parrot, London: Picador

Groes, S. & Childs, P. eds (2011), Julian Barnes: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, London: Continuum


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Writing in Lockdown

Jo Barnden, AL on A215 and A363

For those first, intense weeks of lockdown, I seemed to be out of step with the rest of the world. Everyone was telling Twitter how much time they had to walk through nature and take up knitting, to make TikTok videos and bake bread (if they could track down yeast). Frankly it sounded wonderful but it was not my experience. Quite the contrary, I was chained to my desk trying to write a novel in four weeks – the most intense working challenge of my life.

It started when my agent rang me out of the blue to say that my publisher had ‘had an idea’ and thought I might be the writer to bring it to fruition. Piatkus publish my historical novels as Joanna Courtney. These are works set in 1066 and earlier that take at least a year to research and write, but what they wanted from me now was a contemporary novel, a lockdown love story. Needless to say, we had to move fast.

I was perhaps not as bizarre choice as that makes it sound. Two years ago I’d started writing contemporary fiction as Anna Stuart for another publisher, Trapeze. Both books (Bonnie and Stan and Four Minutes to Save a Life) had done well so hopefully that was some quality assurance for them. More importantly they knew that I’m quite efficient when it comes to writing – though none of us were sure if ‘efficient’ would add up to a 70,000-word novel in four weeks.

This, I was told, was an ‘IP (Intellectual Property) Project’ in which the core idea for the novel had been invented by the publisher – to be precise a lovely editor called Hannah – and I was the ‘hired pen’ to bring it to life. It’s not like ghost writing as I was simply given a handful of characters and a plot outline with the rest very much mine to bring to life. However, because it was her idea the editor was very bought in and very, very helpful in how we put it together. That was to be invaluable in the intense weeks that followed.

I loved the basic concept and the characters seemed to come to life for me instantly so I fleshed out Hannah’s core plans and within a week we had signed a deal. It was hard to credit. Having spent years and years trying to land a novel contract, I felt as if I was suddenly being handed one on a plate – now all I had to do was write it. Simples! Except that my normally empty house was now filled with a husband working from home, two kids who should have been doing GCSEs and A-levels, and a 23-year-old stepson who’d had to flee his lovely job in the ski-bars of Whistler. It was a worry. I like a quiet house to write in and I certainly wasn’t going to get that.

As it turns out, however, the young folk quickly went nocturnal, leaving things pretty quiet until at least midday and with my husband working with China we were both at our desks by 7am – my most productive time anyway. Plus, to be fair to the kids, they stepped up and took on both the cooking (enthusiastically) and the cleaning (less so!), so all I had to do was shut myself in my little office and write. To be honest, I loved it.

The novel is called Just the Two of Us and is about a middle-aged couple whose kids have left home and who are on the brink of divorce when they find themselves locked down together. All that enforced time in the house pushes them to explore the things that have messed up what was once a wonderful marriage and to see if, perhaps, there’s a way back to happiness. It cuts between the current story and flashbacks to their long, shared past and was fun to write, if a little tricky in terms of timelines.

That, however, is where my editor came in. I provided the first 28,000 words in a week (it was a hell of a week!) and she was back to me two days later – that’s almost unprecedented in the publishing world! It was the same again once the first draft was done three weeks later. We chatted on the phone and over email and tinkered with second and third drafts and, miraculously, six weeks after I signed the contract, we sent Just the Two of Us to copy edit at 80,000 words. It was a whirlwind but fantastic fun and, most importantly, early reviews from NetGalley readers suggest that people are really enjoying it.

How did we do it? I’ve no idea! I’m a planner. I always have a full chapter-by-chapter synopsis of my novels, historical or contemporary, before I start so that I can hit the ground running and I think that helped here. I have no idea how people manage to just start writing without knowing where the novel is going, but everyone has to write the way that suits them best. It seems that for me that is in a manic, concentrated run.

Lessons learned? The biggie is that traditional publishing houses can be more mobile and responsive than they usually let on and I think that’s the way they’re going to have to go with digital-first publishers producing books so nimbly these days. For myself, it confirmed that I like working under pressure – and that I really like not doing housework!!

My agent did scare me the other day by saying ‘I know how fast you can write books now, so I expect at least three next year.’ In this, she will be disappointed. Just the Two of Us was a one-off, driven by the strange coronavirus circumstances we all found ourselves in. I may not have learned to knit, or made TikTok videos (to my kids’ relief) but I did write a lockdown love story.

Jo Wilde is on twitter and facebook as @jowildeauthor

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Ed Hogan interview

Ed Hogan is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University. His first novel, Blackmoor, won the Desmond Elliott Prize, and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Other novels include The Hunger Trace, and Daylight Saving, which was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award. His next book, The Electric, is published by John Murray, in 2020. He is now writing short stories, has recently been longlisted for the Costa Short Story Prize and the Sunday Times Audible Short Story prize.  Here he discusses his approach to writing short stories with Sally O’Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing.

Sally: How would you define a short story? And what are its limitations? I’ve read a number of contemporary short stories recently, and many of these cover long time periods, have multiple characters and are told from different points of view.  What’s your take on this?

Ed: Last year, I made a commitment to read a short story every day. What struck me was the variety of the form. Yes, I read lots of oblique, Hemingway-ish stories. But, as you suggest, there were also many long stories with lots of narrative – the type Alice Munro specialises in. Some were like dramatic monologues, while others played with the conventions of sub-genres. I read epistolary stories, and stories that took the form of job inductions, or psychotherapy sessions.

Short stories allow you to travel very quickly in your reading. One particular week, I read stories by a writer from Korea (Kim Young-Ha), Argentina (Samanta Schweblin), Zimbabwe (Petina Gappah) and…Derbyshire (Hilary Mantel). In doing this, I realised that some of my earlier assumptions about the form were culture-bound.

I think short stories lend themselves to formal boldness, because they allow both readers and writers to walk the tightrope a bit more. A writer might try something unusual, because it won’t require 500 pages. And a reader might agree to suspend disbelief for 2000 words.

In terms of effects, I can think of many occasions when I’ve cried over short stories, and several times recently (James Salter’s ‘Last Night’, and Camille Bordas’ ‘The Presentation on Egypt’) when I have literally shouted out in shock.

I know you’ve turned to reading short stories recently, too. How did that come about?

Sally: I was partly inspired by your example! And also, because I am writing a novel, I feel freed up by reading short stories. I feel that the possibilities for writing at any length seem looser and more open after reading short stories. A lot of novels, my own included, include a certain amount of ‘business’, linking scenes, sections to establish character, sections which slow things down for a while. In short stories, there is so much precision and intensity. 

Do you think there are fashions in the short story, in terms of what is published, and what competition judges are looking for? Writing is always a conversation/argument/response to other writing, but is this sense of engaging with other stories stronger when you are writing at this length? Is it inhibiting to be aware of the zeitgeist, or do you find it useful to immerse yourself in short fiction when you are writing stories?

Ed: Recently, I read three short stories by well-known British writers (Jon McGregor, Sarah Hall, Cynan Jones), and each one was about a person gradually realising that they’re stranded in a large body of water. I found that very striking. Island anxiety, perhaps.

I read short stories every day, but they’re not always contemporary ones (Daphne Du Maurier, yesterday). In my writing, I’m much more interested in the moment of composition than the moment of publication.

In terms of competitions, I’m drawn to the anonymity – the fact that you don’t send a CV with it. Although I know that the anonymity of competitions can be problematic.

I guess a lot of novelists, in June 2020, are probably looking at their contemporary novels, and thinking, ‘Ah. Right. I may have to make a few changes, here.’ That makes assumptions about novels being ‘news’ or even mimetic, but what about you? I know you’re writing historical fiction, but has the pandemic, or the protests, made you look again at your work in progress?

Sally: Yes! The novel I am working on is set in 1899 and the ‘present’, and this has now morphed from 2020 to 2019 due to coronavirus. There is bound to be a weird thing in contemporary fiction where what we thought of as normal life (with all its abnormalities) ended in 2019 and then there is a sort of cliff edge. Having said this, some of the themes I’m writing about relate to nature and science, and the pandemic makes this aspect seem even more urgent and relevant. The zeitgeist has changed, and that will permeate fiction. 

Sally: Can you tell me more about your Sunday Times Audible longlisted short story ‘Single Sit’, and how you came to write it? Did it come easily, or did you spend a long time writing and refining it? How did it compare to the process of producing other short stories that you have written?

Ed: ‘Single Sit’ is about a conservatory salesman on a call with a potential customer. My dad sold windows and conservatories for many years, alongside his successful semi-professional football career, so I knew some of the language from that business. (Although Frank, my character, is very different from my dad). I’m interested in work vocabularies. Kick-ins and blowouts and single sits.

It arose from a bit of dialogue between Frank and Mrs Cortez, the customer. Once I hit on a relationship – any kind of relationship – I feel like I might have a story. So, I wrote the first two thirds in a few days. But then it went somewhere unexpected, and I couldn’t finish it for ages. I’m in a writing group, and they helped me a lot with the ending. The whole process, start to finish, with editing and putting it away…it took two years.

The longlisting was a fluke, but this is a story about a salesman, and the first principle of sales is that you play the numbers. Knock on every door, enter every competition. ‘Double your failure rate’, as they say.

Sally: You have published several novels, with your latest, The Electric, coming out this summer. Is it possible to compare the process of novel writing to short story writing?

Ed: A while ago, I was asked to recommend some books for a friend. The list I wrote contained about six short story collections, and the others – things like Hawthorn and Child, Legend of a Suicide, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; Union Street, The Vegetarian – weren’t really ‘conventional’ novels, but collections of linked stories. In those books, much meaning came from the overlap of the stories, the repetition of themes, ‘the singular obsessions endlessly revised’ to steal a phrase from Thomas Lux. I thought I should investigate what those reading tendencies might mean for my writing practice. I’m still new to the short story as a writer, though, and most of the stories I write are terrible, but it’s a process.

There are practical considerations, too. I reckon there’s a moment in writing – and I’m certain this goes for writing in all research disciplines – where you become absolutely absorbed, completely compelled. It’s a physical thing. Currently, given busy personal and professional circumstances for which I am very grateful, the short story is the form which allows me to complete a draft of something while I am still in touch with that initial impulse. To finish before I forget why I started. Of course, then you have to spend two years revising it!

Sally: Do you like writing shorter pieces? Do you find them ‘easier’ in any way, or just different from novel writing? Do you envisage a short story in its entirety, or do you ever write not knowing the outcome, as novelists often do?  And, final query in a multifaceted question, can you write short stories while you are working on a novel, or does the one exclude the other?

Ed: I definitely don’t find short stories easier. Writers often balk at the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ but that’s where I struggle. George Saunders says that when he finishes a story, he’s convinced he’ll never have another idea again. I feel like that, too. Unfortunately for me, that’s where my similarities with George Saunders end.

One thing about producing several stories over a year or so is that you see your unconscious preoccupations delineated quite sharply. Much of my recent short fiction has taken place in or around cars, despite the fact that I don’t really like them. When you see those connections, you can decide whether to resist or explore them.

The editing process is very different with a short story, isn’t it? For a start, you can re-read your story in one sitting. I remember watching Sympathy for the Devil, the film which shows the Rolling Stones in the studio, developing the song of the title. I was so jealous. With a pop song, you try it one way, and three minutes later, you can – if you’re Mick Jagger – say, “Oh, not like that, Charlie, you mug!” and try it another way. It takes me three weeks to read my own novel.


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Cold Dark Matter: Writing a poetry collection during lockdown

Image shared under Creative Commons licence: ‘Anti-Mass’, de Young Museum, San Francisco, US, https://www.famsf.org/blog/framework-anti-mass-cornelia-parker Source/photographer “Anti-Mass,” Cornelia Parker (de Young Museum)

By Patrick Wright, PhD Student, Creative Writing

As an introvert, and usually working from home, the lockdown has allowed much of my practice to go on unabated. Some aspects have intensified: developing an active imagination and reflection are two examples that come to mind. While in some ways productive, there’s always the lingering threat of such faculties lapsing into torpor, lethargy, or morbid daydreaming. As immersive as my own bookshelves have been, the tranquillity of my back yard, and embrace of digital technologies, underlying my new methods is a quiet despondency.

Still immersed in a grief process, after losing my partner, and left alone in a flat, surrounded by our combined possessions, is a dangerous recipe – especially as a poet, where life is often fraught with precariousness and introspection.

From my first experience of a PhD, I know it can be isolating at the best of times; the ideas just too rarefied for friends, family, or pub conversation. Now, though, the restrictions on movement and socialising have greatly exacerbated this reality. I miss having a workplace, with those familiar water cooler moments; and I feel at some remove from my colleagues, living as I do in the North-West. Though I am clear in my purpose and grateful for my vocation. This, for now, is a Creative Writing PhD with the working title Cold Dark Matter: The Ekphrasis of Modern and Contemporary Art, supervised by Siobhan Campbell and Jane Yeh.

As a means of survival, I imposed for myself a structure and discipline. I replaced my familiar café environment with a picnic table. I’ve written many of my poems in cafés: maybe it’s something to do with finding an optimum decibel level for my creative flow, or I feel reconnected with human presence.

Image shared under Creative Commons Licence: “let me show you” by kygp is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I also had to replace my excursions to galleries and museums with the use of art history books, exhibition catalogues, and virtual museum tours (e.g., Kettle’s Yard). My home library has revealed overlooked marvels, as I’ve lived out a similar narrative to the one in Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room.

My practice research focuses on the ekphrasis of modern and contemporary art; and thus far I’ve enjoyed writing in situ: in front of a painting for instance, or spending time in the holdings, having arranged a private viewing. On such occasions, I’ve sketched first drafts that incorporated, in some way, the details on the surface of the artwork, the texture, the detritus, and so on; details that may not been seen in a reproduction. There’s also the smell of the gallery, the sounds around me – the chatter of tourists, the screams of children – and the paratextual features: the blurb, the frame, or other images in juxtaposition, curated alongside.

Inspiration has, no doubt, been affected. I have been less productive during lockdown. It’s likely that we’re not wired to flourish while detained and enduring a monotonous routine. It might also be the case that – at this stage in writing what will be my second poetry collection – I’m less eager to just write another poem, especially if it’s similar to something I’ve written before. The reflective part of my thesis has aided my awareness of such repetition, while I’ve become more conscious in general of my decision-making and poetics; though this is a challenge, as I’m still habituated into an M.O. that’s often instinctive. I’ve also found that analysing the complexity of my inner dialogue can be overwhelming; or lead to the realisation that my mind is, on some level, preoccupied with nerdy considerations, such as obsessing over whether to use parataxis in the third line of a ghazal.

My recent confinement has also been, like many kinds of limitation, enabling. I’ve begun, over the past few weeks, a series of poems that respond in some way to the pandemic. One recent example is my poem ‘An Exploded View’, which takes its title from an installation by Cornelia Parker (‘Cold Dark Matter – An Exploded View’):

Without being able to see Parker’s artwork first-hand, my poem begins with recalling it to mind. I visualised her installation (an exploded shed, frozen in time), then visualised how my poem could look, set out on the page with a shape analogous to the artwork. (For now, at least, my words are ‘exploded’ in fragments around the page.) During my research, I consulted Google Images, which provided a series of intriguing viewpoints under different lighting conditions; and yet I was aware the re-mediated artwork was no substitute for standing in the gallery. So many angles are elusive; my distance from the work is accentuated; and the device through which I look (an iPhone) makes the jpegs obscure and subject to unwanted reflections in the mid-afternoon sun. In this poem, and others, the technology – with all its filters and frustrations – becomes part of what I write about, along with peripheral aspects of my often incongruous lived milieu (‘a sky-dance of swallows’).

Despite ongoing struggles in seeing art through such screens, I’ve been drawn to André Malraux’s notion of the ‘Imaginary Museum’: how, in a culture of reproduction, art is now potentially more accessible and democratic. Likewise, I’ve applied the idea of the ‘death of the author’: rejoicing in my own interpretations or misperceptions.

For now, I’m content to borrow at least half of Parker’s title for my collection. A title, I’ve found, can have the power to drive a collection forward, to give it an identity or coherence. Many of my poems – like ‘An Exploded View’ – look to clash disparate lexicons together: in this case, art and cosmology; and I like how ‘cold dark matter’, rather than a phrase coined by Parker, is also a term that refers to around 85% of the universe, which remains invisible. In addition to suggesting how my ekphrastic collection is tethered to this and other artworks, the title is apt for another reason: my poems make use of scientific vocabulary to explore the metaphysical questions that arise in the space of bereavement.

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Caron Freeborn (1966-2020): an appreciation

Steve Padley, Staff Tutor, English

Caron Freeborn, who died in April after a short illness, was a poet and novelist, and an AL in Creative Writing at the Open University. She taught on A215 and A363. She was also a close personal friend for almost 30 years, but, more than that, she inspired and influenced me massively, just as she inspired so many students through her teaching for the OU, the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University.

I first met Caron and her partner, Chris, in 1991, when we were students at the Summer School in York for A319 Literature in the Modern World (Caron and Chris had met each other at another York OU Summer School the previous year). Caron and I bonded over the similarities in our backgrounds: we were both from working-class families and the first in our families to get a University education. We also bonded over some of the texts and writers we encountered on A319, above all, the poetry of Tony Harrison, whose representations of working-class experience spoke to us in powerful ways.

Although Caron was in many respects a typical OU student, she didn’t complete her OU degree, instead using her credits to go to Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, to read English. To many in Cambridge she may have seemed an unlikely student, with the kind of Essex accent still not often heard within the more traditional colleges, but it was for her sharp intellectual rigour and the breadth and depth of her passion for literature that she stood out, not for her accent.

After I completed my OU degree and my MA at Sheffield University, Caron and Chris urged me to apply to Cambridge for my PhD, something I would never have considered. Fired by Caron’s example, I went on to Wolfson College, Cambridge, and completed my PhD on Harrison in 1999. My life and career have turned out in ways I could not have imagined, had it not been for a chance encounter at an OU Summer School.

After graduating, Caron went on to teach for Lucy Cavendish and for many other Cambridge colleges, and began teaching for the OU in 2006. She loved teaching mature students, and they loved being taught by someone with the sort of life experience and worldview still too rare in academia.

Our ALs change lives, and Caron changed more lives than most. Many of her AL colleagues took to the tutor forums to express their admiration after her death. Roger Moss, who took over her A215 students when she went on sick leave, said ‘there’s a handful of writers in the group producing energetic and daring poems that actually sound as if they’re written in 2020’; Caron would have appreciated this as the finest possible testament to her teaching. Jo Barnden, another colleague, described Caron as ‘a wonderfully lively, entertaining, vibrant woman, who always educated us on poetry so eloquently’, which encapsulates her.

Caron was a truly gifted writer. She published three novels: Three Blind Mice (2001), described by Marian Keyes as ‘a dark and compelling love story of a genre that could be called East End noir’; Prohibitions (2004), a literary thriller again set in the East End; and Presenting … the Fabulous O’Learys (2017), a bold and imaginative take on King Lear, updated to the 1980s. Georges Perec is my hero (2015) showcased Caron’s innovative and compelling poetic voice(s). In the Editor’s Introduction to that volume, Mandy Pannett wrote:

I was intrigued by the title Georges Perec is my hero and asked Caron to elaborate: ‘I’m captivated by Perec’s questions about how we give common things a meaning, how we rescue the details from the assault of the Big Stuff. That’s what I want to do: rescue the details in which we live. The cigarette butts. The smudged lipstick. The ordinary that is so bloody odd’.

And that’s what she did in all her writing. Caron’s work didn’t get the wider audience and critical attention it deserved, which was (and is) a great pity. Her first two novels were published by a major publisher that didn’t seem to know what to do with her. Attempts to raise her profile weren’t always successful. An interview with a national newspaper around the time of the publication of Three Blind Mice was pulled for lack of space because of the death of a well-known entertainer, or as Caron put it to me in an email: ‘They aren’t publishing the interview ‘cos Harry Secombe went and died, the selfish sod!’. Caron’s poetry collection and her final novel were taken up by small publishers who ‘got’ her, and she felt happier there.

Caron’s partner Chris was my best man and Caron read Yeats and Donne beautifully at my wedding to Jill. Not to be morbid or anything, but I had her pencilled in to read poetry at my funeral when the time came, too, so this is a bit bloody inconvenient (bad taste, I know, but Caron didn’t mind a bit of bad taste). The lines I would have wanted her to read, from Tony Harrison’s translations of Palladas, I offer here as a tribute to Caron and to our friendship:

Death’s a debt that everybody owes,

And if you’ll last the night out no-one knows.

Learn your lesson then, and thank your stars

For wine and company and all-night bars.

Life careers gravewards at a breakneck rate,

So drink and love, and leave the rest to fate.

To those who knew Caron, hers is the most unreal of deaths in this most unreal of times. Whatever pain and sadness we are feeling, though, is nothing compared to that of Chris, and their two sons, Jude and Gabriel. I hope sometime soon her friends will be able to get together to celebrate her life. Caron was a remarkable woman, a unique writer, the best teacher many students ever had, and a wonderful friend.

Caron can be seen and heard reading some of her poetry on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r647drryS7g&t=38s

Some of Caron’s more recent poetry can be found here: https://thebluenib.com/caron-freeborn-new-poetry/

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Escaping Jordan

Dennis Walder, Emeritus Professor in English

Amman airport, 2.30 am

Last week my wife and I were in an SUV heading down the King’s Highway through the Jordan desert.  We had glimpsed the Promised Land, and were on our way to Petra, forty-five kilometres ahead in the deepening dusk.   

 Our holiday was an add-on to a visit to Amman arranged by the OU for me to chair the revalidation of the Arab OU’s MA in English Literature.  This was switched at the last minute to Walton Hall because of the impending C-virus crisis.  We gathered to interview our Arab colleagues by videolink, with a successful result 

 But I could not cancel our holiday without losing the entire cost.  So off we flew to Amman on Royal Jordanian a day after the revalidation to start our tour. Alas, it was not to last long. 

 Suddenly our driver’s mobile phone rang.  He had just been told that Petra was closed, and so too all other tourist sites in the country.  The airport was shortly going to close too.  

 In something of a panic, we got him to turn and head back to the capital as fast as possible, while I tried to rearrange hotel bookings and a flight home on my mobile.  As we drove on, our driver tried to reassure us. ‘It’s OK. You stay with me.  Learn Arabic.’  

 We stopped at a roadside refreshment centre for mint tea.  A busload of Germans were milling about.  One of them held out finger and thumb to me: ‘We missed it by so much.’  I nodded.  ‘Us too.’ 

 For some time I could not get through to either the Embassy or our travel agency.  Eventually the Embassy responded, No, they did not repatriate under these conditions, best for us to keep on trying our travel agent – who, after saying all direct flights were full, found us a flight via Istanbul departing at 2.35 a.m. a few hours before the airport was to close 

 The next night we gathered in the hotel lobby with a handful of other guests, and our packed suitcases, ready to departOur driver messaged in a panic – he was outside, but not allowed to pick us up, there were police everywhere.  As he spoke, we saw the hotel doors being sealed. 

After further exchanges between us, the driver, the police, hotel staff and other guests, it emerged that a woman at the hotel a week or two earlier was a C-virus suspect. It was unclear whether anyone was thought to have it more recently, though we saw an ambulance arrive and leave.  

 For  moment chaos reigned, as people rushed to and fro across the lobby trying to get agreement for our group of guests to leave the hotel. Time was passing at an alarming rate, and no one appeared to be in charge or clear about what was happening. A young Kenyan worker from a Dead Sea hotel grinned at me: ‘It’s okay, man, it’s just life. We take it easy, huh?’  His flight was due to depart in less time it than it would now take to reach the airport.  

 As the minutes ticked by, we became desperate at the thought of being trapped in the country for weeks.  We sought information from a new arrival who looked official. Could we leave?  No, we had first to be tested for the virus.  And then? We had to wait for the results.  How long would that be?  Four to six hours.  Too late!  Don’t you think it would be best to just get rid of us?  We asked.  This seemed amusing. 

 Then suddenly we were herded down to the hotel basement where, beside the pot plants and Spa signs, tables were hurriedly set up, and a group of medics in white protective gear and floppy blue socks appeared.  They gestured us to approach and sit down one by one in front of a doctor, who stuck thin sticks up our noses, saying ‘if you must sneeze or cough, please sideways’ and then told us to be gloved and masked, and go.   

 We were guided through a side exit, only to be halted by a stern figure in military uniform talking on a mobile.  No, you cannot leave.  Back to the lobby, more uncertainty as more minutes passed, until at last the doctor’s word was accepted, we were hustled out and into a waiting ambulance, which screeched off, siren blaring, our luggage (sprayed with disinfectant) with our driver, who raced behind us.   

 After dashing through the airport terminal to check in and pass security, we were stopped in our tracks. Our conspicuous arrival meant further questioning, and our passports held while another doctor was called.  He had to be satisfied that we seemed healthy enough to be let loose. Our temperatures were taken and at last we ran aboard our Turkish Airlines flight with seconds to spare. 

 The next day we learnt that our tests were negative. 

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A little literary tourism: in search of Hilary Mantel

Shafquat Towheed, Senior Lecturer in English

Hilary Mantel has been lauded for reviving the fortunes of the historical novel in English, for being the first woman writer to have won the Booker Prize twice (2009, 2012), and for selling over five million copies of her books – but where did it all start? Where did Mantel become a writer, hone her craft, and enter the public domain as a published novelist? What were the social and environmental circumstances that facilitated her arrival as an author? 

 I had recently been reading Mantel’s third novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (London: Viking, 1988), which is set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1984-85, and tells the story of Frances Shore, the unhappily married cartographer wife of a civil engineer on an expatriate work contract in the Kingdom. The novel is perhaps the best evocation of 1980s Saudi Arabia written by a woman in English, and carefully reconstructs the oppressive, punitive environment that she encounters. A mapmaker stranded in a city without signs, Frances Shore observes that pavements in Jeddah exist to stop cars crashing into buildings, and not for the benefit of pedestrians. Her large apartment on Ghazzah Street has windows with views of blank compound walls, and she can only glimpse a view of the sea by climbing to the roof. Denied the opportunity to work or drive, Frances Shore reads her way through all the detective novels she can find, while keeping a diary of her claustrophobic life and trying to reconstruct the lives of others around her. It is a compellingly atmospheric novel. 

When I recently went to Saudi Arabia for a short visit, I had to go and find Ghazzah Street, and see the place that Mantel had reimagined in her fiction for myself. Within 72 hours of setting foot in the Kingdom, I was there, and a spot of surreptitious literary detective work (and pilgrimage) had begun.  

 So here is Ghazzah Street, 9 blocks in from the sea, in Hamrah in Jeddah’s downtown, just off Shari’eh Falasteen (Palestine Street). Several of the buildings look plausible as the likely home of Frances Shore in the novel -which thinly fictionalised the first apartment Mantel actually lived in. Much has changed – Ghazzah Street now has a swanky business hotel, Palestine Street is beautifully pedestrianised, and women are allowed to drive – but parts of the built environment dating from the 1970s and 1980s are exactly as Mantel would have encountered and thinly fictionalised in the novel. In fact, Mantel spent not eight months in Jeddah, but stuck it out for four years, in three different addresses in Jeddah and one outside of the city, accompanying her geologist husband. 

Mantel hated her time in Saudi Arabia and to the best of my knowledge, has never been back. And yet, it was those four years, living in the most gender repressive society on earth, that was the crucible that forged her as a writer. She had time to write, as denied the ability to work or drive, she could do little else. Like her fictional character Frances Shore, Mantel read her way through the British Council Library’s collection of detective fiction, and similarly, kept a diary of her day to day life. She arrived as a housewife and left as a professional writer, with two novels under her belt, and the material – her Jeddah diaries – for her third, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, ready to go. She worked through her material and wrote the novel back home in England during the winter of 1986, in a world that ‘always seemed to be dark’. Even before the novel was published, Mantel’s Jeddah material was winning awards: her first literary prize was as the first ever recipient of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for Travel Writing (1987) for a piece on Jeddah. 

 So, if you are thinking of the place that turned Hilary Mantel from a geologist’s wife into an awardwinning novelist, look to Jeddah, and not just for the inspiration for Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. Surely, there could have been no better preparation for writing about absolute male patriarchy and the divine right of kings in Tudor England than having lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Perhaps even more ironically, Mantel now has a readership within the Kingdom: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies are both openly sold and read there, as my own visit to Jarir Books, Jeddah’s largest physical and online book retailer, located just a few kilometres away from Ghazzah Street, proved. 

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