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Writing buddy, Marilyn Messenger and I [Ambiguous Encounters, ten short stories by Marilyn Messenger and Brindley Hallam Dennis] will be reading as part of the Borderlines Showcase event at Carlisle Cathedral Fratry on Saturday evening, 7th October. Tickets are free. We have two more pairs of back-to-back stories, written individually but posing, and answering questions of each other. That’s Carlisle, England, by the way, for blog readers beyond these borders!


BHD’s salacious story of dark veined Cubans and smooth skinned Connestogas (cigars!) Hecho A Mano is among Liars Leagues’ TOP TEN STORIES of all time (well, their first 10 years!)…. You can vote for it too….on the link below!  Hecho a Mano, by the way, means  – roughly translated – a hand job!

BHD Riding Easy

BHD Riding Easy

I seem to have bumped into several articles recently about the evils of doping in sport…. which leads me to think. As someone with more than a passing interest in writing, a nodding acquaintance with the odd musician (aren’t they all?) and the occasional glimpse of a painting here and there, I wonder if we aren’t showing our double standards here.

Nobody, I think, was ever stripped of a platinum disc, or music award, or bumped off the top million best sellers list, or chucked out of the National Galley, for having performed, written, conceived, painted (or spilled) their particular masterpieces under the influence of drugs or (perhaps more usually) alcohol.

We might point out that they’ve damaged their health, shortened their lives and made themselves generally obnoxious, but we haven’t accused them of being cheats. Nobody thinks that a singer songwriter, for example, would have cheated his or her way to the top of the top ten for being out of the head on something or other when  writing it. Nobody thinks an inspired painting is any less of a painting for having been painted in an alcoholic haze. In fact, sometimes one gets the feeling that we’re applauding them for going that extra mile for our entertainment. As to contemporaries that couldn’t match their originality, brilliance, vision, etc,etc,etc, even they don’t seem to mind being outperformed (in what are, let’s face it, extremely competitive activities populated by monster egos) by those who have injected themselves, or swallowed a toxic little helper. Maybe if we just let sports people get on with taking whatever they wanted to, to increase their this rate or that rate, or the size of whatever whatnot they’re intent on pumping up (or reducing) we’d all develop a much more realistic attitude to just what it is and isn’t worth  risking or sacrificing for the sake of their or our Art!

Anyway, I’m going off to have another cup of tea, and perhaps self administer a bacon butty, before trying to write another inspired short story. (I’ve given up temporarily on the poetry-it needs too many fatty acids).

Need I say more?


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 CAMERAAt a meeting convened by Edna Croft a few weeks ago a discussion took place on the merits and feasibility of a ‘literary festival’ for Carlisle. Subsequently a number of those present began to pursue the means of staging such an event. I had been present at that first meeting, and came away with a head full of ideas, augmented by suggestions sent to me by writers from Litcaff (Carlisle’s own monthly writers get together). The first problem to overcome was that of exactly what was meant by a ‘literary festival.’ I hope it is not unfair to suggest that for most people the common assumption would be that it was an event at which celebrity authors promote their publications. Such a model would fit most of the literary festivals I have visited, where the word ‘books’, meaning mainstream-published books, is incorporated into the title.

I would like to take up a little of your time in consideration of another type of festival, one in which the emphasis is on engagement with and participation in the act of writing. In fact, I would call this a writers’ festival if I had to give it a name.

If I were starting up such a festival, I might aim to fill a day, and two or three venues. I would call upon the involvement of several – half of a dozen or more – local writing groups, and I would ask each of them to stage a themed workshop event – poetry, fiction, drama for example – and to send members to each of the other groups/ workshops. The workshops would be spaced throughout the day, in the same, or, if available, in different venues. The work created would form the basis of a reading that evening – in which perhaps, for a time, the workshop groups would eclipse the writing groups, allowing colleagues to see each other in a new light! A festival publication might also be drawn from this work.

Elsewhere, during the day, I would run a day-long workshop/performance event on recording your writing, in audio, and audio-visual formats. Some pre-planned slots would be set, but an ‘off-the-street’ element would allow spur of the moment recordings too. This material too, could be used later, by participants, or on a festival webpage (Face-book/Vimeo etc). There is a lot to learn from seeing and hearing your own readings, and the event would also provide an on-going performance/audience opportunity for those who were interested, but not actually writing.

A third element would be a festival bookstore, promoting small-press, local and self-publications. Famous writers would, of course, not be excluded, but they would have to creep in unannounced: the playing field would not only be level, the game would start with a nil-nil score!

Two fundamental ideas stand behind such a festival. One is that the practitioners and the audience are indivisible: as at our LitCaff event, the readers arise from the audience, and sink back into it. There are no elites; no stages; no spotlights; no hierarchies. There will be however, writing that is thought to be ‘better’ and some that will be thought to be ‘worse.’

The other fundamental is that the groups to which the whole event is ‘farmed out’ will carry the burden of staging their own part of it. This is a festival for those who wish to share their involvement in a chosen cultural activity, and for their friends, and the curious passer-by. It is not a commercial, promotional model. It is a cultural, participatory one.

If such a model worked, by bringing together and ‘entertaining’ the members of half a dozen local writers’ groups, there would be no reason why the net could not be cast wider in subsequent years, drawing in more groups, providing a wider range of activities over more venues, and extending the duration.

Darren Harper and I have discussed this and would be happy to use the LitCaff event (and its supporters) as a cornerstone of such a venture, and to support it wholeheartedly. We think it might be carried out in co-operation with a more traditional festival model, or as a stand-alone venture. We think an August 2014 date would be manageable if support were to be pledged reasonable quickly. If you think these ideas are worth considering, refining, or refuting, please do respond via the blog, or by e-mail direct, and do please pass this posting on, by re-blogging, networking, quoting from etc, to any groups or individuals that might be interested.

Edna Croft has kicked the wasp’s nest… it’s up to us to provide the stings! Mike Smith.     LitcaffPosterJune2012001

Engagement with any artform is, I suspect, like a journey. With writing I’ve found it to be a journey that takes me past many questions, and some of those questions I have passed time and again. The answers, to stretch a metaphor, are the paths I taken onwards each time, and its them that bring me back to the questions. Every now and then though, I make a different answer, and end up on a new path. I suppose that’s what I must think of as progress. One such question concerns the relationships between writers and readers – or between readers-out and audiences. This question popped up recently over the issue of ‘reading and running’ – where performers do their thing, and then vanish! I’ve seen it at various venues, and it’s not about the ‘guest reader’, but about the open mic readers, the literary equivalents of the ‘floor’ singers we used to have in folk clubs, and probably still do.

I like the sort of clubs where the readers come out of the audience, and go back into it. Carlisle’s Speakeasy, at the Source cafe, was one such. In fact, we rarely had ‘guest readers’ at all. In a situation like that, to go on early and read your own work and then to leave the auditorium is not merely arrogant, but a metaphorical slap in the face to those readers yet to perform. Of course, there are times when we have to leave early, but there’s a line to be drawn between that and ‘reading and running’. Not staying to hear your contemporaries read does carry some implications. Most obvious is that they are not worth hearing, but there are deeper inclinations beyond that. The question is raised, for example, of why you would want to be heard by people who themselves are not worth listening to.

I remember a time when I was (passing a question on my journey) very keen to believe that my work was being read and listened to by people who weren’t writers. That, perversely it seems to me now, seemed to make them a ‘proper’ audience! One can see where such ideas come from. Other practitioners are competitors, commercially speaking, for such an audience, which is, in a sense, fodder to your artistic bank account, and fame. In those days I thought of writing to be read, or heard by other writers as a sort of Baroque exercise. Now I’m not so sure; in fact I’m about as sure the other way. This is why the reader and runner, I think, may be missing a trick. An audience of fellow writers knows a thing or two about what you’re trying to do, and if you hang around they’ll perhaps tell you a bit about it. They’ll give you a lesson or two in how it’s done as well (or how it’s not – which is almost as valuable). Of course, it’s good to see non-writers too, at the events I’m talking about, and to see and hear how they react to the writers who follow you. The supreme confidence that yours is the best work, and that the rest can be safely ignored, might be shaken if you stay to listen, but then again, it might be stirred.


I finished reading Tolstoy’s War & Peace a couple of days ago, and one element has stuck in my mind since. That was to do with the two epilogues that follow the main story. In case you have skipped them, given up before them, or not given the novel a go, I can point out that the first epilogue carries on the lives of the main protagonists over the next decade or so. It’s a curious continuation, tempting me to think it almost a blue-print for how Tolstoy thinks a private, domestic life ought to be lived. The second epilogue is even stranger. Here the author presents us with a closely argued, circa thirty page long (in my edition) essay about the nature of History and its writing. The content is not what I want to comment on, so much as the placing of the essay. A while back I read, and wrote about ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. Tom Wolfe’s novel also has an essay (in the edition I read), but his is placed at the beginning. The thought struck me that in Wolfe’s case the essay must prejudice our understanding of the story (which it precedes), whereas Tolstoy’s story prejudices our understanding of his essay (which follows it). Looking at another big novel, Melville’s Moby Dick, we see a whole series of smaller essays, about whales and whaling, running through the entire story, like the marbling in good Aberdeen Angus beef. I’m reminded, that whatever scale we are thinking of, from the phrase, through the sentence, paragraph and chapter, to the whole book, in writing, what precedes prejudices our perception of what follows, and what follows amends our perceptions of what has gone before. This fundamental quality of language, that we take it one word at a time in order (despite the attempts of the avante-garde to create alternatives), is probably the single most important element in storytelling, whether in short stories, flash fiction, or doorstop novels, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it holds good for non-fiction prose, and for poetry too!