Launch, relaunch.

Silence doesn’t mean nothing’s happening. Silence means EVERYTHING is happening.  So a week of silence must mean A LOT has happened yes? Yes.

Today, in time for Easter and the clocks changing and nature being given even more of a wee nudge that SPRING might be a good idea, there are two big events in the Cally Calendar to which I’d like to draw attention.

And you can enjoy them both in one easy package.hoampresst

The first is the relaunch of the HoAmPresst Publishing website. (for those who care about these things  – on a whole new platform!)  I won’t say it’s all singing and dancing or even ‘finished’ but it is hopefully a bit more coherent, cohesive, user-friendly and informative without being verbose (I wish!) Give it a whirl and tell me what you think. I can change just about anything (except my personality) and am always happy to have feedback on how a site looks and how it might work better for other folk.

sizecoverTRIPTYCHThe second – and perhaps more exciting – is the launch not of one but of two collections of plays.  TRIPTYCH whose main launch it is today was an event held 10 years ago this weekend and brings together three plays written between 1998 and 2003. Then you could come along to the Brigend Theatre, Dumfries to enjoy them in person for a small charge (it may even have been free, memory escapes me on that point) and today you can download them to an ereader of your choice (that’s an ipad, kindle, smartphone or computer) for the princely sum of £2.99.

Because we are in an age of austerity, and because I was doing a ‘clear out’ on my hard drive – it might have been in lieu of a spring clean given that we are still under the depths of snow – I ‘found’ three more plays which I have put together into another Triptych.

triptcyh2coverCunningly named Triptych 2 and THIS is available in a sort of bogof offer – ie you can get Triptych 2 for free whether or not you buy Triptych (the original) So it’s really a ‘gofbo’ but I’d like it if you treat is as a ‘bogof’.  Of course hopefully you’ll take the freebie AND the paid one and have six plays to read for less than the price of a Starbucks Coffee (I am reliably informed because I haven’t been in a Starbucks this century) Certainly for less than the price of a computer magazine.  Less of the hard sell. It’s the sort of thing that if you like that sort of thing you’ll like it.

Catherine Czerkawska, a fellow playwright, likes that sort of thing. She has reviewed Triptych thus:

I read these three accomplished stage plays back to back and far into the night. They are definitely a triptych rather than a trio, plays linked by related themes and ideas – although very different in tone, and concept. The third play in particular, The Other Side of the Mountain, remained with me long after I had finished reading it. There’s something engaging about it, a vividly visual, almost emblematic quality, coupled with a complex set of ideas about the meaning of life and death, which meant that I could see it as I read it. Always the mark of a playwright in command of her material. Three moving dramas, almost as good to read as to see on the stage – but wouldn’t it be good to see any or all of these in performance?Three for the price of one. A bargain by any standards.

So. Without more ado. I declare the new HoAmPresst site OPEN and here below I leave you with a range of links for all the Triptych’s you can eat or read in one sitting.

All about Triptych – including some scenes to watch. (you need to scroll to the bottom of the page)

Buying Link Amazon UK, Amazon US,  open epub Kobo

Free download links for Triptych 2

The party is almost over… so we saved the best till last.


Brendan, I tip my hat to you – you are a man who casts a long shadow in the world of publishing!

50 days of celebration come to a close. Exhausted? Well, rally one more time please. Because  today is the birthday of the living writer I would most like to meet. Drum roll. One Mr Brendan Gisby.  Though I’ve never met Brendan in person (I hope I will one day soon) in the past year or so I feel I’ve come to know him as a friend, firstly through his writing and secondly through the writers relationship that has built up between us.

If you know of Brendan Gisby at all it will possibly be as Mr McStoryteller. He set the site up some two years ago and works tirelessly to empower short story writers who otherwise might have no voice.  This site is a publishing phenomenon of great cultural importance to Scotland.  There. I’ve said it. I stand by it.  Let me explain:

Before Brendan I didn’t really engage with the Short Story Form.  To use a Gisbyism , I have always found short stories to be the province of the ‘Jeremys and Victorias’ of this world. People with whom I have little in common.  The true genius of McStorytellers is it opens up the short story form to something which is much more in keeping with ‘ordinary’ Scottish culture. When I first visited the site, I was a bit sceptical in that I felt it was perhaps over heavy on retelling the urban hardman story of our nation. I’d fallen into a trap. And it’s a trap that I’d fallen into because of more ‘famous’ Scottish writers who ‘claim’ the ordinary Scottish experience for themselves.  They had prejudiced me against my own cultural heritage because I felt that their intellectual/modernist leanings were actually more central than their rootedness in what I think of as Scottish culture, which is a grassroots thing. And I assumed McStorytellers was just more of the same. I was wrong.  I’m sorry to say that the Welshes, Kelman and Warners of this nation have nothing to say to me. And yet they should.  But I no more want these writers to be the representatives of my cultural experience than I do Walter Scott or Alexander McCall Smith. I can recognise very little of my own Scottishness in any of them.  But McStorytellers cuts right under the current Scottish ‘cultural elite’ and once I realised that I was a convert.  McStorytellers publishes a range of stories by men and women who really do seem to have lived in the same Scotland as me. Fellow Scots whether they be in exile or still here in Scotland.

I’ve realised that McStorytellers is very much a force for good and an empowering place for many, many overlooked and creatively diverse writers. I now contribute regularly both with long forgotten work and with ‘new’ experimental pieces. I know it’s a place where I’ll get a chance to write freely and not be judged – except by readers! And I know that there are many readers (and writers) around that site who have been on similar journeys or had similar creative experiences to my own. It’s a nice place to go virtually. It’s the sort of place that usually is hijacked by the intellectuals, by the fashionistas – but they haven’t found it yet. Or Brendan keeps them in their place, allowing the rest of us to flourish within the virtual portals.  McStorytellers is very quietly doing something very important. It is publishing (because the online site IS a publishing medium of a new kind) the kind of writing that might never be seen in the literary magazines or papers, and certainly not in mainstream print publishing. It’s allowing a whole new tranche of writers to be read by anyone. For Free.

Brendan created McStorytellers and he is the force behind it, but don’t for a minute think this is a vehicle for him or an empire building exercise, or even a way to wheedle into the aforementioned cultural elite. This is a service, an inspired and revolutionary service that he’s offering.  And I suspect that his own writing time is stolen away by it too.  This is Brendan Gisby’s gift to publishing. I for one, truly appreciate it.

If my McStorytellers awakening was the first time that Brendan Gisby was responsible for proving to me that it was my perceptions that were prejudicial, it was not the only time he’s shown me that.  Through his own writing and through our emergent virtual writers relationship he has helped show me that the ‘freedom’ and ‘culture’ I believed in and loved, exists and I can be part of it.  He’s given me a sense of freedom in my own culture and the nerve to experiment and be who I am as a writer without apologising to anyone. Brendan has taught me to look at things differently and you know what – it’s helped me lose the tension I’ve carried for years between what I want to write and how I can write. He’s freed me by showing me something profoundly deep about the whole writing process. (I won’t bore you with the full exegesis just now but I could.)

I’ve learned from McStorytellers. I’ve learned from Brendan’s own writing and I’ve learned from Brendan as a person (even as a man I’ve never yet met.)  I know he will be ‘beaming’ (that’s blushing to you Sassannachs, not being pumped up with pride!) at this post and Brendan, I’m sorry to embarrass you, but sometimes these things have to be said.

For you, the potential reader though, I’d like to encourage you to engage with Brendan’s own writing. It is powerful, it is challenging, it is humble and heartbreaking and funny and real. You will get most from it if you throw off your expectations (dare I say chains!) that fiction all aspires to being ‘literature’ or that good writing comes shrink wrapped with a ‘created by your cultural elite’ cover on it!

The thing with Brendan is he is a populist writer. He writes from the heart. He writes not from a position of middle class or academic confidence. He writes of his life. From his life. Of the world as he sees it. This is true whether he’s writing fiction or non fiction. In fact with Brendan I’ve learned that telling a ‘story’ is more important than deciding whether to label it fiction or non-fiction. Brendan inhabits a different world. In a sense he’s created a sub genre or a new genre or a crossover genre or whatever – well, really he’s just written in a way that is both captivating for a reader and can be very freeing for a writer.  From ‘The Bookie’s Runner’ to ‘The Preservation of the Olive Branch’ and ‘The Island of Whispers’ and through all his shorter work, reading Brendan Gisby is never superficial but always accessible. He’s an honest writer. He doesn’t use tricks. He just writes and if you can relate to his writing you are in for a treat. And if you can’t relate to his writing – you might do worse than look at your own expectations and prejudices and give them a bit of a shake up! Sometimes the reader needs to wake up out of his slumbers. Brendan can wake you up and he can break your heart in the space of a couple of hours of reading.

Brendan has shown great personal belief and encouragement to me as a writer as well. He ‘gets’ my work and I suspect that’s because in many creative ways we ‘come from the same place.’ Through Brendan’s encouragement I was able to let the world see the ‘Voices in ma Heid’ which had been locked up there for years. Brendan championed my Scots writing, which has meant an awful lot to me.  He’s also got to grips with my English language writing, seeing the depths there which tend to be overlooked by the ‘elitist’ camp.  And he’s explained (not in so many words but by deeds and by simply being) to me where the mismatch was in my writing and expectations and now I feel more comfortable with my work and myself as a creative person than I have been in a long time.

Brendan is not your average writer and not your ordinary publisher. If there were more writers and publishers like Brendan the world would be a much better place in my opinion.  Eighteen months ago I certainly never thought I’d be banging on about how he is an important figure in the emerging digital revolution. But he is. He converted me through his writing. He taught me through his words and he has been unfailing in his honesty and humour in all our interactions. In Brendan I feel I’ve found a fellow writer I can trust and from whom I can learn.  A man who speaks the truth, as he finds it, not bowing down to literary fashion or whim or ‘rules’.  A man who dares to stand outside it all and simply BE a great writer.  I may never have met Brendan but I consider him a true friend.  We may be of different tartans but I think underneath it all somehow we’re cut from the same plaid.  So I wish him the happiest birthday possible and many more of them.

And I wish that all you good people will go out and buy a Gisby original and read it and learn something!

If you want to try something for FREE here’s a wee story of Brendan’s which he’s giving to the world on McStorytellers as a birthday present!  It’s called LEGEND so just click and read

Here’s the Amazon link.

You can of course start where you like but I’d recommend start with The Bookie’s Runner, move onto The Island of Whispers and then tackle The Preservation of the Olive Branch.  And fill in the rest of your time with the shorter works!  But check your expectations at the door.  I’d recommend you read the Amazon reviews of The Bookie’s Runner if you want to understand what I’m talking about. Amongst all the great reviews, there is a one star review which completely justifies my point about reader expectations!  Patsy might be better reading Fifty Shades of something but for anyone without a trollish axe to grind… these are the best value ebooks you’ll get by a mile! 

Of Chalk and Cheese…

IBSENToday is the birthday of the ‘father of realism’ playwright Henrik Ibsen.  I feel like I’ve always known Ibsen, I can’t pinpoint the first time, or the exact moment. I can’t even really remember what plays of his I’ve just read and which I’ve seen on stage. For a realist his influence on me has, it seems, been decidedly fuzzy.

I know I saw Ghosts at the National Theatre in 1992 and enjoyed it.  I’m not sure I totally got the whole syphilis subtext at the time. In fact I’m sure that I never got most of Ibsen’s subtexts first time round. I know I’ve read A Doll’s House and been completely unimpressed. And then read it and been really impressed. I know I’ve read the An Enemy of the People and wanted to stick pins in my eyes. And read it and found it extremely profound. I honestly can’t remember what I think about Hedda Gabbler, but find myself unwilling to re-read it now to come up with a conclusion for a blog post!

I can’t help but compare Ibsen with Chekhov and I have to say I like Chekhov more. Which is not Ibsen’s fault I suppose. But maybe, I should have taken this on board and realised much earlier on that ‘realist’ theatre was really NOT for me.  It took many years for this to dawn on me. Too many years for me to take my dramatic urges out of the theatre.


If Ibsen is the Chalk in this post then the Cheese is my husband George, whose birthday it also is today. (He’s not nearly as old as Ibsen of course!)  And here’s a funny thing. George has an almost pathological hatred (I’d call it fear, but it’s his birthday so I must be nice!) of the theatre. To my knowledge he hasn’t been more than five times but the only one of those experiences he actually claims to have enjoyed was my play ‘Love is an Urban Myth’  He may not be afraid of Virginia Woolf but he is very very afraid of Bertolt Brecht. It wasn’t the best choice for a first theatrical experience I’ll grant you and it happened ‘before my time,’ back in the 70’s.  Before my time also were the couple of musical/comedy things he endured.  But I have to take responsibility for forcing him to sit through a Cuban puppet show which, retrospectively must have looked a bit like puppets doing Brecht in Spanish! Mea culpa. I’ve never seen anyone actually sweat just watching a puppet show.

Of course Ibsen is the famous one of today’s birthday boys, but not the most influential for me by any means. Unlike Ibsen, I remember exactly the moment I first met George. I was thirteen. It was love at first sight. For me at least. He was a married teacher and I was just another problem child who had been given a sword to wave around in the belief that teaching  me a disciplined way to control anger would help me to turn out all right in the end.  I don’t think anyone expected the end of that story, some thirty years (and an ex husband and wife later) would be ‘reader I married him’ but that’s the very long story cut short.

marriedWe’ve been married now for seven years. When I discovered the pathological fear/hate of the theatre I acted as any good wife would and forswore the theatre.  Well if you don’t count the fact that I asked him to step in and play three parts in an advocacy drama at the Scottish Parliament at the last minute when a cast member dropped out!  This is the give and take of happily married life. He did that for me, and me, I switched my creative allegiance from drama to fiction.  Now that makes me sound a bit more angelic than I really am. There is no element of the ‘I could have been a contender’ in that, yeah right!’most influential for me by any means.

Actually I feel I should I say that it was George who freed me from the theatre. Not totally from drama but certainly from the theatre. And if you’ve been reading any of the previous posts on writers birthdays you’ll have got the picture of my ‘journey’ through the theatre reasonably clear in your mind so there’s no need to go over it again now.

Great love hath no man than to be photographed in the school library reading his wife's book!

Great love hath no man than to be photographed in the school library reading his wife’s book!

Suffice it to say that when health concerns dictated (as they have done in the last few years) that I really cannot take any active part in drama in either a theatre or an advocacy setting, I was able to seamlessly reinvent myself and move on painlessly to fiction due to George’s unfailing support of my creative endeavour. I needed to get out of the theatre. I needed to be able to leave it behind and move on, and whereas I didn’t learn my lesson from Ibsen that ‘this sort of thing’ was not for me, it’s a lesson I learned from George. Even though it wasn’t something he thought he was teaching me. That, my friends is what I believe true love really is.

What about ‘Love is an Urban Myth?’ It’s being published next week as part of Triptych, 10 years after its last performance.  It’s a play which is still very close to my heart and I suppose I could sell it on the basis that if ‘even George likes it’ then it must have something going for it!  I’m no Ibsen. But I am a realist. Just not in the theatre any more.  I’ve learned two valuable lessons in life. One is about letting go and the other is about holding on. And the real insight is knowing when to do which!

50 days fly past

We’re into the final week of the 50 days of celebrations. And they keep on rolling.  We are still eating Creme Caramel every day AND LOVING IT.  One oversight comes to my attention though…  the dogs, who are central to our very existence,  have not been getting the attention due to them online!  Today is their day, because they feature as a picture in Catherine Czerkawska’s blog post for Authors Electric on publishing and very proud they are too.

Of course my archive of photos is vast and I thought I’d just pick a few for you to view today. Dude and Hector  think I spend enough time (more than enough time) writing so the rest will be a visual treat for you and them!  I picked Puppy pics, just to embarrass them!
c and h c and h2 d ball d earsg and dgand h


Augusto Boal and how not to be a spectator in life

boalHe’s the man I waited all my life for. The man who changed my life for ever. The man who taught me not to be a spectator. So where do I begin?  I first met Augusto Boal in 2002. He wasn’t there in person. It was a workshop in Forum Theatre run by Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop who were running it at the Theatre Royal Dumfries (too many theatres in this for you already?)  I had just been appointed dramatist in residence for Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association. Let me just recap and say that I’d come to this place via Stanislavskian actor training, followed be a late conversion due to the charisma of Brecht and by 2002 I was actually not so much at a crossroads but sinking in the mire. Just as I got recognition for being a dramatist! Oh the irony. The theatre I wanted to write and the theatre I wanted to watch were still at odds. The way was not clear. I’d dabbled with Brenton and Grotowski but nothing was really fitting. I knew I wanted to do something real, something different, something important; but I couldn’t begin to work out how to do it, not for all the theorists in drama.  My plays were black box, absurdist, non mainstream yet I yearned for the plush purple seats and proscenium arches and the Barrie of my youth.  I was in a mess. I needed sorting out. I needed someone to take me in hand and show me the way.

Enter Augusto Boal.  The man who, for me at least, redefined theatre in the twentieth century.  The man who finally made it all make sense for me. And who gave me the way to put my theory and practice together and achieve praxis and so much more.

So what of Boal? Who is he? You really have to get to know him for yourself but here’s a brief resume from the forward of his autobiography Hamlet and the Baker’s Son.

‘He is credited as the inventor of the internationally renowned Forum Theatre system and the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’… Augusto Boal is a visionary as well as a product of his times – the Brazil of military dictatorship and artistic and social repression.

But this political man of the theatre, and very theatrical man of politics – once imprisoned for his subversive activities – is also a passionately creative force in contemporary cultural life.

… He has devised a unique way of using the stage to empower the disempowered…

His personal/political slogan ‘have the courage to be happy.’

Because of Boal the slogan of my theatre company Bamboo Grove became ‘taking drama out of the theatre’ and its mission became empowerment. And we created much more drama in six years than I ever dreamed possible. Because of Boal I was able to work with groups of disempowered people who had never been to a theatre, much less stood on a stage and with these groups perform even in the Scottish Parliament!  Because of Boal I was able to adapt his ‘games’ into a dramatic method that worked in giving hope, confidence and joy to many people who are culturally dispossessed in our country. And because of Boal I learned what drama really is. He took me away from the cosy dream of plush theatre seats, and in the process he made me happier than I’ve ever been in my life and he totally changed the way I wrote plays.  He made me so much more than a playwright. He turned me into a drama practitioner, an advocate. He showed me it was possible to write, even drama, for a purpose beyond the ego.

I met Augusto Boal in person once. In Manchester in 2003 at a workshop. I even almost spoke to him. But he spoke Portugese and I can’t even pass muster in Spanish – for me Portugese is Spanish plus. We exchanged little more than a few gestures and nods and a handshake.   The workshop was interesting, but not how I’d expected.  People seemed to have gone there to be ‘touched by greatness’ or perhaps to ‘show’ something to the master.  In the process they were really missing what there was to learn.

What I gained from the experience was seeing quite how out of touch our culture is with the ‘problems’ Boal usually worked with. There was a kind of underlying perplexity.  People ‘showed’ the problems and through translators, ‘solutions’ were suggested. But there was a mismatch. It showed me how basically trivial a lot of the ‘problems’ of our society are and how we need to look from a different perspective not just try to ‘apply the theory’ in order to resolve issues. It showed me that our culture was at the core so very trivial, our way of understanding our social problems so naïve (at least for those working in theatre).  I appreciate this is a controversial comment but it’s how I felt then, and largely how I feel now about British theatre. And latterly, about social policy.

I sensed that Boal couldn’t see why people were finding it so hard to ‘get’ solutions to the problems. It seemed to me that it was because the participants had come with other agendas than really working through problems. That on a fundamental level their engagement with Boal’s methods wasn’t honest and wasn’t committed. They wanted it as a fashion, an add on, a way to show off. And it’s none of those things. At the time I felt disappointed, not in Boal, but in us. However, on reflection I realised that it was this experience that gave me the key to ‘adapt’ Boal to my particular circumstances working with adults labelled with learning disabilities.

Boal freed me from the constraints of slavishly following ‘theory’ and allowed me to take the spirit of his work onwards, in the process gaining an understanding of what drama had to offer and what theatre could be, and he gave me permission to run with it.  To believe in myself and my own methods. Which is exactly what I did for eight years with ABC Drama Group.

When I shook his hand, as I did, in 2003 I had no idea what a favour he had done me, or how he was about to change my life. But I’d have to say that he’s been the most significant influence on my whole writing and working life.  And in the process I became a much better person. The person I had wanted to be. Boal was the man who showed me how it all fitted together. And many, many lives were enriched by that understanding. We took the spirit of Boal’s work and we applied it in places ‘normal’ people never go. We stopped being spectators. We became Boalian ‘spectactors’. We lived our lives – dramatically. He proved to us, time and again that the impossible is possible. He said   “It is forbidden to walk on the grass. It is not forbidden to fly over the grass.”   He gave us the courage to fly and believe me, we flew.  Sadly Augusto Boal died four years ago. His legacy lives on. Not just in his written work, but in all the practical work he did and in all the lives he touched.

I don’t feel I can give him a proper tribute. Boal can express his views so much better than I can. Here’s a few examples (of many):

“Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”

“In its most archaic sense, theatre is the capacity possessed by human beings – and not by animals – to observe themselves in action. Humans are capable of seeing themselves in the act of seeing, of thinking their emotions, of being moved by their thoughts. They can see themselves here and imagine themselves there; they can see themselves today and imagine themselves tomorrow. This is why humans are able to identify (themselves and others) and not merely to recognise.”

“The Theatre of the Oppressed is theatre in this most archaic application of the word. In this usage, all human beings are Actors (they act!) and Spectators (they observe!).”

“The Theatre of the Oppressed is located precisely on the frontier between fiction and reality – and this border must be crossed. If the show starts in fiction, its objective is to become integrated into reality, into life. 

“It is time for a theatre which, at its best, will ask the right questions at the right times. Let us be democratic and ask our audiences to tell us their desires, and let us show them alternatives. Let us hope that one day – please, not too far in the future – we’ll be able to convince or force our governments, our leaders, to do the same; to ask their audiences – us – what they should do, so as to make this world a place to live and be happy in – yes, it is possible – rather than just a vast market in which we sell our goods and our souls. Let’s hope. Let’s work for it!”

If you want to know more about Boal and his practice and theory you have to be prepared to open your eyes to a whole new way of seeing and being. There’s plenty of his writing to help you:

Already mentioned is his autobiography Hamlet and the Bakers Boy

And his practical work in translation:

Games for Actors and non-actors, The Rainbow of Desire, Legislative Theatre

If you want to know more about Boal’s influence on me and the people I’ve worked with get hold of

A Week With No Labels (Cally Phillips) available in ebook (Kindle and  epub)or paperback formats.

Albeson and the Germans by Jan Needle

albesonIt’s a children’s book. Yeah, right. In the same way that Lord of the Flies is a kids book. And that’s a good place to start. With a comparison with Lord of the Flies. It may not strike you straight away that these two books cover much of the same ground but, scrunch your brain up just a little and you’ll realise as I did, that in fact Albeson and the Germans is even more shocking than Lord of the Flies.  Golding gives us his tale of social disintegration and dysfunction at one step removed; you have to believe that all these kids are on a deserted island with no adults around.  By contrast, Albeson is in Portsmouth. A very real Portsmouth. A real kid, with real parents, living a real life.  His experience of society is brutalising and his grip on it all is weak. He is buffeted and bruised by all around him but carries on regardless, because he doesn’t know what else to do.  It’s just life, isn’t it. You just have to live it. As a child you have no control over any of it.

Showing the world from the view of the boy is what gives this story its power. And it’s also proof that even if we are born with a ‘moral compass’ it can be shoved off course by our upbringing and experience. Yet the heartening thing about this story is that through it, and despite everything, Albeson finds his own moral compass (compass is a good word to use here!) He has to take himself out of his environment, out of his ‘culture’ and into another place.  I don’t want to spoil the story but the emergence of the young hero is both structurally clever and reassuringly realistic. Who’d have thought that chips would bring about such change?

There are some really shocking things revealed in this story, especially as regards vandalism – but the point of it is to show the mindset of the child involved – and it does this admirably. If you’ve  ever just dismissed kids as ‘a bad lot’ this will make you think again. It really does give you another perspective on the nature versus nurture debate.

The central point is that Albeson is out of his depth in his own life. I’m sure many of us felt the same as children. And grew up believing the lies and prejudices we were inculcated with at an early age. For Albeson,  the Germans are his nemesis. Fear of them drives him into many a scrape. And beautifully, it is the Germans who actually ‘save’ him and change his life’s course.  I’m not apologising for all the nautical inspired words here because it is when Albeson leaves the shore and sets out on his journey to sea that he ‘finds’ himself.  He has to take himself out of his corrupt society, and stand as an individual on his feet for the first time. Albeit those feet are far off the ground and on a rocking deck.  The symbolism here is underplayed but it’s there.  Albeson’s ‘fall’ is also his rise. He achieves, if not closure, at least a compass bearing for the future.

I loved Albeson. Not just the book, I mean the little boy. I felt for him. I didn’t judge him as much as I judged those around him. I found it hard to deal with his parents. I couldn’t get to grips with his ‘oppo’ Smithy but I empathised with the confused way Albeson related to all those around him. He exhibited a sort of bemused innocence mixed with that childish self-centeredness which makes their motives so impenetrable to him. No one else makes much sense to Albeson. And when you look at it, they actually often don’t make much sense at all! That’s the real triumph of the story, it puts you into the mind of an eleven year old boy, warts and all. It moves you, it shocks you and it offers redemption and hope. And it’s far more ‘real’ than Lord of the Flies. To paraphrase Wilfred Owen: the symbolism is in the story.  I know that Jan Needle really rates Moby Dick as a novel. I’ve never got my head round it. I have a suspicion that Albeson and the Germans may offer an insight into that longer novel and that means I really should go and investigate Moby Dick with my new found understanding and interest in underlying symbolism. If I ever do manage to read Moby Dick it will be thanks to Jan Needle.

If you give this book to a child I think it would be advisable to use the experience as a starting point for some intergenerational communication. By which I mean listening as well as talking. Because this is a book to read not just if you are a child, but if you want to understand a child’s eye view of the world.

You can buy this as an ebook for Kindle


Cally Phillips is a member of the Reading Between the Lines Collective

You can find more reviews by clicking the logo  

Menage a trois with Elizabeth Barrett Browning

There’s three of us in this relationship.

ebbSo today is the birthday of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was of the Barretts of Wimpole Street, originally Elizabeth Moulton Barrett Barrett (which gives you an idea of her social class) and a reasonably prolific poet while lounging around being ill a lot of the time (another example of her social class in early 19th century England) until her poetry reached out to a man who wrote to her as follows:

I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,–and this is no off-hand complimentary letter rbthat I shall write,–whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me–for in the first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration–perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of hereafter!–but nothing comes of it all–so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew… oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away… and the book called a ‘Flora’, besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought–but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart– and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning “would you like to see Miss Barrett?”–then he went to announce me,–then he returned… you were too unwell — and now it is years ago–and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels–as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel on crypt,… only a screen to push and I might have entered — but there was some slight… so it now seems… slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!

Well, these Poems were to be–and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself. Yours ever faithfully Robert Browning

Oh, to get this sort of response from one’s writing eh? There followed one of history’s greatest love affairs, complete with secret marriage, and elopement abroad. Elizabeth was prolific as a youngster – her first epic poem The Battle of Marathon was published privately by her father when she was just 14. From the age of 15 she suffered a series of illnesses, the most serious of which remains undiagnosed (but might have been a sort of ME) which blighted her life, but didn’t stop her writing poetry. As most folks did in those days she relied on morphine and laudanum to get her through. And the love of a good poet.

I suppose Elizabeth and Robert might have been seen as a ‘celebrity’ couple in today’s parlance; they certainly mixed with all the social and literary elite of their time. I would never have met or mixed with them in real life that’s for sure. But because they were writers and I a reader, I did get to meet them and form a relationship of sorts. It is through their poetry that I first got to know them, individually, and then through their letters that I got to know them as a couple.

As a writer I’ve always had a strange fascination for other writers and their lives. I have looked at the work of others for inspiration. I like primary source material. I like ‘comparative analysis’ between writers and within writers work. I am an inveterate reader of letters and the sort of ‘background’ stuff of writers lives. (Maybe I’m just nosey, or should have pursued a career in ‘intelligence’.) Anyway at one point many years ago I embarked upon trying to write a play which brought together three love stories based on the relationships of Robert and Elizabeth, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier. Which meant reading all their love letters. You might think that’s a voyeuristic thing to do, but it was a very enjoyable and enlightening experience. Like so many writing projects, this one never came to light – except as a commissioned piece about Rupert and Noel when she stood him up (as she was wont to do) at New Galloway station in darkest Galloway, and I, fictionally, kept the date. You can read it free here.

It’s funny but these days I find it hard to think of Elizabeth without Robert and Robert without Elizabeth and it seems somewhat disrespectful to celebrate her birthday without giving him a bit of airplay too. My first introduction to Robert Browning was that his collection Men and Women  was the first text I taught during my career as an English tutor, and the text was consequently prepared to the nth degree. I was going to be sure I could answer ANY question about him. I wasn’t going to be caught out by a student in my first class! Browning isn’t considered an ‘easy’ poet but he certainly repays the effort. And, as his letter to EBB shows, he has a talent for the snappy line. His poetry is full of great lines, couplets, aphorisms and the like. My favourite is

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? (Andrea del Sarto)

Elizabeth and Robert were clever writers. Inspired by classics and members of the cultural elite. They might seem to be old fashioned and out of touch with our modern concerns. But there are times when its worth revisiting them. Like on a birthday. I seldom read Elizabeth or Robert  these days. Our relationship was at its strongest when I was teaching. But, like all good friends, you can ignore them for ages and when you come back to them, they are still there, still your friend.


Life moves on, people come and go, times change. And we don’t take enough time to reflect. But times like this, when we do, we find memories and moments that we had completely forgotten about and a whole new set of connections can be established. A student from that first tutorial class studying Browning gave me a present which I still treasure. It’s a calfskin leather volume of Sonnets from the Portugese.

It is one of the finest books I own. It has coloured front and back pages.



When I took it down from the shelf to photograph for this piece, I leafed through it and found Sonnet XIV. And remembered that back in the day when I was teaching poetry I set several sonnets to music to show my students that it could be done. And that the rhythm of sonnets was more flexible than the rigid ‘rules’ suggest.  That you don’t have to read iambic pentameter in a forced way. To explain that Sonnet came from the Italian ‘sonare’ (little song) I haven’t thought of it, or played it in twenty years but I remembered it clearly and so, unrehearsed (and with much cursing in finding leads and the means of getting it up on YouTube) here is my version of that excellent sonnet. Apologies for the voice!

Here is the sonnet:

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
I love her for her smile … her look … her way
Of speaking gently, … for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

Sonnets from the Portugese and Men and Women. They kind of go together like, well, like Elizabeth and Robert. And if you read any poetry this week, why not give them a try?

You can download them for free for ereaders from Project Guthenberg.

Sonnets from the Portugese

Men and Women.

Interestingly enough, my next writers birthday, this Friday, also has a Portugese connection! I look forward to seeing you there.

Haunted by William Godwin

godwinHe won’t leave me alone. He finds me wherever I am. However much I try to forget him, he’s still there. He’s like a stalker. I first encountered William Godwin as a philosopher.  His An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was a light in the dark and dingy world (for me, of 18th and 19th century political philosophy) despite (or perhaps because of)  having a reputation as being naively utopian.   William it was who first introduced me to the idea that anarchism could be ‘philosophical’ rather than that bomb throwing chaotic variety most people think of it as being. And therefore he became my best friend when I was writing (in 1984) my dissertation on philosophical anarchism and international law. A snappy little piece of academic writing (not) which had to somehow segue social/political philosophy which I was very interested in with international politics which (at the time) I was not interested in.  I spent a long time looking at law, rules and my favourite bandwagon, epistemic authority, by route of ‘primitive’ cultures and the headily anarchic world of International Society.  My conclusions, as far as I can remember were that there was a lot more ‘anarchy’ in the international legal system than amongst the pygmies, aborigines or any other small ‘anarchic’ based ‘cultures.’

While I liked the cut of his philosophical gib, William always worried me a bit. He was Mary Shelley’s dad and popular with the Romantic poets, took Percy Bysshe Shelley under his wing (only to be repaid by Shelley running off with his daughter – that’s why we know her as Mary Shelley rather than her whole title Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.) As a ‘young person’ it concerned me that a proponent of ‘free’ love should get so arsey when free love decided to elope. And to compound this ‘hypocrisy’ (as I saw it) William married, not just once but twice despite every part of his ‘philosophical’ position being against what marriage stands for.  In fact he described marriage as ‘the worst of monopolies.’ So why did he marry Mary Wollstonecraft, I used to wonder?  Now, as I’m 50 and I’ve also been married twice, and I have more of an understanding of the complexities of adult life and the practical difficulties that go hand in hand with philosophical beliefs. And perhaps more of an interest in the ramifications of individual actions in the political sphere. I can also see why a parent (not that I’ve been one) might get a bit troubled when a longhaired poet type runs off with your daughter – and takes her sister as well. May I point out that Shelley was already married at this point though he had poetically ‘abandoned’ his first wife. It’s not quite what any parent would want for their offspring is it?  Poor William. Keeping theory and practice working hand in hand is a very difficult trick to pull off.  And failure doesn’t always mean ‘hypocrisy’ of the individual as much as an acceptance that praxis is more complex than ideology and much harder to achieve.

Some years after I’d left Godwin the philosopher and his extended Romantic family behind. Byron and the Shelley’s were great pals at University but they had to take a back seat when I started teaching A level literature at a London Crammers (I was teaching about 70 ‘classic’ texts a year – which made me the literary equivalent of a party animal I suppose) and I made loads of new friends.  As Head of a Department of three we used to sit down each term and play a sort of version of Top Trumps with that terms students and texts.  Never having been a friend of Jane Austen’s I would use her as my primary ‘trade’ card.  I met loads of new and more obscure writers that way and that’s how I came back into contact with William.  More specifically his novel Caleb Williams. In my ten years of teaching and tutoring English only one student ever presented this text for study and while I can’t remember the boy’s name, I can remember he was a pleasant and serious young man, completely confused as to why he’d not got an A first time round.  We spent some very happy hours together poring over Caleb Williams while the bright young things enjoyed their romp through domestic irony with Jane.  Me, the affable student and William instead spent our time in brooding on some heavy political issues.  Because it turned out that Caleb Williams was in many ways the Enquiry rendered into novel form.  Right up my street it looks at the way the individual gets destroyed by legal institutions and an expose on the abuse of power in society. It’s much more ‘reader friendly’ than the Enquiry.

I’ve not thought about the ramifications of that for my own writing before, but I realise now  that that’s often what I’ve tried to do. Take philosophical and political ‘ideas’ and render them into fictional or dramatic contexts so that they are more audience or reader friendly.  It seems like William has been there in the shadows all this time without me realising it.  Which makes me think it’s only going to be fair to take Enquiry down from the philosophy section of my bookshelves and my Penguin classic copy of Caleb Williams and do a comparative analysis.  It’s part of a longer project I have which is to re-read those ‘significant’ texts from when I first learned to really love literature in my teens and see how my relationship with them has changed now I’ve hit the big 5-0.   Because I appreciate that fundamentally fiction is a relationship between reader and writer. And so each reading can be a new experience, different perspectives encourage different conclusions.  I have neglected William for too long. Especially when he’s been there as a guiding hand (not a stalker at all!) behind so much of my creative thinking. Time to renew our friendship I think. Happy Birthday William Godwin.

As a coda I’d like to note that Mary Wollstonecraft was quite a woman and any man would surely be proud to marry her. She wrote ‘A vindication of the rights of women’ and was a political theorist in her own right as well as an advocate of women’s rights. And we are in the 18th century here folks!  You have to get beneath the superficial irony of these two people talking about freedom and rights and then seeming to ‘shackle’ themselves together – and if you do, then you may understand what they are really talking about. And the poor woman died less than a year after she married Godwin. No happy ever after for them then!

We couldn’t stop the war…

coverSince Guerrilla Midgie Press is currently hosting the Top Ten FairTrade Flash Fiction Festival, the announcement of the publication for ‘We Couldn’t Stop the War…’ published today by Guerrilla Midgie Press is transferred here.

Drum roll. Audience applause. Grinding halt. What is it all about? What war? Stop what?

Cast your mind back. If you can. Does the phrase ‘Not in My Name’ ring any bells? It was long before ‘Make Poverty History.’ But after ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches.’  In case you are still confused, let me refresh your memory.

Ten years ago today a Worldwide Act of Theatrical Dissent took place. All over the world. It was called the Lysistrata Project (named after Aristphanes’ anti war play) And indeed it came to pass in that time that even in Dumfries a disparate bunch of local writers got together to make their own dramatic gesture. ‘Not in our Name.’   The event was organised by Cally Phillips, then dramatist in residence and hosted by Belle Doyle then supremo at the Robert Burns Film Theatre in Dumfries, on the evening of 3rd March.  I won’t say it was packed to the rafters, but we had an audience (which is always a bonus at an event in D&G!)

Ten years on Cally Phillips decided to mark the anniversary with an epublication. Not all the original writers have been tracked down in time to give copyright clearance so only those who have agreed to have their work included feature in this publication.   But what we have is an ebook which serves not only to showcase some great writing but also as a piece of social history and offers a chance for reflection on the ten years past.  And it’s competitively priced at 99p (the lowest you can go on Amazon and Kobo) We would have made it free but it’s impossible to make it free on ALL platforms at the same time. (That’s something to do with global capitalism and the profit motive by the way) In the interest of transparency we would like you to know that at the 99p price tag ‘royalties’ are 34p from Amazon and 37p from Kobo sales. None of the authors are making a penny out of this and should there be any profit it will go to charity.

Here’s how to get your copy. If you have a Kindle then you click Amazon UK or Amazon US (depending on your location!)

For ereaders other than Kindle we’re distributed via Kobobooks (epub format).  If you have an ipad you can use the relevant apps:  Kindle for ipad or Kobo for ipad to download. And even if you don’t have an ereader, or smartphone or tablet you can download the app of your choice and read it on your computer.

It’s up to you to choose Amazon, Apple or Kobo. We just aim to give you as wide a choice as possible. For us it’s about getting the words out there, giving you the choice to buy according to your conscience.  We’re always interested in hearing of distribution partners, especially non conglomerate ones so if you know of a better or more ethical way for us to distribute please contact guerrilla midgie via the website

But whatever way you do it, we hope you’ll download this ebook and tell others about it. It’s a piece of history. It’s bearing witness. It’s standing up to say ‘Not in my Name.’ Even now.

The Storyville of life…

We’re more than half way through the 5o days of celebration and the mood has changed…   This is now a celebration of quite a different kind. Of coming to an understanding. Of a realising of personal truths.

I recently watched a couple of chilling but interesting episodes of Storyville, both of which obliquely reference my novel Brand LoyaltyGoogle and the World Brain is about as close to a description of my fictional Ultimate® Corporation as I’d like to come  and We are Legion is just the sort of thing I envisaged The Immortal Horses as being.

Of course, when I published Brand Loyalty in 2010 after some 15 years of trying to find ‘the medium’ to display the message through – having been told in the 1990’s by Channel 4 that it was ‘too dark’ a view of the near future,  nothing happened. I sold the best part of 100 paperbacks but hey, that’s not going to change the world now is it?

In 2012 when I published it as an ebook I did derive some pleasure in achieving the dizzy heights of reaching #1 in political fiction both in US and UK on Amazon– though I did have to give the book away to achieve this.  I got several hundred downloads.  It felt for a moment though like I’d struck a blow into the heart of the evil empire.  It was a personal ‘Star Wars’ moment.  But one cannot live on such victories when one knows (because George Orwell has told us)  that we are all doomed from the moment the clock strikes 13.  After all, who knows how many people actually read it.  The pigs in the trough tend to love to download for free but that doesn’t mean they’ll read what they download.  I’ve had largely good reviews (and those things called reviews on Amazon) and a few interesting personal discussions out of it.  And life goes on.

I tend to live in the moment and so I don’t revisit ‘old’ work’ when it’s ‘finished.’ But from time to time things come back at you. And Storyville, as well as giving me the chills, did remind me that Brand Loyalty had a point beyond the personal and is not that far off the mark from where we are now.  Time to batten down the hatches. Time to remind myself that my position on all this is ‘I’ve checked out.’ That the most radical thing you can do is be a non-participant.  Here at home we remind ourselves of  this daily with the mantra ‘never leave the mountain.’

Tennyson in his great poem Ulysses, which I find a great comfort to me on many levels, wrote ‘I am a part of all that I have met’ and I find that whatever one ‘meets’ in the sphere of  what one might loosely call ‘culture’ or perhaps ‘creativity’  acts as a kicking off place to something else, and through watching Storyville I found out about an H.G.Wells story that tempts me.  It seems like it may be akin to Dennis Potter’s last works in the sense of a kind of ‘railing against the light’ (is that Dylan Thomas?) So now I’m on the hunt to unearth more of the later writing of H.G.Wells, specifically ‘Mind at the End of its Tether’ which (because Wells is still in copyright till 2016) isn’t an easy thing to get hold of cheaply.  In my final research for Brand Loyalty I read the complete 20 volumes of George Orwell (correspondence, journalism, diaries and fiction) to try to get to grips with the mind of the man who wrote Nineteen eighty four.  I found a lot of interesting ‘by products’ from this research.  Particularly in terms of vegetable growing! And views on the broadcasting media. And how little really changes over time.  Which became central to Brand Loyalty.  The Ultimate® world may be bright and shiny on the surface, a haven of consumerism which seems completely unlike the grim dirty world of Nineteen Eighty Four but the totalitarianism of consumerism (and indeed of global capitalism) are fundamentally the same.

With my interest in Wells reignited through Storyville, now I need to look back and see what Orwell and Wells thought of each other. I am somewhat disconcerted by the fact that most of the writers I respect and value seemed, at the end of their lives, to have given up all hope on society.  Orwell and Dennis Potter had both signed the death knell for optimism of a society that could work and now Wells seems to have joined the happy crew.  Under their influence I suppose, I have come to this position (I hope) long before my death and sometimes it’s hard to live ‘in’ the world with that feeling. Well, it’s pretty much impossible, which is what Brand Loyalty is about I guess.  Its central tenet is that freedom only exists outside of society and when you keep your head below the parapet. That living in a world of isolation with only memory for reality is actually a better option than being a ‘participant’ in modern society.  That there is a substantial difference between personal and social identity and we’d do well not to forget it. That ‘reality is what you choose to believe.’

So what conclusions can I draw from all of this? Simply I suppose that the impact and influence of fiction/literature (because I believe the distinction is somewhat contested, contextual and political) on my life have and continue to be immense. And that’s why I write. It’s why I blog. It’s why I want to communicate with other people.  It’s why I use Facebook and Twitter (when I have to) as ‘tools’ rather than as ‘social media’ I am not a social being. I am an individual. Well, most of the time now I’m an ASIN in my dealings with the outside world. But behind all that, dear reader, there is a real person.  And who I am as a real person is tied up with my reading and writing. That’s the way to get to know me.

My goal in the 50 days of celebration was to put myself ‘out there’ one last time, to see if I could ‘hack it’ as a social being. As I hit the 25 day mark half way through the ‘celebrations’ I realised how pointless this was. It wasn’t working. I wasn’t ‘making new friends.’ It gave me a wobble for a moment then I realised it was actually the answer to a deep question I’ve been asking for a while about ‘social media’ and the construction of social identity.  Social media is not for me as an individual. I resist ‘constructing’ myself into an internet/social identity. I’m the original wsiwyg person.  No side, no artifice, no agenda, I’m the same person online as I am in the flesh. And as such I find I’m pretty uninteresting to those who are social media types. (if there is such a type!) It seems to me that online (and perhaps in real life) most folk only want to engage with you when they are pulling you into ‘their’ narrative. You become a part of their ‘story’ for a while. A bit part player in their drama. Me, I want to know my friends. I care about them, I want to work with them, help them, enjoy their company for who they are, not as part of my personal story.  I know the difference between their lives and mine and I see them as more than manifestations of my own sense of self.  (or human resources to help me on my way!)

The fact that very few people want to engage with me in cyberspace should be depressing, but after watching Storyville I actually find it quite reassuring. I needed to remember that blogging as much as everything else on the internet is essentially publishing and therefore I now plan to stick with F.Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum ‘write because you have something to say, not because you want to say something.’  It’s a good rule of thumb.  Even for social media I think.

Who I am is tied up with what I read, what I think and what I write.  Only a few people are interested in that combination.  Which is fine. I’m no longer going to try and reach out to the others. I’m going to stay up on the mountain and read and write and think and live my own life. And when there’s something worth saying, I’ll publish it on an appropriate medium.  And people can read it or not.  I will be the butterfly flapping its wings in the forest. The rest of you are the world. It’s not for me to say what the impact short or long term of my wing flapping will be (or through Guerrilla Midgie of my ‘buzzing’). My only job in life is to be myself.  And be true to that person not to recreate an identity to suit ‘the market’ or ‘the times.’   I wonder what would Orwell have said of the internet?  Or H.G.Wells? What will the future say about this present when it is the past?

To my mind we are all like ripples in the water, as insignificant yet  part of a vital  life force, and if we’re not in the main flood of the tide we are still valuable though we don’t create as big waves.  As Martin Luther said ‘Here I stand, I can do no other!’ How true Martin, how true. That most forgotten of Romantic poets John Clare said something similar ‘I am yet what I am none knows or cares.’    I’m still here. You know where to find me if you want to know who I am.

To find out more about Brand Loyalty click on the novels tab at the top of this page.  Remember, ‘in the Ultimate® world reality is what you choose to believe.’ 

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