When I had Leukaemia the haematologist made an interesting comment about how we label diseases. We could, he said, refer to the one I had as a cancer of the bone marrow. It all depended on whether you were labelling it for the similarities with other diseases, or the differences from them.

That’s a useful idea for a writer, and perhaps for a reader. Short stories, for example, must have that something in common with each other that makes us want to attach that label to them. It’s a something we might spend a long time trying to identify and put its own label on, but we know it’s there. Perhaps it’s a single quality, perhaps a particular combination. We instinctively recognise a long story as being either a long short story, or as being a short novel. We might even confuse ourselves a little with that ill-defined shape-shifter, the novella. Only yesterday, at a poetry symposium in Carlisle, the issue of defining flash fictions came up, in relation to prose poems (whatever they are). It wasn’t illuminating.

Digging down, or zooming in (or metaphor of your choice) we can also identify sub-types of short story, in fact of stories in general, and two of them might be, those written as first person narratives, and those not so. There is also a genre of first person accounts that we would think of a stories, but which are not fictions. But how different are they from fictional first person accounts?

It’s not as if one has an author and the other does not. It might not be so different even, from the perspective of the author’s connection to the events in the story. Many a fictional tale – to my knowledge – includes the description and evocation of events and feelings that were actually experienced, or perhaps witnessed by the author and which have been re-ordered, moulded and mixed in with other events from elsewhere and other times.

It’s not about factual accounts or fictional ones having different trajectories, in fact, we might argue that fictional accounts often follow the trajectories of real life as part of their striving for credibility.

And authors of fact, writing in the first person, can often be just as committed to giving a particular slant to the account of a sequence of events, and to the motivations of the characters involved in them as any fiction writer might want to be. Fiction writers, on the other hand, might be taken by surprise at the way their stories develop, just as we in our real lives might be surprised at what pops up next in our own, real stories (see first sentence -Bhdandme).

Reading a first person memoir of a fifties childhood recently, I was struck by a sense of the author not realising quite what had been said. Written as a fond memory of time past, it came over, to me at least, as a devastating critique of the blind-spots and prejudices of those times.

A few years back at popular TV sit-com inserted a real-life charity appeal into one of its shows, causing a flutter of varying responses in the audience. This ranged from enthusiastic approbation to outrage. I can remember feeling uneasy that some sort of line had been crossed, a taboo broken. It wasn’t that the charity in question was in some way undesirable, quite the opposite in fact, yet I had the sense that something had been transgressed by the inclusion in an otherwise light-hearted, but insightful fiction.

Perhaps, though, both that incident, and the response to it, give us a clue about the real difference between the factual and the fictional first person narrative, and it might have nothing to do with the writer, or indeed the writing. Rather, the distinction could be in the mind of the reader, who feels that the invitation being made is different in the case of a memoir to that of a fictional story. However realistic the fiction, however fanciful the memoir, we are being asked to do some different in the two cases when we are asked to read them.

In the case of fiction, in addition to that ‘suspension of disbelief’ we are being asked to speculate and imagine; in the factual account we will understand, and perhaps, inevitably, judge. In fictions we look for and find truths. In facts, we know deceptions and authorial self-deceptions, are hidden.


Here’s Me on the TSS site, writing about Steinbeck’s short story/play Of Mice and Men

A friend of mine used to tell a story of his late father who worked for a time as a photographer for a company that produced postcards of English beauty spots. This was in the days of roll film, when after a dozen or three shots the film would have to be removed from the camera (in absolute darkness) and replaced with a new one. Sometimes this led to a tricky operation under awkward circumstances, such as happened, allegedly, in a public park somewhere in the south of England. To protect the two films my friend’s father took to a park-bench and threw his overcoat over his lap, upon which he planned to carry out the changeover.

As you might guess, he was observed in this by a public, or rather pubic, spirited policeman who crept up on him, and at what must have seemed the right moment – perhaps as he was tightening his spool – leapt forward and threw back the overcoat. We could pause here for the old joke about three afficianados passing by, one who screamed, one who fainted and one who had a stroke – but perhaps we shouldn’t!

I carry a notebook and pencil almost everywhere I go, and when I get a moment, and a thought, I whip them out, and scribble away happily. It’s a practice H.E.Bates took exception to, at least in the case of his contemporary and literary rival, A.E.Coppard, who was also a prolific notebook carrier. Sometimes I do it in the car, on town centre car-parks, perhaps while waiting for my wife to come back (don’t read too much into that). Of course, when I’m there, scribbling, the notebook on my lap, I’m looking down and neither of my hands can be seen above the level of the door or dashboard. So far I’ve only had a few odd looks, and no one has stepped forward to offer me a hand …. and the policemen…well, they are driving past just too fast, I guess.

Here’s me writing on the TSS site, about Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate.

Stanley Baldwin’s son, apparently, described this as the wickedest story ever written, but was he reading it carefully enough?

A MONTH TO GO, and it’s our 22 mile walk around Ullswater in the English Lake District, in aid of the charity MIND.

Part of the preparation involved re-proofing a pair of over-trousers (just in case..the 8th of June is close to mid-summer, and an English mid-summer holds out the promise of heavy rain). So we got the spray on waterporrfer, and sprayed it on, and read the instructions on the can….

Tumble dry, it said. So, having no tumble dryer, we’re in the kitchen with the Aga oven doors open to warm up the room, throwing the trousers from one to the other.

Picture the scene. Send a donation to https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/MINDyourstepUllswater

My daughter has suggested we should go see the new biopic on Tolkien. We both have our doubts, but what the heck? It will be interesting to see what they want to tell us about him, whether it’s true, false, likely or unlikely.

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings several times, but not for a year or three, and when the Brian Sibley BBC Radio version came out I was an avid listener. I’ve listened to that, all the way through, a couple of times, but not for a decade. That was the adaptation that made me realise how firmly based in the English class system Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings really is, for the radio voices brought out the nuances of those class accents. Even reading the novel, it’s apparent that all the ‘baddies’ have an approximation of working class accents, predominantly, of those Churchill, according to some, called the ‘cor blimeys’. And later in the story Merry and Pippin talk about ‘living on the heights’, and how unfitted for it, long term, are people of their ‘type’.

Behind all that stands the monarchy, and of course the main theme of Tolkien’s great work, is that if you want to fix the body politic, you have to have The Return of the King. And unlike Peter Jackson’s king, he’s not someone who dithers about whether or not he wants to be king, and he’s not someone who wins the kingship by being brave and true and all that sort of heroic stuff. Tolkien’s King has waited, and plotted in hiding for generations of ordinary men, waiting until the time is right for his ‘rightful’ return. He is followed because of who he is, not how he behaves, and we can tell he’s the rightful king, as Ioreth points out, because ‘the hands of the king are the hands of a healer’ – Tolkien’s neat inclusion of that old English mythology, from the days before Oliver Cromwell and ‘stone dead hath no friends’. Worth noting also, perhaps, that it is a myth from a time before any notion of ‘constitutional monarchy’. Tolkien’s King comes by appointment of an unspecified higher authority; the same authority that sends Gandalf ‘back’ from death to complete his task.

What hadn’t struck me in earlier cogitation, but which suddenly seems quite apparent, as I wonder what the new bio-pic will be like, is how similar the story of Aragorn is to that of Bonnie Prince Charlie, save for the outcome of course. So I think I ought to find some time to read the book again in light of that speculation, and perhaps go back also over some of those accounts of the Jacobite return of the king. Ah, a reader’s job is never done…..

Looking forward to it!



As the Carlisle Poetry Symposium approaches, it’s a good time to remind the poets about the pop-up bookshop and to reissue the guidelines regarding how the pop-up bookshop works. Anyone (that’s ANYONE) can put their work into the pop-up bookshop and each writer gets 100% (that’s 100%) of the money raised by their work. For all that to work smoothly there’s a protocol, that you can find here: https://andyhopkinspoet.wordpress.com/poetry-symposium/. Neither the bookshop nor the event itself would be running without the support of Mike Smith – we’re very lucky to have him on board. At present, there should be two completely new pamphlets on sale at the Symposium, as well as one completely new mini-pamphlet and we may even get a date-jump (sorry, I just learned this term…) on a new collection. And, if I’ve done my counting correctly, there should be two small presses and two magazines in…

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Catch this if you can!


Here is the running order for the Poetry Symposium on May 18th. Thank you so much to all the poets for coming to read. And to you, of course, for coming, too!

May 18th Symposium Order

This should be another fantastic event – following on from two very successful occasions. I’m hoping that there will be a number of publishers (both small presses and magazines, too), also. Also, watch this space for details of the next Symposium in November – we will be able to already unveil some impressive names very soon!

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The need to write is a curious thing. Phenomena might be a better word, or then again, it might not.

It isn’t success that drives the need, nor even to be seen to be writing. It’s the process, the activity, which demands compliance. The fear of loss of identity is what haunts the failing writer, fearing to give up, finding him, or herself unable to do so.

It’s about the use of language, and the usefulness of language, and the fact that language, as I was once told many decades ago by a visiting professor whose name has long faded from memory, ‘language is the nearest that you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’. I understood it to be true – and memorable – even before I had the vaguest understanding of what it meant. Now I think that language is as much a sense with which we experience the world we live in as are any of the other five senses. Perhaps language is the sixth sense that we all speculate about.

Pick apart what I’ve written here, and you might find yourself thinking, for you, perhaps, but not for me, and that’s what I mean, and what he meant, I think, about words being what we use to create the world we think in.

And that’s why being good or otherwise at using them is really not the point, any more than whether or not we are good at breathing might be, though, like breathing, if we have difficulty with using words, it will be reflected in how easily, or otherwise, we live in the real language.

Just a thought, as I like to add sometimes.


As you will already know from these pages, Annie Foster’s pamphlet Solway Songs will be published by Caldew Press and launched at the Poetry Symposium on May 18th. Below is an interview with Susan and Phil, the editors at Caldew Press – as it is very much our local small press, you will want to know more about them and what they do. You can come along and meet them at the Poetry Symposium, too.

What made you take up the reins of Caldew Press?

Susan: The reins were left sadly flapping. The ‘Freiraum’ event needed a publication to accompany it and I took on the task. The impetus to continue the publication of the Speakeasy anthology which had been started was the next task and as I had experience of the process I assisted with that. I like collating the work of the talented people I’m lucky to know and am…

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