Archive for March, 2009

The short story slam, I assume, is closely related to the poetry slam but you’re not expected to make it up on the spot; indeed, it would be a rare punter who didn’t read from a ‘script’. It’s a rather more sedate affair but no less terrifying for the contestants as I found out myself when I came across it  at the Small Wonder short story festival in Charleston in Sussex. There it was all grand and glamorous, headed by an award-winning upandcoming (bastard!) author (in 2008 that was Adam Foulds – who?) who modelled the story for us, then dozens of participants whittled down to a nailbiting 16 or so by the democratic process of names-out-of-a-hat. You had to go on stage (in the massive barn where the story stuff is held to the accompaniment of milking machines and strategic mooings (especially appropriate when short story guru William Trevor was reading a bucolic tale…) and stand at a lectern with a microphone and perform! In front of Lionel bloody Shriver (whose We Need to Talk About Kevin was so difficult but so amazing to read; unlike the pain-in-the-arse Double Act which was just plain difficult: sorry Lionel, but you know it makes sense…), Toby Litt (who was sharing the same B and B as me and was very charming but slightly alarmed at the possibility I was stalking him which I sort of was) and poet and crime writer Sophie Hannah who was also at aforeseaid B and B and very witty, bright, friendly, etc. I then did her story workshop and it was fantastic. Thanks Sophie!). Anyway, as I was saying, the whole thing was Terrifying. (William Trevor had thankfully got a plane home by that time otherwise I might just have mooed at the mike .) That time I miraculously came runner-up. My first ever time! I was sooo gratified that my story hadn’t been mooed off stage so I know exactly how it felt for all those brave people who turned up at the much smaller scale slam I organised at my lovely local pub, The Rocket.

There were 25 of us and 10 or so brave readers (plus 3 kids with their own amazing stories to read, strategically placed to relax the audience: if they could do it, so could we! – though actually that might have backfired: if they can do it why the bloody hell can’t we!!!). People read their 4 minute stories, we had a buffet dinner (ahem…won’t mention the mix-up here with ‘buffet’ translated as ‘canapes’, but you live and learn), more stories and some dancing! You don’t have evenings like that very often at your local pub: friends sitting around, reading their own work. It felt cultured and soiree like and I was very proud…

Here’s a vid of the opening moments…short story slam

Anyway, here’s a selection of some of the stories (I’m putting them up as they get sent to me…you know how it is, people take their time (nudge, nudge: send them in people!). Please do leave your comments afterwards on this post – I’m sure the authors will appreciate some (constructive, hopefully) feedback. 

By the way, the theme was ‘farewell’. And, as far as I know, none of these authors has been previously published – not even on the net.

So, the (democratically voted by all the participants) winner of the First Wordplay Short Story Slam was ….drum roll…

Fond Farewells by Nancy Hoskins

Well done Nancy! A truly great, funny story. Nancy’s been coming to my Saturday workshops for a while now and she has written some sterling stuff. She is a short story writer in the making. You read it here first! She chose as her prize (and I’m very flattered) a tutorial with yours truly and a reading of her manuscript. I am really looking forward to reading it…send on, Nancy!

Second Prize was Carole Murphy who chose a meal for 2 at The Rocket. Carole specialises in funny-but close to the edge, raw, emotional stuff. And this story is a great example. She is also a wickedly good performer and has a future on both page and stage! 

The First Date by Carole Murphy

Joint 3rd prize were Charlotte Levin and Philip Wright. They each get a ticket to see Olivier-award-winning Acton playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell‘s new play Apologia, on at The Bush Theatre in June (if anyone else wants to go, let me know…we could get an Acton possie booking).

Charlotte writes stories with a unique voice, observant, witty, unexpected.  

The Holiday by Charlotte Levin

Philip is working on a novel based around the character from this story. As you’ll see, she (the character) is engaging and hilarious and literary agents out there, I suggest you get a move on!!

Lisa and Me by Philip Wright

Here are some other fantabulous entries…and, in many ways, each of these stories deserves a prize in its own right. Reading a story aloud is very different from reading the words on the page – and here you get the chance to appreciate them at your leisure..

LA Weather Forecasting by Anne Hooper

Tom’s Farewell by Kathy Rose

The Emporium by Sarah Saunders

Italian Farewell by Caroline Skene

Taking Leave by Glenda Simpson

‘Farewell, dear friend’ by Sarah Davies

and here are the kids’ entries (they all got a prize – a book each, donated by Judith Elliot, editor at Orion Children’s Books, Acton resident and much-appreciated contributor to the Wordplay Book Club discussions). They didn’t have a theme – we thought it was hard enough for them already – but I think you’ll agree that these are highly imaginative and carefully crafted stories. How wonderful to start writing stories so young. 

Kilajo and the Gum Tree Sisters by Caitlin Murphy-Page

A Monkey War Life by Scarlet S Checkland 

The Golden Locket by Francesca Luzzatto

So – looking forward to your comments. And to the next story slam! I’ll keep you posted, as they say.


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Today I am feeling so light. It’s not just the cherry blossom and going out of the house without a Parka, but the fact that last night I did my first stand-up gig in front of loadsa people – and it didn’t bomb.

The danger of telling people that you’re signed up for a comedy course is the danger that they’ll look at you in total incomprehension “What, you think you’re funny?” which, in fact, a lot of people did. But fortunately, my more intimate friends who’ve seen me at my most relaxed (shall we say) thought it was an ace idea. When everyone without fail tells you ‘you’re brave’, however, it no longer feels like a compliment but a fact of life: standing in front of people with the requirement that you make them laugh is possibly the biggest challenge any of us can imagine facing. Pretensions to wit invite derision. And, famously, a disappointed audience can be cruel. Why would you put yourself through that? Last night I found out. 

The venue (The Wilmington Arms) was packed with the friends and family of the 8 performers. There are 16 of us in all who’ve followed Chris Head’s ten week comedy course (the remaining 8 perform this Monday – catch ’em if you can) and it has definitely been a steep but exhilarating learning curve. 

The night began with Matthew Nimmo whose opening gambit swivelled the warm-up’s banter on its head “Remember, these stand-ups are incredibly nervous: this is their first time ever on stage” became “You guys are incredibly brave to be here, watching your friends and family.” Anna Bernard took us through the more delicate points of acupuncture, delivered in an endearingly chatty style. Next up was me (more of that later) – followed by Jon O’Donnell, in all our eyes one of the stars of the course, a man with the disconcerting look of a stout salesman but an energy that screams down the microphone.

After the break, and a few glasses of wine, my senses impaired perhaps, but oh boy did I enjoy the second half. Tina Mehta – a total future star turns up in a sari and begins with a demur and utterly misleading  “Namaste” then launches into the most risque set of the night (given her subject might die even as she speaks). “I am Jade Goody in Shilpa Shetty’s body: it’s a good job it’s not the other way around”.  On the surface an irreverent critique but unravelling into an often warm and  sophisticated look at the inextricable relationship between these two women and their equally energetic manipulation of the media, the perfume industry and the public – through whatever desperate measures their life (or death) throw up. One man in a suit sat at the very front watched Mehta’s whole set with a straight mouth – jokes about a woman on her death bed too close for comfort. But for any of us who have had a loved one die from cancer (millions of us, innit?)  – you’ve gotta laugh…

Next up was Mik Constantinou who should get the award for ‘Most improved performer’ – revealing his relaxed and oxymoronic persona of metal-head-meets-computer-geek. In a seamless segue, after getting his dreadlocks caught in his air guitar, he peeks up at the audience;  “So where were we? Ah, that’s it computers…’ and launches into a great crack at Mac Users that had me pissing in my seat – “who here’s a Mac user?” My hand eagerly shot up , I couldn’t help myself, so strong is the cult – even though I knew the next line was going to be – ‘Get over yourselves: It’s not a fuckin lifestyle choice!” 

From heavy metal to just heavy…David Wain-Heapy (the warm-up, Barry, already obsessed with his own name, had enough fun with that one, thank you) perfected expressionless dismay,  last used by Neil off the Young Ones. His rejection letter to his potential employers is a stroke of genius. 

Last up Matt Parker who has the gift of really enjoying himself on stage so allowing the audience and the by-now fully relieved Laughia* crew to sit back and LAUGH.

* That’s the name we gave ourselves. We’re a fully-fledged company of comics now.   

My husband (who had heard a version of my set and commented, ‘It’s okay, but isn’t it supposed to be funny?’) took a little video which I’ll stick up here as soon as I can get hold of it – but watching the playback was surprisingly okay. The moments on stage that were the most unnerving – like moving the mike stand with a mobile phone in my hand for example – don’t show up on camera. For me, the scariest thing was remembering my lines (yeah, incredible I know, it’s not all spontaneous…). Standing in front of people on stage is not so very different from teaching. No, writing the stuff is the toughest of all – knowing when to stop – keep pruning and pruning is what you learn, what the laconic but very astute Chris Head has taught us all. Say the bare minimum you need to set up the laugh. No matter how much you enjoy the words, or the story, it’s the laughs that count.

And that’s what I’m looking forward to in my next gig – pow!pow!pow! – one laugh after another…

I can but dream…

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Took the kids to see Billy Elliot on Tuesday – cheap block tickets so we were sat at the Victoria Palace among five rows of uncharacteristically quiet Japanese students, most likely stunned into silence by the thick Geordie accents on stage – and the noise going on in the row behind us: a line up of 50+ women who looked and sounded as though they’d been drinking for hours (if not years). Celebrating a divorce perhaps? They chatted all the way through the show, as though they were waiting for a bus! I turned around and glared (in a middle class sort of way) and the woman looked straight at me and replied (in a working class sort of way)  ‘Don’t you fucking tell me to shut up. I’ve got as much right to talk as anyone. You fucking shut up!’ All this going on through one of the most poignant scenes. Shortly afterwards she stood up, fell over and banged her head on the wall. Security came running, this bouncer type literally dripping with sweat, desperate to see if she was okay. She was drunk. Very.

The drama off stage was not dissimilar to the drama on stage. Policemen against miners, miners against scabs, boxers against ballerinas, northern blue collar workers against southern poofters, boys in dresses against the world.  It was all there. Dreams versus reality. Escape versus imprisonment. Rags and riches. I love that about a good musical. Politics and social commentary alongside singing and dancing. Real tears (the heartfelt sobbing can’t-stop-them kind when Billy presents the ballet teacher with a letter from his dead mother and she reads it out to him in a haunting duet) followed by howls of laughter ( ‘William Elliot is queer?’ asks Billy, squinting at the envelope addressed to him from the Royal Ballet School ‘It says William Elliot esquire you idiot!’ replies his dad).

The show, in short,  is fantastic. And it’s a thrill to see kids taking centre stage in a grown-up production. Since the gruelling schedule takes its toll there are four Billies who do the show on different nights, as well as three Michaels (Billy’s best friend) and three Debbies ( the ballet teacher’s daughter) alongside a sundry mix of would-be ballerinas and boxers. The Billy we saw was Tom Holland. I have no other Billies to compare him to (except Jamie Bell of course) but he brought warmth, depth and humour to the role – and his dancing was okay too. Sometimes his accent felt a bit forced (unlike the other Billies, he’s from London) but the Geordie accent is one of the hardest to imitate (though Cheryl Cole has given lots of us reasons to try) and sometimes, even when it’s right it sounds wrong (I should know, I was born there though we left when I was one – I’ve been trying to say ‘I’m a Geordie’ right ever since).

Some of the best scenes are with Billy and his mate Michael (George Maycock when we went). Michael is the true tragedian of the piece, a boy who likes to wear his mam’s dresses and lipsticks and who falls in love with Billy, but is stuck in this derelict town with its smouldering gender and sexual prejudice, despite the feelgood community scenes. Michael remains on stage sitting on his bike at the end of the show, Billy’s farewell kiss fresh on his cheek, the miners clunking down the shaft behind him.

It’s in these scenes with Billy and Michael perhaps that the differences between film and musical are most marked. The musical relishes the costume side – parading dancing dresses in a ravishing display  of slapstick-lipstick humour. Eleven-year old Maycock/ Michael is a truly gifted comedian – his timing is impeccable. But in the film there was so much more poignancy about their relationship.  I cried in the film when Michael runs up to Billy as he’s leaving (and again when he comes to watch him perform in the Royal Ballet years later) . In the musical it felt underplayed.

One more place where I thought the film was more intense, more effective: Billy’s dance of anger – when first his foot, then his leg, then his whole body twitch into an overwhelming spasm of contorted dancing shapes and acrobatics. Maybe Jamie Bell had more say over the moves – maybe he chose them himself and so it really was his dance. Or maybe he just knew how to inhabit that anger. In the film Jamie/Billie runs down the claustrophobic alleyways of the back-to-back terraced houses, bricks shining in the rain, kicking off the sides, running along walls, through back gardens, his face contorted, his arms exploding. In the show, Tom Holland was limited by the stage. It was just him and the dance. And though it got the biggest clap of the night, I didn’t feel he really owned it (or the flying scene). This Billy would have danced differently if he was expressing himself – anger is personal.

Apparently the kids from the show all live in a house just down the road from me in Ealing – and they have to do 3 hours schoolwork every day as well as rehearsals and performances. Though the show doesn’t go on forever – when their voices start to break the boys have to move on. Billie is supposed to be eleven (though Jamie Bell was sixteen when he played him).  For the first set of Billies (who won a joint Olivier best actor award in 2006) the come-down to a normal life and routine was tough. But what an opportunity – to do ballet but to do cool ballet!

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Story Workshop

This is a page which works alongside the Saturday workshops I run at The Rocket. It’s a space to read and share stories. I’ll put links to the stories here, you can read them and then comment.

Two stories to read for this month’s workshop, both off the Short Story website.

The first won the 2006 National short story prize – ‘An Anxious Man’ by James Lasdun; the second is ‘Sticks and Stones’ by Trezza Azzopardi.

Our session on 21st March will focus on endings. How to finish, when to finish….does the end relate back to the beginning? Does the end satisfy the reader’s expectations? Was it predictable? Does the story feel complete?

So – read these stories with the end in sight. And when you’ve finished, go back and read the beginning. You can comment on these stories in the comment box below.

Now write an ending to one of your stories (whether the story is finished or not).

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I love the British Library. It’s the place I go to to write whenever I have a free day – or don’t have to pick the kids up. In fact, I get there rarely these days – and any visit is a treat. I love the silence of so many beavering minds. the click of heels as people go to the issues desk, the sounds of laptops opening, pages turning, pencils scratching. This is where I focus best – and one of the places I’ll miss most when we leave London. I love the anonymity, the permission to drink as many cappuccinos as I want (they do the best in London in Leith’s Cafe) with no clucking cafe owner hurrying me along. I love the possibility of chance meetings – maybe a professor, a friend, an ex-boyfriend. But I love it most of all when I don’t meet anyone and can measure out my working day as I choose, not punctuated by the deadline of a lunch date but by how long I can focus on one topic.

Occassionally I make use of the exhibitions they put on. Right now there’s Darwin and the Story of Evolution (until 22nd March in The Folio Society Gallery). Admission is free. I loved this one. Mostly because there was a small green path marked out with the details of Darwin’s day, which you could pace along ‘In Darwin’s footsteps’, listening to the recorded sounds of chirrupping birds.

This is how Darwin would spend a typical day at his home and grounds, Down House in Kent.

Up before sunrise for a short walk

7.45-8.00 light breakfast

8-9.30 best time for research

9.30-10.30 relax on sofa and read letters

10.30-12.00 Research

12-1.00 Visit greenhouse. Walk along Sandwalk and think

1-2 Have lunch and read newspaper

2-3 Write letters

3-4 Rest while Emma reads aloud

4-4.30 Late afternoon stroll

4.30 -5.30 Research

Evening begins

10.30 To bed

This day makes me sooo jealous and a little bit mad and fills my head with questions. For me, the ‘best time for research’ is buggered by the school run and I’m damned if I can get Stef to whizz home from work at 3 and read out loud to me. Mostly, though, I am impressed. What a civilised, perfect day. Given the money, the home, the wife, the servants, and nothing else to do but write (no teaching, no admin, no bills, no phone calls) this day would suit me down to the ground.

But first, those niggling questions:

  • What time is sunrise?
  • How can he have a short walk and still only have breakfast at 7.45?
  • How does he go for such a long time without food (between breakfast and lunch)?

Like Virginia Woolf, he doesn’t have to do any food prep or cleaning up – or childcare (though apparently he was a family man – had ten children – though one died in childbirth and another died age 10 – and would hang out with them a lot, playing in the garden, explaining his experiments, teaching them about the birds and the bees). But clearly, he’s a moneyed man. And a Victorian one.

This schedule gives him the grand total of 4 hours research per day.  No more, no less. I have never been able to do more than 3 or 4 hours concentrated research in one day – but I’d never have the wisdom to schedule it this way – putting the walks in, the thinking time. Acknowledging that it’s essential to the creative process. Famously, Darwin created a Sand Walk around the perimeter of the copse at the end of his garden, where he’d ponder his latest discoveries.  Here’s a photo:


So now my joy of working at The British Library is frustrated only by the knowledge that my time would be spent so much more fruitfully if only there were a Sand Walk to go pacing along for inspiration in between the hard slog of reading or writing. Oh, but hang on – until the 22nd March it’s in the Folio Gallery recreated for you.

[Darwin walked this path] every day accompanied by his white terrier Polly. Rain or shine, without fail, [he] used this time to observe nature and reflect on his many experiments and his years travelling the world with the HMS Beagle, meticulously piecing together his theory. With a replica of the infamous ‘thinking path’ housed in the gallery, this exhibition allows visitors to walk in Darwin and Polly’s footsteps and contemplate the evolutionary thought process.

British Library website

I haven’t yet managed to recreate the Sand Walk here in Acton W3 (though I have high hopes of using the Napoleonica path for such purposes when we move to Trieste) but I’ve been trying to see if I can’t pull off the same kind of day myself.

Tonya’s Ideal Day

Up before sunrise for a short walk (I like it, I like it. Can I do it? No!)

5am – walk/jog

5.30 – shower, cup of tea

6-7.30  Writing

7.30 – get kids up and dressed

7.45-8.00 – make breakfast

8-8.30 clear up breakfast/ stick clothes in wash/make packed lunch

8.30-9  take kids to school

9-9.30 carry on clearing up

9.30-10.30 read and reply to e-mails

10.30-11  Snack. Make soup for lunch.

11-12.30  Writing

12.30-1.30 Lunch. Read paper.

1.30 -2.30 Writing

2.30- 3.00 Stroll

3.15 Pick up kids
Kids snacks. Crafts. Games. Take to activities

5pm – prepare dinner, laundry

6pm Dinner

8pm – baths, stories, etc. Load dishwasher, clear up kitchen

9pm – kids in bed

9.30 Evening begins!

10.30 To bed.

I’ve managed to squeeze in 4 hours of writing – and all the domestic stuff. But no space for my actual job in that day. Oh well, maye once a week I could do it. Nice just to have it as a tantalising possibility. What would you do?

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Shouldn’t have watched it. Still recovering. Feel as though I’ve been hit over the head with a truncheon, or had my fingernails removed, or my bollocks tweaked. Thought it was brilliant (I like feeling shit).

Red Riding is a tale of bent coppers in West Yorkshire, set in 1974. The premise: 3 school girls go missing or are found dead in the same area over a period of a few years.  A rookie journalist, Eddie Dunford (played superbly by Andrew Garfield), just returned from a failed news-gathering trip down south, wants to make his name on the Yorkshire Post.  He goes from cocksure boy chasing the headlines to a severely damaged yet redeemed young man, surprised to discover the lengths he will go to protect innocent girls and expose corruption.

The corruption, indeed, is so deep-seated and pervasive it goes all the way to the top (including a property magnate; the head of the police force; and the editor of the newspaper)  and all the way to the bottom (the sadistic duo of coppers paid to torture Dunford in Abu Graib style) and back again – and round a few bends on the way. No one is immune.

It is too much for Dunford, and anyway he has fallen in love. He  gives up the chase and decides to start a new life with the beautiful Paula Garland (played by Rebecca Hall). He hands over his plastic bag full of evidence to a lowly bobby he has decided is “one of the good guys”. Later, we see the same bobby hand over the bag to his superior, and this same bag is filmed going up stairs, over a road, across a bridge, and the contents tipped out onto a charcoal burner, the incriminating photos, receipts and letters curling up as they blacken while the head of police looks on.

Paula’s role in all this is the most troubling. Her ten year old daughter went missing a couple of years earlier. Dunford interviews her in connection with the latest abduction but from the beginning they can’t keep their hands off each other. Each time Dunford meets her he gets beaten up by the sadistic coppers. He puts two and two together. “Who are you telling about me?” Turns out Paula is in thrall to property magnate John Dawson (convincingly played by Sean Bean who combines a kind of John Wayne bravado with a vicious sloppiness). And even when Dunford turns up with black eyes or broken arms (or both) she still ends up wandering over the hill at the back of her house to his iconic Corbusier-style flatpack mansion lit up in the early morning mists of the Yorkshire Moors. When Dunford asks about her relationship with him she says, “He has always been good to us, very good.” And she has always, presumably, fucked him. She has known him “All my life”. We are left wondering and wondering about this. Could he be her father? How old was she when he first started fucking her? And, when it becomes clear that it is indeed Dawson who has abducted and killed the children (your child, you want to scream at her, your child!) her glossy red lipstick takes on an eerie kind of smudge. A victim so abused and bemused herself that she has become the unwitting perpetrator of her own daughter’s abduction and enabled the cover-up to continue ad infinitum – and into the next two films.

This was in fact the first part in a trilogy of two-hour films commissioned by Channel 4 focusing on the police force in West Yorkshire in the 70s and 80s (next week’s covers the Ripper apparently). From the trailer that they annoyingly pasted onto the end of last night’s film, it looks like many of the usual suspects are back for more corruption. But Dunford? Surely he didn’t survive? Shades of the Terminator..

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Spring is in the air. Makes me want to be outside all day. But it’s still freezing. I’m sitting here huddled in a shawl with the sun shining outside. Don’t have to pick up the kids today and my automatic pilot has gone hay wire (hey, wire!) Come 3 o’clock I start to unravel…

I’m organising a short story slam at my local pub The Rocket. You have to read/ perform a story that’s no longer than 4 minutes long. Have spent days trying to work out a theme. They had suggestive ones like ‘Revenge’ and ‘Reunion’ at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival (cudos -I came second last year. Yay!). The one I’ve stuck with is ‘Farewell’ since it’s a kind of leaving do really – the end of Wordplay as we know it. We move to Trieste this summer.

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