Saturday, 30 April 2011

All quiet on the North-Western front?

I've been a bit quiet on here.

It's been for a number of reasons, but mainly because I've been preoccupied. I'm not even allowed to say why at the moment. But, it's not a good thing. It's an unsettling thing. It's been dominating my thoughts, and because I can't write about it, I haven't had much else to say.

But, I haven't disappeared. I have been out and about...

- Seeing this amazing lady play live at the Deaf Institute in Manchester...

- Reading poetry... at the launch of this very beautiful collection of poetry by my good friend and amazing poet Melissa Lee Houghton (available here)...

- escaping to North Wales for a little caravan holiday, exploring castles, beaches, bingo halls, and arcades

- digging and planting...

Actually, an awful lot of digging and planting. My allotment is 270 square yards, which is a massive space for one person to work on. So far, I have planted Charlotte and Isle of Jura potatoes (enough to feed the whole street), mangetout, beetroot, swedes, brussel sprouts, parsnips, radish, all kinds of lettuce and leaves, spinach, pak choi, onions, garlic, shallots, carrots, aubergines, courgettes, squash, cabbage, tomatoes, leeks, marigolds, sunflowers, dahlias, sweetcorn, beans. I can't remember what else. That's quite a list, so it will do for now.

Some vegetables are growing outdoors, some are still seedlings in the greenhouse or at home. It's a very busy time of year at the allotment. It's the time when seeds are planted, seedlings nurtured and over the next few weeks everything will need to get planted out into the ground. Some of the digging is hard, because it's the new part of my allotment and hasn't been dug for a couple of years. There is muck still being spread. The weeds are getting ahead of me and it all takes far far longer than I imagine.

Today, I was there for hours planting out my mangetout, putting up canes to support them, tying the canes with twine for the peas to climb up, and then netting them to stop the birds from eating them before they get the chance to grow. Then I was sawing scaffold planks to build two more raised beds. Then I was digging over a space where I want to plant some things tomorrow. So, muscles are aching, skin is flush with sun and I am fit for nothing but sleep!

So, things are good, despite the worry that I can't talk about... some nice time with friends, romance blossoming, which is lovely actually, and this gorgeous warm weather is such a treat. I feel as if I come alive in the spring, a cliche, I know, but these light nights, the warmth, everything growing, it gives me a real boost.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

I forgot to tell you about...

... The blossom on the trees on my street that has been falling like confetti and scattering everything in petals.

... the sweetcorn seeds on my windowsill that are pushing up little green shoots through the compost

... the story I am writing/editing about a robot called Toby for an exciting science fiction anthology

... this song, which I LOVE at the moment

I've not been here much. I have been busy with things. Digging. Loving. Worrying a bit. Sleeping a lot. Working at a job that is ticking away like a little time bomb.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Oh, Arts Council Cuts

I was really gutted to hear last week that Lancaster Litfest lost Arts Council Funding.

It's a sad state of affairs in our country at the moment. Cuts everywhere, and sadly the Arts Council had its budget cut by £100 million. So, they announced which organisations they would keep funding, and there were 200 organisations including Litfest that will not be funded after 2012.

I don't know exactly what it means for their future. There is more on their website. They are still planning and booking events,

So, excuse me for a bit of a shmaltzy blog, but I wanted to write about all the wonderful things Litfest has done for me personally as a reader and lover of literature and as a writer.

I first came across Litfest in 2004, when I was studying in Lancaster. I was on a creative writing course at the University, and one of our tutors said it was a must for us to get down to their annual literature festival. I went to a few events, and thought, wow, friendly events, warm atmosphere, well-organised, professional, and well-attended. I did a little research about what else they did. It was my year of writing full-time, a time when I wanted to explore, learn everything, create, read, write, discover.

I discovered that Litfest do a lot to promote writing in the local area, not just in the community, but in prisons for example. They have an amazing breadth of activities and interests that blew the idea of 'literature' wide open, allowing for experimentation and fresh ideas.

I applied for one of their opportunities. A collaborative writing project. An opportunity for three writers from the North West of England to work with Jackee Batanda, a writer from Uganda. I sent off examples of my writing and was amazed when they got in touch to say I'd been chosen. For six weeks, me, Chris Fittock and Pauline Keith met with Jackee in the cafe in The Folly in Lancaster. We drank tea, ate cake and chatted about our lives and writing. Our job was to explore commonality and difference through writing. And we set ourselves writing tasks and goals, shared writing and ideas. For me, this was exciting. I was a real writer, working with other writers, writing. Ha, it sounds silly really, but this was like a huge boost for me, a break of sorts. I wrote a short story I never imagined I would write, called The Towpath. It's a story based where I grew up, and is about that point as a child when you start to really understand what 'difference' can mean. It explores the experiences of two girls - one white, one Asian - growing up at the time of the race riots in Burnley, Oldham and other places in the North. I never would have written this story without this project, without the support of those writers, and the inspiration.

It culminated in a book, The Big Picture, which is no longer available, but I still have a few copies. And a reading at Litfest, my first reading as a writer, where I shakily read excerpts from my story, and answered questions asked by the audience. My first taste of being a writer, I felt very inexperienced, but as if a whole new world had opened up for me.

Over the years, I have carried on going to a range of different readings and events organised by Litfest. And I feel really lucky, because since that opportunity, Litfest has supported me as a writer continually over the past few years. The artistic director, Andy Darby, and Sarah Hymas, editor of Litfest's publishing imprint have for some reason been very warm towards my writing, and I have been lucky enough to have worked with them on a number of projects:

- Andy invited me to read at Litfest in 2007, to launch my chapbook, Winter Hands. I was really humbled to read alongside Graham Mort and Ian Duhig, poets I admire deeply. I was sandwiched between these two amazing readers, without understanding quite how I had managed to be sharing an event with them. We opened the festival to a wonderful audience at the Duke's Theatre, introduced by my publisher Ian Seed. It was such a good night. It was the first time my dad heard me read. I signed books for the first time. My hands were shaking and I felt flush all night. But I read, and sold a ton of books, and was giddy for days.

- I applied for Flax Books Poster Commission in 2008, and along with five other writers was commissioned to write a short piece of prose/poetry for a poster. Jenn Ashworth, Ian Seed, Maya Chowdhary, Jane Routh, Meg Peacocke were the other chosen writers. The poems or prose were then made into posters, all of which are available as free downloads from Litfest. It was really exciting waiting to see the poster design. My poster Okarito is SO beautiful. It was chosen along with one other to be printed as A1 posters. I have a copy hanging on my living room wall, and they are available for sale for £20 via the link above.

- My writing was also chosen for two of Flax Books' Digital Anthologies. Unsaid Undone and This Road We're On. They are both very different anthologies of short fiction, featuring five writers. They are in digital form, and Unsaid, Undone, is also available for download as a free DIY pamphlet, or a professionally done £5 print copy.

Being published by Flax is more than just having words in print. Both anthologies have so much in them... audio recordings of the writers reading their work, a profile of the writers (Here is my Flax Profile), photographs and illustrations. And Flax are good to their writers, they produce postcards with excerpts from the anthologies, offer a coaching session, arrange further writing opportunities from time to time, take professional photographs and launch the anthologies in style.

Unsaid Undone was launched at The Brief Encounter Tearooms at Carnforth Train Station, the very same cafe featured in the film.

So, Litfest has really given me more opportunities than I could have imagined. I am a Flax writer. I am a Litfest writer. The roots of my writing are entangled in its history, and my learning, growth and love of reading and writing are partly down to the chances and support they have given me over the past six years.

This is why Litfest is important to me, and why it is so disappointing that Arts Council are going to end their funding.

Litfest are asking for support. They say this...

Send us an email telling us why Litfest is important to you. Tell us, for example, about an event that has uplifted you, or a writing workshop that has made a difference.

Book a ticket for one of our events, or pop in and buy a book from our Poetry Bookcase. As hundreds of British arts organisations are being cut, now is the time to show your support for the arts. Vote with your feet.

Tell your friends about Litfest - face-to-face or online.

Get involved - volunteer some of your time to staff our Poetry Bookcase, help with our leaflet and poster distribution, or join our Front of House team at events.