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Something this week put into my mind once again, that remark which Norman Nicholson – unarguably the best Cumberland poet since Wordsworth, at least that we know about – which Nicholson made when I interviewed him back in the 1970s (You can read a transcript in Norman Nicholson at 100, edited by Stephen Matthews & Neil Curry and published by – and available from – Bookcase in Carlisle). What he told me was that he was ‘an entertainer.’

This is somewhat of a loaded word for someone of my education and upbringing. I went to a grammar school that had given up on erudition and learning in favour of pretension and appearances – at least from the corner I was standing in. So, ‘entertainer’ has for me the ring of ‘time waster,’ however entertainingly accomplished.

Good old BGS for Boys, however, by virtue of a trio of dedicated English teachers, did give me an interest (I wrote ‘love’ first, but decided against it) in words, and the itch to burrow my way into them from time to time. What does, I ask myself, ‘entertain’ mean? Travelling once in Scotland, within sniff of a distillery, I did ‘enter Tain,’ but that’s not what we’re looking for. There are other words, though, that might be worth recalling: Detain, Attain, Retain, all spring to mind. What is this thing called ‘tain’ – queue for a song (OK, cue for a song if we must) – that can be at-ed, de-ed, and re-ed?

Detain – to be held against your will? Retain – to be held where you are? Attain – to get to the place where you hold something? You’ll see where I’m going. Is ‘taining’ something to do with holding? Up here, oop here, if you like, in the north ‘ta’en’ with the throttled ‘k’ means taken. Am I on to something? Or off my trolley?

Some more ‘tain’ words: Obtain, Contain, Pertain. And again, there is that concept of holding common to all three (OK, at a stretch with the third!).

Time to look at the dictionary.

The best I have is the Shorter Oxford – though I have some interesting older ones – Blounts Glossographica of 1659 has gone missing, but it was interesting rather than useful. I rather liked the fact too, that in my poor copy, some eighteenth or nineteenth century re-binder had tried to get the long title word across the spine, and failed, despite having a go with a couple of smaller letters before dropping down on to a lower line! The good old OED tells me that all these words can be traced to a Latin root, each with a prefix. What the rootin’tootin’roots are, is interesting.

Attain   AT+tangere (to touch)

Detain   DE+tenere (to hold)

Retain   RE+tenere (that’s the one)

Obtain  OB+tenere (holding again!)

Contain CON+tenere (hold on there)

Pertain  PER+tenere (Well held, sir)


Which makes me wonder, if they’re right about the first one!

There is of course, the word I began with still to look up, and yes, you’ve guessed it. That’s the ‘holding’ root too. The prefix, ‘enter,’ entre nous, is interesting too. It means, ‘among,’ which is like being ‘between.’ If this has entertained you so far, you might want to go on and see for yourselves what the other prefixes mean, and imply. Then there’s the word ‘interesting’…….

I think Norman was telling me that he was a poet who held people, in the middle of other things, like, say, their lives. And, of course, it goes perhaps without saying, that he held them by their interests!

You wanna loyn sumpin. about ya etymology why not a looksee at Kowalski’s page on ya link: OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


TalkingtoOwlsA recent correspondent expressed surprise that my stories had been ‘accepted’ as short stories. This was because, he implied, they lacked a necessary ‘punchline’. They might, or might not. Certainly I conform, and enthusiastically support, the contention that stories are all about their endings, but that ‘punchline’ raises a question, and so does his ‘accepted’.

Who should they be accepted by (by whom? If you prefer). Editors, one imagines, if publication is your primary concern; assuming, that is, that editors are looking for something they would describe as short stories, whether you have or not. The same might be true of readers. Never mind that you are writing a short story suggests that you might want others to recognise it as such. There was a period in the not too distant past when short stories were referred to by some (including editors, I believe) as short fiction. The ‘story’ word became rather unfashionable. In his book on the novel (Aspects of the Novel), E.M.Forster, writing about an entirely different beast, rather put the story down. It was an inferior, regrettably essential aspect. Other commentators have taken a similar tack. Academics have no need of stories. Analysis can be quite happily lavished on sentences, clauses and the like, without any regard to sequences of referred meaning. The reader though, has a good old fashioned grasp of story, and knows that what it’s about is, well, what it’s about. That’s why readers, when they hear what you are reading, will ask, what’s it about?

So, I’m pleased, generally, that the stories in Talking To Owls ( ), which is what my correspondent had been reading, have been accepted as such, however surprising he may find that. What’s more pleasing, and perhaps it shouldn’t be, is that the stories struck me as being short stories, because that is what I had been setting out to write. The late Norman Nicholson, said of his poetry, that it must be like a pot; well made enough to stand on the shelf on its own. I feel something similar about my short stories. I favour the metaphor of a chair. If you set out to make a chair, it might be that, though what you have ended up with can be sat upon, you might not recognise it yourself, as being a chair. In which case, I would aver, you have a good reason to be dissatisfied; even, I might add, if editors and readers like to sprawl upon it whilst reading my short stories.

Being accepted; having one’s short stories accepted as such, is only part of the story. You want, well, I certainly do, to recognise them as such our own terms first of all. A game that some of you know I like, is the metaphor game, where we search for the metaphors we like to use to describe the things we do and make. The metaphor for the short story which I like to use, is that of the ‘crossing’. A short story, for me, is something like a crossing: a journey from here to there; and one, at the end of which, we look forward to the hinterland of where we have arrived, or look back to our point of origin from this new perspective, or indeed realise that we (or our characters, have in fact gone nowhere. A novel, by the way, I metaphorise, as a cruise, during which we island hop from place to place, stopping at many ports, resuming our voyage with many new dawns.

What about that ‘punchline’ though? His metaphor? The American writer O Henry, no slouch in the short story department (and, coincidentally, bearing the same name as my paternal, adoptive grandparent beneath that nom-de-plume), was famous, infamous some would say, for the punchline story. Twist-in-the-tail was a common description of his stories, and often offered as a criticism. He was very good at it, as as people do, when they are very good at it, he rather overdid it, and encouraged a generation of short story writers to follow in his footsteps.

Play the metaphor game again though, and you’ll find lots of alternatives for the ending of a short story: a candle blown out, a light switched on, embers dying, a fire taking hold, a door opening, another closing, a knife being thrust in, a blade being pulled out.

What my correspondent missed, or at least, didn’t refer to, is common to all those: that it is the ending of a short story that we go to see. And you can find editors, writers and commentators all over the place who will take note of that, and pass it on, in introductions, prefaces, articles, interviews and academic essays. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all the stories in Talking To Owls have that quality, but I rather intended that they should. You’ll have to read them to find out!

Those interested in the short story can hear fellow Pewter Rose Press author Vivien Jones read at Aspatria Library on Tuesday 17th Feb (doors open at 7.00pm.£5 admission), in an event organised by Solway Arts Group. BHDandMe & Marilyn Messenger will be there to add our thruppence worth of short tales (careful with my spelling there).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was at school we had one music lesson that stood out from others long forgotten, in which, exasperated, the teacher sat down at the piano and began to play the blues. He told us of his playing in clubs in America where the crowds ignored him, eating and drinking and talking.

Contrast this with the concert hall, where we sit in silent awe while the orchestra performs. There is an interesting comparison here too, with the literary concert and the live-reading club. Speakeasies of one sort or another are common these days. We have one in Carlisle. Lancaster has its Spotlight Club. Liars League runs in London, New York and Hong Kong, and elsewhere!

In all these cases, so far as I have experienced, the audience is more like the concert hall one, than the one in the noisy blues club to which my music teacher played. Yet that might be a cultural phenomena. There’s an interesting account near the opening of James Fenton’s ‘An Introduction to English Poetry’ (Penguin, 2002) in which he describes a discussion between an African and an America poet. The American has criticised the African for his drumming and singing, which makes it harder, the American says, for the following ‘voice only’ poet. The African points out that in his culture the audience must be subdued by the performance; that there is no automatic grant of attention, such as the American poet (and the European) expects.

Fenton rather favours the African, and suggests that ‘the words may be no more than a notation for a performance’ or ‘may be written for the page’. The implication, seeming to distance the page from the possibilities of reading aloud, which in its turn is conflated with ‘performance’.

My own experience, and I’m sure I’ve cited this before, threw up a ‘performance’ in which I had my wife throw a flat cap up on to the stage for me to wear while reading a poem about a Lakeland shepherd. Years later I bumped into a man who remembered that performance – you’re the chap with the cap – but not the words of the poem. Norman Nicholson, in his poem ‘The Whisperer,’ says he cannot command our attention by the ‘force’ of his work and personality, but must look for those ‘lit’ with the ‘grace’ of listening.

The confrontation between the African and the American might, in part, have been a misunderstanding of what they were both doing. If the performance is to aid presentation of the words there are different criteria than if the words are to aid the presentation of the performer. In an age of celebrity this latter case might be considered the norm.

The reading of words aloud might be a performance, and thinking back to my music teacher, I’m reminded that there was a popular song a few decades ago which told us explicitly that it was ‘the singer, not the song’, but surely it could also be ‘the writing, not the writer’.TalkingtoOwls

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACarlisle Bookseller and Publisher Steve Matthews has added another volume to his long list of publications about Cumbria and the Borders, it’s history, culture and people…

‘Norman Nicholson at 100, Essays and Memoirs’ brings together more than twenty pieces of writing about Cumbria’s most famous poet, and Cumberland’s second most! With contributions from those who knew him, and those who know and love his his work; analysis sits alongside speculation; memories rub shoulders with academic essays. Norman’s own voice is included too, not only in the quotations from his work, but also in the transcript of an interview undertaken by me back in the nineteen seventies, in the cosy gloom of Nicholson’s sitting room at 14 St. George’s Terrace, Millom.

The editors, Steve Matthews and poet Neil Curry also allowed me the opportunity to make a brief comparison between Nicholson and his near contemporary, Geoffrey Holloway, two poets whose similarities and differences intrigued me during the years I knew them, and have haunted me ever since.

Other contributors include poets Chris Pilling, Mary Robinson and Phil Houghton, academics like David Cooper, and Nicholson’s most recent biographer, Kathleen Jones. It’s an amazing collection of disparate opinions, avenues of approach, and areas of interest. Norman is viewed through the lenses of topography, religion, friendship, the green movement, and of course, of poetry.

I’m, of course, immensely pleased to be included among such distinguished writers, but most pleased to be able to pass on some of my own recollections of this widely admired local poet. It’s the scope and variety of what is recalled, discussed, and suggested, that makes this anthology so interesting.

It’s available from Bookcase, in Carlisle, at £10, and would, as they say, may an excellent present!

Another Cumbrian Cultural Landmark worth noting is the Caldbeck Festival of Culture, which runs from Thursday 2nd to Sunday 5th of October. Bringing together a wide range of activities and interests from choirs to cloggies, by way of poets and flash fictionistas, at various venues around the village, notably The Oddfellows public house! It’s in the bar here that Open Mike sessions for writers and musicians will be held each of the four nights (including a prize giving session for young writers who took part in the creative writing competition on the Thursday). There are poetry an d flash fiction sessions too, throughout the four days, including short fiction readings by (me as) Brindley Hallam Dennis and Marilyn Messenger, and ‘mini- workshops’ for writers led by (me as) Mike Smith on the Saturday afternoon.   check it out on:


Followers of the blog will know that I have been reading  stories from the nineteenth century and earlier.

Why would we read stories by long dead authors? As living writers we want people to read us while we are alive. Does it matter to us that we might be read after our death? The sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy makes sculptures that might last only long enough for them to be photographed. Are the works of dead writers merely dead stories?

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet whose centenary is being celebrated this year, told me once that he wanted his poems to be like a pot – you could put it on a shelf and it would stand up on its own. Performance by the writer, he said, emphasised the personal, with winks and nudges and nods, and tone of voice. Without the writer, there is only the writing and the reading.

The pot analogy is worth pursuing, and not just for poetry. Short stories too can be that pot. Those of us who have heard our work read aloud by others know how different it can sound when it is truly outside our own heads, how different it can actually be. There are obvious elements to this: tone of voice can nuance meaning, tempo and volume will change what is actually heard. Listening to our own words in someone else’s mouth can show us qualities within it that we were previously unaware of.

It would be absurd, I think, to suggest that when the creator of a pot died we should destroy or stop using the pot. The pot outlives the author, and so does the story, whether he intends it to or not, but like the pottery, the words are likely to deteriorate over time. A pot may chip or crack. The glaze may craze, mould may get in behind it; patinas will come and go, precious metal plating might break down and wear away. In words it is meaning which loses its precision, or its potency, a nice distinction. Words themselves may become tainted by subsequent users, by current usages, random! Wicked even. Meaning leaks away. Birds might have tweeted in Dickens’ time, but not in the way they could do today. Metaphors decay the fastest of all, I suspect, needing us to know the qualities and nuances of both sides of the comparison to be effective.

Some pots and some short stories age better than others. They wear well or ill. And, as is the case with our pots, we probably don’t know, or even think about, whether the writers of the stories we read are dead or alive, unless we restrict ourselves to following the fashions laid down for us by the publishers and reviewers of new books, in whatever format.

If Norman’s pot is the right metaphor for the poem, and for the short story, then it is a vessel for the reader’s imagination, and for so long as the pot survives we may choose to drink from it, and as long as the story holds meaning, we may chose to read it, which is to fill it with our imaginations and understandings and to drink of that. Here’s why it is irrelevant how long ago the stories were made, irrelevant when the writers lived, or if they still live, or how long ago they died. Here’s why we would read the ‘old, old’ stories.



I’ve been working with creative writing students for the past ten years, sometimes at Cumbria University, sometimes with the Facets of Fiction groups that meet at my house. We’ve talked about, and experimented with the ways and means of creating characters, the methods and purposes of creating the locations in time and space in which stories sit, the development of appropriate narrative voices, and the stringing together of those sequences of events that often seem to be what stories are about.

We’ve looked at Beginnings, Middles and Ends, even though some people insist that they don’t exist. We’ve tried out ambiences and atmospheres, dialogues and monologues, and story threads that rolled forward, flashed back, and twisted themselves like anxiety ridden guts! But one element has received rare attention, though it’s hovered in the background of all our discussions. That is the issue of what stories are for – why they are written, and why they are read.

As a tutor I’ve always taken the view that no-one should be telling anybody what they ought to write about, but that doesn’t prevent discussion of what they have been about, and what they could be about. The whys of writing, and of reading, follow in that train. This might seem to be an issue primarily of fiction, but non-fiction too, and even more obviously, suggests reasons for writing, and reasons for reading.

Talking of poetry, the late Norman Nicholson vehemently asserted that ‘enjoyment’ was the primary function, and that ‘trying to understand a poem without enjoyment’ was absolute ‘rubbish’. My instinct is to concur in the case of fiction too, yet, there are fictions – Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Outer Dark’ springs to mind – to which the word ‘enjoyment’ seems a strange attachment. I read that grim novel with a sort of compulsive horror, and felt at the end that I had learned nothing useful or even revealing about the people around me, though I’ve no doubt there are people such as the novel envisioned, and probably nearby too! What sort of enjoyment could it give though? Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man, one of my five best books to come out of World War Two – and probably top of that list – is a grim read too, but its final chapters are uplifting far beyond the horror of the jourmey to get to them.

The clue to why good fiction is worth reading might be found in that non-fiction memoir. Here’s a true story of redemption; of the victory of the human spirit over the dark side of human behaviour. Fiction can seek to replicate that, or to challenge it. For many years I worked as a bookseller specialising in military history books and during that time read almost no fiction. How could a fiction, I questioned, stand against accounts like Lomax’s?

It is clever writing that evokes emotions through words, yet, even off the page, emotions are regularly evoked by words, and by the voices that utter them. The words carry meanings for us, whether they are fictional, or factual – and by factual I include the lies that are passed off as truths; by fictional the truths that are passed off as lies. The English short story writer, A.E.Coppard, was wont to describe his art as that of the liar.

Just as a bricklayer might construct a wonderful arch, a writer might construct a wonderful story. We might value the skill in the arch, the technique in the writing. Yet, we will value the arch more, I suspect, for its place in the structure it is part of, and its uses, than for the skills alone. Whether or not we do something similar for the story is not quite so clear cut. In fact, the apparent uselessness of stories, and poems, their obscurity, seems often to have become the element in them that is valued most. Most, that is, by those who mediate that obscurity for the rest of us. A.L.Kennedy, in a video showing as part of the Jack Vetriano retrospective exhibition at Glasgow recently, made the point that Vetriano had been despised by the ‘Art Critics’ precisely because he did not need such mediation. The critic is empowered as the ‘lay’ viewer is disempowered. If this is a process that has taken the (visual) Arts, it is one that has assaulted the written ones too. ‘Short Stories’, an introduction to a collection of them says, became popular when poetry became ‘too abstruse’. Short stories, I often think, are going the same way. The bricklayer’s arch is becoming baroque. We stare at it in wonder, not understanding how it stands up, or what purpose it might serve. The bricklayer thinks building houses beneath him, and besides, he would not know how to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFriends gave me for Christmas a copy of Arthur Miller’s collected short stories.

I started at the beginning, and read through to the end, skipping the longest story, which sits in the middle. The opening story, ‘I Don’t Need You Any More’ tells of a five year old boy’s alienation from his family. Its a self-consciously Jewish story, and as a non-practising aetheist I found some of the issues hard to assess. Seeing through the child’s eyes I wasn’t sure where I was dealing with comic irony, and where with stone cold logic. The outsider has to second guess what the insider is serious about.

This must be a problem to some extent with all stories. They divide or unite readers into those who share, and those who do not, the basic underlying beliefs of the characters, and of the writers. We’re back to that favourite of mine, that what you see reveals where you stand. Yesterday (as I write) was the centennary of poet Norman Nicholson’s birth, and during the celebrations of that landmark I had cause to play a recording of him touching on this issue.

Wordworth, he said, was the first poet to make consideration of his own life central to his poetry. The argument went on that before Wordsworth writers could assume a high level of common belief, and experience with their readers. This was a consequence of the narrow class that was educated, and the narrowness of that education, and ergo of the narrow class to which writers spoke, and the narrow class that listened. Progressively, Nicholson said, that correlation broke down, leaving the modern writer – he told me this in the late nineteen seventies – to rely on their ‘common humanity’ as being the only predictable link between writer and reader.

We are divided, or united in our responses because of who we are, and what has made us that way. I’m reminded too, of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ with its elegant reversal, at the end, of a maxim delivered near to the beginning:



‘But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been-alone,


“As all must be,” I said within my heart,

“Whether they work together or apart.”



Which becomes at the closing of the poem;


Men work together,” I told him from the heart,

“Whether they work together or apart.”


Here the poet achieves a positive note, bridging the gap, and seeing unity in division. Cohen, in one of his songs takes a grimmer view, turning ‘I will kill you if I must/help you if I can’ into its more negative opposite.


Back to the Miller, whose work did strike me, and cumulatively so as I read on, as being rather gloomy! Stories had a sort of wistful sadness about them; not the cynical world-weary type of sadness, but more a knowing wisdom, centred on the presentation of human dignity in the face of distress. An old man imprisoned in his senility in ‘A Search for a Future’. Tony Calabrese rising above his own selfishness in ‘Fitters Night’. In another story a famous playwright is mistaken for himself, and in the more famous ‘The Misfits’, Miller ends with a metaphor for the no-hope cowboys who are catching wild horses to sell for meat:


‘From time to time the stallion caught the smell of the pasture..[ ]..but the tire

bent his neck around, and after a few steps he would turn to face it…[ ].. and then

he would come down and be still again.’


Characters in fiction are not like real people, though we gain that illusion, perhaps, briefly. They have no potentials, no hidden secrets. Not merely what we know, but what they wholly are, is the sum total of the words used to describe them. Miller often restricts the negative, and hints at the positive – Fitters Night is probably my faouvrite example of this – so that our sympathies for them are not lost. There’s a silver lining to these gloom-coud characters.


I preferred, marginally, the stories in the earlier segment, published during the nineteen sixties, but reflecting the America of the forties and fifties. Throughout them all though, Miller shows a nuanced grasp of what we like to call the human condition. The situations of his characters, and the mindsets they bring to dealing with them call forth our sympathy, and also perhaps a necessary sense of frustration that they have not behaved differently – the same frustration, perhaps, that we feel for our own inadequacies.

The last story, which names the collection as a whole, ‘Presence’ was apparently the last that Miller wrote before his death, and it seemed to me appropriate, for ending both a collection, and a writing life. I can’t think of a single story of the thousand or so I have read over the past few years with which to compare it in terms of its story content. An old man visits a beach he has known in childhood. He stumbles upon a couple making love – fucking is the word Miller uses. He withdraws (no pun intended), returns later to find them still at it, and skirts around them to the sea’s edge. Later, when they have both gone, he encounters the woman, who has been aware of his presence. They talk, and swim, and she leaves, and I was left – as I think I was supposed to be -with the question of whether it had been his own past that he had recalled. The story is powerful, and unresolved, one of those stories whose job is to raise questions, not to settle them.


‘How strange, he thought, that it mattered so little whether or not they were

actually here if what he had seen made him so happy?’


There are only sixteen stories in the collection. Some sixteen! Dense, moving, and thought provoking, lifted subtly from the ordinary, but never into realms of the fantastic, this really is a good read.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was wondering what to write for my blog this week. I have a couple of pieces in hand, but couldn’t quite work up the hutzpah to post them.

The white page faced me down (it’s been doing a lot of that just lately). Then Eric Robson’s Radio 4 programme, ‘Provincial Pleasures’, I think it was called, came on Radio 4. It was about Norman Nicholson. Mr Robson will be at Bookcase (OH NO IT’S NOT!) in Carlisle on the 8th of January,(WELL WHERE IS IT THEN?) the centenary of Norman’s birth, talking about him. (BEHIND ME?  – NO! AT CARLISLE LIBRARY!  DOH!)  Following (at 4.30pm to be precise) will be Kathleen Jones, whose biography of ‘The Whispering Poet’ has just been published.

It’s an excellent read. An easy-to-read read, though it got less easy for me, as we neared the end. Biographies have to end on endings, and there’s only one type of ending that humans come to, which is their final one! There’s a sadness in reading of Norman’s death for one who knew him briefly that is perhaps not so painful for those who have missed only the poetry.

I don’t know if there are tickets still left, but events at the bookshop will run all day long, with Kathleen’s the last. I’m not sure how many tickets are left for Mary Robinson’s and my little celebration later in the day at The Wordsworth Bookshop in Penrith. We’re kicking off at 7.00pm… so if you are a glutton for Norman, you could come along after the Carlisle events are over!

I’ll be sharing some memories of Norman, along with poems, and comments recorded by him, for me, at his house in Millom during the late nineteen seventies (I’ve made a small number of copies of these for sale). Mary will be talking about his poetry, and his place in the literary landscape. We’ll have a short reading after that, because part of our interest in Norman, and particularly for me, is that he gave encouragement to me as a young writer, and influenced, then and later, the way I wrote, and the way I thought about writing.

Entry to the Wordsworth Bookshop event is free, but please do ring first to book, as space is limited.

The Radio 4 programme covered the ground we have come to expect where Nicholson is concerend: the comparison with Wordsworth; his relationship to and with the town of Millom and its people; his chronicling of the decline of industrial Millom. Already though, the impact of Kathleen Jones’ book could be detected, broadening, and deepening the discussion. Answering Eric Robson, she ventured an opinion on why Norman had stayed put in Millom. I sense that a cosy fudge – there’s a thought – has been drawn over this in the past, but the book explores the possiblity that the outside world was simply too scary, and the nest that Millom had become, too conmfortable. Though not touched on in the programme, Norman’s relationships with several women are put to scrutiny as well, and will surprise many of us I think.

Another area the programme looked at was that of Norman as ‘eco-poet’, a term that did not exist in his lifetime as far as I am aware, but an element in his poetry that I suspect will be progressivley more valued as time goes on.

Running through it all was the issue, contentious in his lifetime, and still relevant, of London versus the Regional, of the metropolitan versus the provincial, of urban against rural. Norman was conscious of it, and fought against it. Being featured on Radio 4 though, isn’t perhaps a victory over it! I think it was Eric Robson (or it might have been Lord Bragg) who rather succinctly said, more or less, well, that’s what you get for locking yourself in your attic for seventy years!

You can hear the programme on fan-dangled replay stuff…you know what I mean!

Whether you have a cool yule or something else around this time of year, when here in the northern hemisphere the cycles of life spin slowly and the sun bounces along just below the horizon during the shortening nights, I wish you a happy re-invigoration!

I think of it as a time for looking back, which is increasingly easier to do now that I have so much more back to over-look! LitCaff has run for another year around, and will, I hope, go on throughout 2014…at Merienda bar/cafe in Treasury Court, Carlisle, 3rd Wednesday of the month. 7.00pm….

It’s also a time for looking forward.

In the immediate post 2013 world we have a celebration of Norman Nicholson’s centenary, on January 8th at the Wordsworth Bookshop, St Andrew’s Churchyard, Penrith. The event is free, but please do book a place. You can find the bookshop online, or ringOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA . Mary Robinson, whose poetry collection The Art of Gardening was published by Flambard in 2010, will partner me in talking about Norman and what his poetry has meant to us. I’ll have some snippets from an interview I recorded with Norman back in the nineteen seventies, including readings of several poems made for me at the same time. There will be the usual excellent Wordsworth Bookshop refreshments, followed by short readings from Mary and myself.

Further on into the year there is the exciting prospect of a Literary Festival for Carlisle, scheduled for early in September. Those of you who have talked to me will know that I am keen to see a Writers Day as part of this, and I’m hoping that we will be able to turn the northern part of the city centre into a Writers Quarter for the day, bringing in writers groups, and groups of writers, to perform, run workshops, sell their wares, and anything else (legal) they can think of.

Offers of help to run, stage, or host such events will be most welcome!

On a less ambitious note, Facets of Fiction, the cycles of writers workshops I run out here at Curthwaite will be offering a Tuesday evening beginners group, starting January 21st (fortnightly thereafter for 5 sessions, 7.00pm-9.00pm £40). I’ll keep the group small, so if you are interested please get in touch soon……

We’ll look at some of the basics of fiction writing: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, Narrative Voices, Locations in Time & Place, Characters & Dialogue, and the potentials, and limitations, of having to tell a story one word at a time!

In the meantime here are 10 Christmas flash fictions – max 100 words – all entitled ‘The Gift’. They were written for the Facets of Fiction Christmas Dinner…held last Friday at the Royal Oak pub in Curthwaite. Submitted anonymously, we tried (mostly without success) to guess who had written which. Carol Ross was the winner, with 6 correct assignations!


Christmas Flashes

The Gift #1


Jim was a determined son of a bitch, she said. I knew that. He had always admired that chap with the parrot.


No, not him – the other one. The one with a parrot on his shoulder.


Ted never had no parrot.

Course he did, before he saw the light. The parrot had to go. ‘Jesus Christ’ it said, every time the priest came to visit.

Ted had nothing to do with it. Jim wanted the wooden leg too. I gave it him. How was I to know he’d cut his own off to get it to fit!’

The Gift #2


It’s our first Christmas together. We’ve got a real tree and, under the tree, a heap of presents. There’s one gift I’m especially proud of. I even remembered to sneak a look in Rachel’s drawers to find out her size before going to Ann Summers. I’m bursting with anticipation as she peels back the gold wrappings.

Oh,” says Rachel and she’s holding up a pair of pink fluffy bed socks.

I can feel all the colour drain from my face. I say, in choking voice: “Er, what dress size would you say Great Aunt Doris takes?”

The Gift #3

She said, ‘Whatever you give me will be special, because you chose it, darling, but if you really need suggestions, how about… something as merry as a Christmas bell or Santa’s ho, ho, ho, romantic as mistletoe over a candlelit hearth. Gift wrap the wide-eyed delight of a child’s first glimpse of snow or tie a bright ribbon around a magical sleigh ride, through a pine scented forest, under a velvet sky pierced by stars and shot through with a comet whose fiery path tells the universe, I love you!’
On Christmas Eve, he was found, quietly sobbing, in Debenhams.

The Gift #4

He wasn’t really expecting it, but he was certainly grateful.
It was going to make all the difference you see; change him and change his future. It might even make him a better person; more thoughtful, courageous, compassionate and forgiving. He smiled inwardly at the thought. Of course it could also magnify his arrogance, selfishness and ruthlessness.
Only time would tell, but surely being given someone else’s heart had to make a difference.

The Gift #5

Red25 reached for the selector to change his celebration backdrop. Planet Festivali was in permanent party mode. He’d lived Mexican Day of the Dead and Diwali already that week. He chose Rio Carnival and the Samba music began. Nothing he couldn’t have.
He saw that Klaus1 was yet again celebrating Christmas. They needed to up his adjustment meds. He was one of the first colonisers, and hooked on Christmas.
‘This is for you,’ Klaus1 voiced on the communication panel. A box materialised on Red25’s screen. It flipped open.
‘But it’s empty!’
‘Precisely,’ Klaus1 voiced, ‘it’s a gift.’

The Gift #6

Trevor hated Christmas. Prior to the lightning strike up Helvellyn hed been a jolly festive sort. But the lightnings curse had drawn back the veil on the thoughts of others. Their smiles and happy exclamations belied their plans to exchange his gifts or sell them online. He just couldnt face it anymore.

One year he had given vouchers or cash instead, but been overwhelmed by how many believed him thoughtless, that he hadnt cared enough to buy presents.

Some would call his ability to read minds a gift. He wished he could sell it on eBay.

The Gift #7

We planned for the gift for months; bought wrappings to adorn it, talked and dreamed of nothing else.
But when it arrived, prompt and unexpected all at once, it was a shock to us.
We dispatched it to our home, fussed around this precious gift that had come at Christmas, when the snow hung icicles from our windows and closed our exits.
But, eighteen years on the gift left us. He left us. He waved goodbye with bright eyes and dreams of wedded bliss.
He rang us today. ‘It’s a girl,’ he said.
‘It’s a gift, treasure it,’ I replied.

The Gift #8

9:03- How long left till home? Xxx
9:05- 45 mins-ish. Bored now. Xxx
9:10- Ran out of distractions? Xxx
9:12- Yep, book’s finished and my iPod’s dead. Xxx
9:15- Home soon though, must be looking forwards to seeing your parents! Xxx
9:18- Yeah, shame I’m not going to see you as well. Xxx
9:21- I’ll miss you, keep hearing knocks on the door and thinking it’ll be you. Xxx
9:25- I’ll do the same when I get home. Xxx
9:27- Oh, and again. I should get it but I know I’ll be disappointed. Xxx
9:28- You won’t be… Xxx

The Gift #9

Firelight reddened the curls at Janey’s neck. Phill propped his head on one hand and stared across her naked shoulder into the flames. Behind the glass they danced soundlessly among oblongs of glowing wood, regular as Roman stones.
‌And then what? He asked.
‌Janey spoke in the same quiet murmur, as if she were telling the story to the flames.
‌She kissed him.
‌Phil could feel the heat on his face, but his naked back, which was turned towards the shadows, was cold.
‌And what did he do?
‌She twisted her head around to look at him.
‌He became himself.

The Gift #10

In return, you promised you’d immortalise me. Who could resist that? The down side; the name wasn’t too appealing, nor the code of behaviour attached – I don’t think the carpenter was wild about arrangements either. No doubt he hoped to carry on his name.

Pregnancy and labour without the fun of reproduction… and being homeless as well… Still, the heavenly hosts gave the whole shebang a real party atmosphere. And all those visitors! No wonder the cattle lowed.

Every birth is a miracle; in the end it was a gift to be mother to your son. You should have warned me about Pontius Pilate, though.

Authors were Zoe Kelly(#8), BHDandMe(#9), Hazel Stewart(#10), Carol Ross(#1), Marilyn Messenger(#3), Hugh Thompson(#2), Christine Howe(#5), Suzanne Henderson(#7), Janet Eland(#4) and Alison Twigg#(6)


The 8th of January next is the one hundreth anniversary of the birth of the Cumberland Poet Norman Nicholson.

This quiet and gentle man, who talked about being unable to command attention by the vibrancy of his presentation or subject matter, but instead depended upon the ‘undeadened ear’, lit with the ‘grace’ of listening, chronicled the evolution – I shan’t use the word decline – of Millon from an industrial to a post-industrial town. He wrote about the return of nature to the slag heaps and the waterways, about the reappearance of views over the Lake District fells where once only the tall trees of brick chimneys and their clouds of smoke had been visible. He wrote about the people who worked and died in the pits and in the ironworks and on the railways.

It’s thirty years now since his death, and his writing has spawned no mass movement of faux-Nicholson copies – Wordsworth, tragically, spawned generations of poets who churned out a doggerel that thought it was graven in his image – yet for poets of my age, and younger, Nicholson was a master and a model: not one to be slavishly followed, but one from whom we could learn, about tone, and technique, and the timbre of authenticity.

On the centenary of his birth, poet Mary Robinson, and myself will be presenting a celebration of his work. At the Wordsworth Bookshop in Penrith, on wednesday 8th January, 2014, the event will be free, but places are limited so please book in advance, by contacting the bookshop direct (tel: 01768 210604  E:

Mary and I will be reading from our own work, and I’ll be sharing some recordings Norman made for me four decades ago, at his home in St.George’s Terrace Millom, along with some reminiscences of my few meetings with him.  A good date to make, in the post Christmas quiet I think.