How Fifty years in a fiction factory can change lives.

fictionfactoryNot so long ago while browsing the web I came across a site asking people to post on ‘the book that changed my life.’ Nice idea I thought before I moved on, as you do, forgot which site it was but held onto the idea as one I might write about myself.  But that’s going to have to wait, because today I want to write about ‘the book that changed the direction of my life.’ It is Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory by Julia Jones and word has it on the world wide web – and indeed in that fictional place called reality – that today is Julia’s birthday.  So this seemed like the right day to post on this subject.

Julia is a sailor type woman and so I cannot help but bring out the sailing clichés. This book and the ideas in it helped me change tack and showed me how to set a new course. The waters will likely be choppy at times and who knows, if I’m a duffer I may still drown, but at the moment, some months ahead of being able to tell you what all this is about, I remain cryptically optimistic that I may sail off into the sunset feeling fulfilled with my life – and in no small part because of Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory.

How so? Well, Fifty Years helped me with a problem. I had this jigsaw puzzle called ‘something I believe in and what to do about it.’  I first found this jigsaw in 1996 and started trying to do something about it in 1997 but that attempt was aborted. I was sailing up the wrong tree (to mix my metaphors).  I didn’t know what to do. The jigsaw pieces went back in the box. I didn’t have the right picture you see. I just had all these pieces I believed in and now a feeling that I would never be able to create the finished jigsaw.

I had started thinking about it again in 2012. I pulled the box out. I still ‘believed in it’ but I still didn’t know what to do. Bur I once again felt the need to try to do something about this ‘thing that I believed in but didn’t know what to do about.’ (Note how the title grows like ivy over the years!) I began to tentatively put the pieces together, to test them out, to see what pictures I might make, but I still didn’t have a cover picture to guide me. Then I read Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory. And the scales fell from my eyes.  I learned a lot. A lot about human nature and publishing history and tenacity of spirit and how the world is and it all tied up with the missing pieces in the ‘something I believe in and what to do about it’ jigsaw.  It helped me recognise what the ‘something I believed in’ was but it also gave me some really clear ideas about ‘what to do about it’ – and ‘how to do it’ which was perhaps even the missing piece of jigsaw that had hampered my efforts previously.

So now, thanks to this book I am embarking on a voyage. I’m at the stage of making my craft sea worthy and I’m looking for an autumn launch this year, maybe not till next spring if I get distracted this summer. And with every bit of spit and polish I thank Julia and Herbert Allingham and the Fiction Factory for helping me resolve my life’s jigsaw puzzle. I hope one day you’ll all be thanking them too.  Julia will be holding the virtual champagne bottle when I launch. She, like you, has no idea what I’m talking about yet.  Her navigational skills may give her something of an advantage to pondering the mystery but I want to surprise everyone with the completed picture. So like all good mystery writers, I haven’t given you enough clues to make a really informed guess. You’ll just have to wait and see.

The way I’ve been influenced by Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is surely unique, and not in any part an intention of either Julia or indeed Allingham, but this is a testament to the significance of the work of both of them.  Publish and you create a new life and infinite possibilities for other people.

So let’s all splice the mainbrace and all those things that sailor type people do and charge our glasses to Julia Jones, Herbert Allingham and Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory. I certainly thank her on a daily basis for the leading light she showed me when I was way, way off course and needing to find my way through the shipping lanes at night.

You can find my original review of Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory just by clicking. Also one by fellow writer Kathleen Jones (no relation)

You can buy this book as an ebook or a paperback. Available in Kindle format and epub format and from any good bookseller.

Find out more about Julia Jones and  her publishing company or access her PhD Thesis on Herbert Allingham if you want even more information! 

Happy Birthday Julia. And many more of them.




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! 

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.

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!

A journey through life with John Steinbeck

steinbeck.It’s John Steinbeck’s birthday today. He would have been 111 years old.  Steinbeck came with me and helped me through the  difficult transition of adolescence and so I have a very fond place in my heart for him. Pop stars came and went but Steinbeck stuck. He’s a writer whom one can take from childhood into adulthood through those difficult teen years and not miss a heartbeat along the way. He’s an easy man to love though his writing is uncompromising.  He’s real. You know where you are with Steinbeck.

The Red Pony is a great story. Of Mice and Men is a great story. East of Eden is a great story. And The Grapes of Wrath is, in my opinion, The Great American Novel. (You know, the one F.Scott Fitzgerald was trying to write all his life) F.Scott Fitzgerald is probably the writer I quote more often, and refer to more often in writerly circles and he did write lots of really good novels (and short stories) and I’d say he influenced my understanding of narrative structure more BUT for an out and out gut wrenching, heart-felt story of America (and people) as they really are Steinbeck is your man.

You know there are moments  reading fiction where you are taken out of yourself? This happened to me with The Red Pony.  You know how in school when they make you read round the class you just hate whatever they are making you read because the process of class reading, complete with embarrassed mumbling and monotone delivery from the more nervous or uncommitted class members? Well, despite us being made to read The Red Pony round the class, I had this out of myself experience. I’ll admit, we had done the obligatory everyone read a paragraph and were on the ‘silent reading of a chapter’ (and I was many chapters ahead) at the point when the pony dies and I was NOT THERE. I mean I WAS THERE. I was there in the story, not in the hideously ugly 70’s concrete classroom.  I was taken out of my own environment into quite another.  That, for me, is the ultimate power of fiction. That’s the drug. That’s my addiction. It gets harder to find as you get older and have read more, but Steinbeck was my first real experience of it as far as memory serves.

Steinbeck must have been a favourite in schools in the 70’s (I’m not sure why.) As I progressed through secondary school: The Red Pony was first year, Of Mice and Men was second year and in third year we were introduced to The Grapes of Wrath.  Steinbeck was always in my schoolbag!   I think Of Mice and Men was ruined by the classroom reading experience as I certainly didn’t ‘get’ what it was all about at the time– spoiled by a number of stupid boys in my class just laughing at Lenny and the ‘retarded’ behaviour. However, this in itself stuck with me over the years as I’ve re-read Of Mice and Men, seen it on stage and film and generally incorporated it into my psyche as a ‘good book’ written about intellectual disability and social stigma.  I think in some ways Robin Jenkins The Cone Gatherers tries the same thing but even though I’m Scottish not American, I still find Of Mice and Men the better book.

However, it was The Grapes of Wrath that really opened up Steinbeck for me. It’s a beast of a book in length (and makes me wonder if the teacher gave it to our class just to keep us quiet for the longest time so they had to do least teaching?) and the proportion of ‘read round the class’ to silent reading was much less. And consequently the reading experience much richer.  This was the first text I studied ‘seriously’ as it was to form part of the now defunct O Grade exams, which I took seriously as the first stage towards escape into the adult world where I could make my own choices and take my own responsibilities.  And I can still remember the visceral feeling of reading The Grapes of Wrath. The dust bowl.  At the beginning (as we read round the class) I thought how boring it was. As I started to experience the journey across America myself, through my silent reading, I was absolutely gripped.  The Joad’s struggle became my struggle, became everyone’s struggle.

By this time I was quite hooked on Steinbeck but as an adolescent there are so many books to read and so many authors to discover  and so I didn’t read East of Eden for another couple of years, not until I discovered James Dean and the film. The ‘legend’ of James Dean played a large part in my adolescence and when I encountered Rebel Without a Cause I wanted to consume everything ever ‘done’ by Dean. This way I came across the absolutely remarkable Antoine de Saint Exupery story The Little Prince which has become one of my philosophical staples and of course Dean was in East of Eden, so I went back to Steinbeck. He welcomed me back with open arms. He spoke directly to me. This time it was personal.

I can never decide which Steinbeck book I ‘like’ best, The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, and it doesn’t really matter. The first seems to be about all people and the second seems to take you right inside your teenage self. They sit side by side on my shelf (alongside a plethora of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through it, and just along from all the other really ‘significant’ novels of my youth.) This shelf is categorised simply by the importance of the novels to my life, not by ‘black penguin’ or ‘orange penguin’ status, or alphabetical or period or genre or anything. Just SIGNIFICANCE.  And I guess it’s probably my favourite shelf. It’s the shelf I promise myself one day I’ll re-read right through. And I guess that should tell me what me real reading pleasure is.  One thing is for certain Steinbeck is the core.

We are quite used in this internet driven world of starting out on a search and getting taken down diverse paths from one thing to something completely different. But Steinbeck did that for me long before the internet. The influence of Steinbeck took me to places and got me reading books and having thoughts I might never otherwise have encountered.  And I still  feel his influence resting in my heart. For me he stands for the uncomfortable truth, for telling life as it is for the ordinary man.  F.Scott Fitzgerald was a writers writer, but Steinbeck is out and out a readers writer. It’s a dilemma I’ve struggled with over the years both as reader and writer and I have to say, though I love F.Scott Fitzgerald’s work with a passion – (from the position of an outsider though, I read the weakness of aspiration in all his characters) Steinbeck for me is the stronger force. He exerts the greater pull even if I read him less. Because his ideas get inside you. And if you are an ordinary person (as I am) with little hope of ‘becoming’ anything ‘special’ then Steinbeck writes for you.  He’s not trying to get you to ‘be’ something, he’s just showing you life as it is. And often it’s hard and nasty. But reading Steinbeck makes you feel somehow less alone as a ‘nobody’ because he has elevated them to importance simply by writing their lives.


Oh, and after I wrote this blog I found and watched a documentary about John Steinbeck on iplayer. Here’s the link  And I noticed that for those who like (or have to) listen to their fiction rather than read it, they are also serialising The Grapes of Wrath on iplayer for radio. 

You made me love you…

Bertolt+Brecht+BrechtIn my mid teens Bertolt Brecht was one of those people I thought might be a bad influence on me.  My older brother loved him. Enough said. But I had a secret passion for David Bowie and he seemed to rate him. So I gave him a go in the 70’s.  But I found Baal just too weird a read for me. Mother Courage just bored me. And I never really got into him. In fact I’ll go so far as to say I started to get quite antipathetic to him.

In the late 80’s when I went to drama school I had a lot of ideas about what theatre was and should be and I’m afraid they weren’t very ‘mature’ or sophisticated. How can I tell the 24 year old me these truths?! I grew up in love with the myth and magic of the purple plush velvet seats, the proscenium arch and the sort of plays that might now be described as melodrama.  To be fair to myself, I had moved on a bit. I had been flirting with absurdism since meeting Tom Stoppard in the form of Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the 70’s, but this left me a pretty confused kid. And I couldn’t risk getting into bed with Brecht so to speak.  I was a Stanislavskian groupie. Reason? Well, since I thought I wanted to be an actress and I was ‘into’ realism I thought that Stan’s radical removal of ‘the fourth wall’ and the ‘living in the moment’ of Stanislavskian drama was the best way to be ‘real’ in the theatre. So that’s what I was trained in. Well trained.

Brecht of course had other ideas. Brecht had a quite different take on what ‘reality’ meant than I did. I learned over the years. My creative journey practitioner wise took me from Stanislavski through Brecht to Boal and I ended up with a unique combination of all three in my own drama practice.  I have met and mingled with them all and like a series of lovers I don’t regret a minute of my time with any of them, have taken the good memories and learned from the experience before maturing into a happy marriage writing fiction.

But in the 80’s Brecht was there tempting me into something or away from something, and I resisted.  I struggled with the fact that what I wanted to see on stage and what I wanted to write were two quite different things. I had to grow up. I had to interrogate my own intentions and ambitions and beliefs.  I could stay in the safe waters or go out of my comfort zone. It was quite a battle. I had loved the theatre for its safety. But when I changed from being an actress to a writer I had a whole new set of priorities and my present just didn’t fit with my past.  Of course I didn’t work that out that clearly at the time. Only now with hindsight can I see the battle for what it was.

In the end, perhaps inevitably I couldn’t help but fall for Brecht’s charms. He’s that kind of guy. Scary but charismatic.  He attracts a lot of people – and not always for the right reasons. That’s hardly his fault though is it? I will say that I’ve seen some truly awful productions of Brecht.  But I fell in love with him one night at the National Theatre in 1991. It was the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The scales fell from my eyes. Prior to that my cry had been – ‘what is this Alienation effect’ I don’t WANT to alienate the audience’  (I’ve actually alienated a lot of audiences since I suspect with or without Brecht’s help!)  But as with so many things in life, when I stopped resisting and started learning I found out that Brecht had at least as much to offer as Stanislavski and when I morphed from actress to playwright I realised that I had much more in common with Brecht than I had ever thought possible.

After my night of passion with Brecht I still loved the Cherry Orchard but I saw that life in the theatre had so much more to offer than simply sitting reinforcing one’s own comfortable inherited world views.  He opened my eyes as Stoppard had done but with a bit of added bite. He opened the door for me to be able to match what I wanted to say with the way I wanted to say it. He gave me a voice.

My first real writing dalliance with Brecht (via Dario Fo and Tom Stoppard) was BENITO BOCCANEGRA’S BIG BREAK which I wrote during a particularly unpleasant evening at the opera (where an alienation effect was VERY much in evidence for me) of Simone Boccanegra. It’s a long story (and explained in the ebook of Benito Boccanegra if I recall correctly)  But my first performed Brecht inspired piece came some years later. 1997 I think it was and it was called THE TRUTH ABOUT HATS. (If you’re interested you can read it for free here)

It was a youth project. We had the absolute theatrical gift of a pair of identical twins in the cast  as well as a pair of brothers who looked the same except for height.  Well, Shakespearean comedy was the obvious option so… we avoided it.  The group wanted to enter a ‘competition’ event. I’m not into competitive arts but we decided to rock them with something quite different. We were limited in time, money, talent and scope.  I’m not a great believer that you can turn anyone into a great actor with very little training and so I determined to teach Brechtian method to the kids in order that they could deliver a message without having to learn Stanislavskian method in 10 sessions (an impossible feat).  It certainly taught me that for political theatre you can go a long way with Brecht at your side. And of course the kids didn’t win the competition – it was plush velvet theatre land. We certainly ‘alienated’ the audience in a good way (not all in a good way) with our combination of music and cardboard boxes and Brechtian style. I’m happy to say we shocked the blue rinse brigade.   The funniest moment was when the somewhat po faced judge came backstage to talk to the kids and ask them if they ‘knew’ what they had been doing and the youngest member of the cast regaled him with a full explanation of the Brechtian alienation effect, explaining how and why they had used it in the play.  It was a triumph. I’m sorry to say that the same wee lad cried at the end of the competition when they didn’t win. I felt for him. They were the best thing by a long shot. And he knew it.  But they were competing in the world of amateur dramatics.

I’m not being a snob but I’m afraid that amateur acting does not cut it for me. There’s enough of the old Stanislavskian in me to admit that when I’m being told to suspend disbelief I need to believe in the actors as real people and I’ve rarely met the am dram group who can pull this off.  For musicals it doesn’t matter. What is real about musical  theatre?  For opera its obligatory (which is why I hate opera, it’s so phoney) For Brechtian or Boalian style, classic Stanislavskian training is an irrelevance because fundamentally these styles are not about trying to portray reality in an unreal environment. It’s a shame that more amateurs don’t get themselves aligned with the dramatists who actually serve their skills and needs. But they don’t. They all want to be West End divas without the training and it just doesn’t work. So sadly, my juvenile cast learned a couple of important lessons that night. That life (especially in the theatre) isn’t fair and that Brecht is a dangerous guy to have on your side. But they also learned what it meant to tell ‘their’ story to the world in a way that suited them and played to their strengths. For that I thank Bertolt. And I’m now proud to call him one of my friends.

I had a similar passionate experience with Augusto Boal in 2002 which once more changed my life and direction. But that’s a story for another day. (16th of March to be precise!)


Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break is available to read in Chasing Waves in  Kindle and   epub.  formats. Chasing Waves was performed in 2004 to mark the end of my writers residency and was my final dalliance with Absurdism/Brechtianism before Boal stole my heart and soul.

Reviews available by those two great men of the theatre: Jan Needle  and Bill Kirton 

If you want to know more about Brecht and his alienation effect, do some googling. You should work at a relationship with Brecht, he’s not an easy conquest. You should also know he wrote some seriously good poetry. 

Charles Dickens joins the party

dickens2Here we are on Day 7 of the 50 Days of Celebration and it’s time to welcome Charles Dickens who would be 201 today.

I first met Charles Dickens at my grandfather’s knee. Actually to be strictly correct I should say on my grandfather’s knee. Because it must have been the Christmas of 1966 or 1967 when I remember sitting there with my grandfather reading A Christmas Carol to me. My grandfather was a courageous and inspired man and he held my attention not only with the great story (even though family members considered his dramatic rendition somewhat gory for a small child) by getting me to put my hand on his stomach while he blew smoke out through his ears, or doing that trick with thumb and finger that looks like you’ve severed a digit.

Anyway, that’s how I first met Charles Dickens, whose birthday it is today, and I’ve remained a firm friend ever since. Before I actually read his works in their entirety, I knew that he worked as a child in a ‘blacking factory.’ I didn’t (and still don’t really) know what a blacking factory is, but I knew that child labour wasn’t a pleasant idea or reality.

Charles made it to the big screen in 1968 with a film version of the musical Oliver! I already knew the music (and the story) because I had a record of the original cast recording (I still have it!) and had played it to death even by the age of five.  I had a little red dansette and during prolonged stays in bed with sickness, Oliver! was one of my staple sing a long choices.

Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s there was a lot of Dickens on television and latterly film.  I enjoyed lots of them in my formative years, but turning to the novels themselves added a whole new dimension.  Dickens adapts well for drama because his writing is dramatic in tone and because his characters are compelling and memorable.  He writes on a big stage, creating a whole world in a novel and offering plenty to keep everyone interested.

It’s the stories that have kept me captivated through my life. I suspect that I have Dickens to thank for the fact that I don’t think melodrama is a dirty word. For me, Dickens brings melodrama and social conscience hand in hand elevating both. He wrote very clearly for his time and yet he’s managed to transcend his time. He’s a writer who appeals to readers and he’s a writer’s writer. Charles Dickens has a lot to teach writers, especially writers of serial drama/fiction.  He knew how to hold an audience both on the page and on the stage.

Charles Dickens also has something to share with the new breed of indie writer as publisher. He started out as a jobbing journalist, wrote ‘sketches’ for magazines and the commercial nature of the business was vital for him. Many of his novels started as serial works (which one should take into account when reading them as it explains some of the raggedness of editing!) One should always remember to read contextually with time and original intent. This is so not just for Dickens. Dickens worked fast and juggled many balls at once. He might be claimed for the self publishing or indie publishing world as well  –  he founded Bentley’s Miscellany Magazine and published  his first novel Oliver Twist as a serial in it.  He edited and founded other magazines over the years and used them to showcase his work. There’s a message here for modern day self published / indie writers who think they can just write the book, shove it out there and wait for fame to come knocking. Those of us who baulk at the demands of marketing and social media today would do well to remember that even writers of ‘classics’ have been down the same path.  And that if you want success there is no short cut from hard work. Dickens toured America extensively and worked tirelessly to promote his writing (and his image) with the result that he became both rich and famous. He got in with the in crowd, made his own luck and played the game! There are plenty of his contemporaries who wrote great serials which did or didn’t become novels and did or didn’t gain public appreciation. Many of them are lost to us not because they were of a lesser quality than Dickens but more because the writers didn’t ‘play the game’ as effectively as Dickens. This is no criticism of Dickens, just a reminder that for every success there are many who do not succeed and that success isn’t the best judge of good writing.

But back to my personal relationship with Charles Dickens. He was with me through my A levels. I studied Little Dorritt and loved it.  He was with me through my University career.   Following a spectacularly poor result in 2nd year English Language I had to achieve some impossibly high score in my Literature paper to pass the course.  Thanks to Great Expectations and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights I managed it.  I knew both texts more or less off by heart and it was no hardship. I remember it as the first time I actually enjoyed an exam.

In the seven years I worked as a teacher/tutor I had Charles almost constantly by my side. Sometimes I confess I’d get confused as to which novel was which but if I asked my students to fill in the small details like names of characters and a few plot points, I could happily instruct them in how to write about Dickens like a pro. I developed a ‘system’ to get students through literature exams which involved linking themes and devices – and evolved into some amazing equations at times. I remember rendering Great Expectations into a sort of graph where one could follow the structural path of Pip’s journey, showing that as his financial status rose, so his moral probity fell.  I don’t have a favourite Dickens novel, but Great Expectations holds a particular place in my heart. As a writer it taught me a lot about open endings (and if you think the ending of GE is happy, you need to re-read it and find out about the Dickens/publisher dispute about this aspect of the novel.) Dickens writes memorable characters, he appeals to people on many levels. I find it especially clever that he managed to gain reading appreciation from the very people he lampooned  – realising that people don’t recognise themselves in fiction but do recognise their peers and love to laugh at them without realising they are actually being condemned themselves.  The lessons Great Expectations has to teach about money and morality are constantly with me. And the depth of irony never fails to appeal to me.

However, when I was seriously ill in hospital in 1996 and thought I was about to make my dying wish, I demanded David Copperfield to read. I don’t know why. I think maybe it was because I remembered it as a happy Sunday afternoon drama from childhood. Or because of the first person narrative.  I really don’t remember.  I just remember that somehow, I managed to read my way through it before not dying and being released back into the world. So Charles has been with me through many of life’s highs and lows.

Before I eschewed ‘possessions,’ I was given a complete edition of blue leather bound Dickens, which I still own, as a 30th birthday present. I have to confess that when I read Dickens I do so in paperback though. I find I am in awe of hardback books and don’t get the same reading experience.  I’ve not tried Dickens in ebook format yet.

Throughout my life it’s fair to say that Dickens gave me hope. In his own life I knew that he went from the blacking factory to writer and also to owning the house on the hill he always dreamed of.  I hoped for a similar journey. I’ve had it for the most part. Perhaps not the literary success but he gave me confidence in a more spiritual and moral rags to riches story.  He showed that there’s nothing wrong with writing for money. Or writing serially. And he shows what you need to do to become a ‘success’ both in Great Expectations and in his life, and allowed me to make a choice of which kind of Pip I would like to become.  For me Magwitch is one of the stand out characters in fiction. He’s a really good character. In every way. And that’s what I love most about Charles Dickens. Through his characters you see the foibles and failings of real people and are able to pick your friends based on more than the surface. The ‘Veneerings’  of Our Mutual Friend are just one example of how the name tells you about the character.  But Magwitch. I have a special place in my heart for him.

But I’d like to open this up to the floor and find out what other people’s favourite Dickens stories are.  Tell us how you befriended Charles Dickens and what joy your relationship with him has brought you….

And while you’re thinking have a listen to this…and sing along if you like.

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