What is the Old Bat on about?

A few months ago, an artist friend contacted me to discuss ideas for writer-artist collaboration. She’s a member of a group of artists who all graduated from the brilliant Fine Art degree programme at the University of Nottingham (which, shamefully, the University has closed down) – the group calls themselves Untitled.

One thing led to another, and we have now formed a group that includes Untitled artists and Nottingham Writers’ Studio writers. We had our first meeting last week, and came up with all sorts of interesting questions. The first question was, “What should we call the group?”… hence Untitled/Anonymous.

Image of an extract from A Humument by Tom Phillips

Extract from ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips

Other questions, to which I don’t yet have but am greatly looking forward to finding answers, include:

How are the processes of writing and making art similar and different?
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was finding out about each others’ processes. I hadn’t thought before about how writing and art are similar – you have an idea, skirt around it for a while, make sketches or write drafts, start to make the real thing, edit-edit-edit, produce ‘completed work’… we didn’t get into how the processes are different, but I’m sure more observations on this will arise during the collaboration.

What does the use of ‘cross-media’ do to a finished piece of visual/textual work?
i.e. not just combining words with visual elements, we can use the other senses too, including audio components and textures for instance. How will this affect the work we produce? How can we collaborate to find innovative ways of combining artistic elements?

How does the concept of narrative affect our work?
Narrative is an important concept for most people in the group – how a finished work contains and creates narrative, but also how narrative is inherent in most objects in the world. It’s obvious how narrative is contained in most writing, but how does it feature in visual art? and how can we find it in our surroundings and represent that in cross-media art?

I’m excited about the work this group will produce, I’m sure it’ll be fascinating, whichever direction it takes us in. I’ll keep you informed…

More about What Writing Is

Image of tape measure and steel ruleI enjoyed the exercise I wrote about in a recent blog post so much, that I tried it with the Nottingham Dovetail group. And they came up with some wonderful metaphors, which you can read here. My favourite keeps changing, but the current one is:

Writing is like a tailor’s measuring tape when you need a carpenter’s metal yard, when you need the stiff manageable steel that lays on ANYTHING flat. You have a floppy reel of cloth that falls off everything and is only tidy when it is rolled up in itself rendering it useless for its actual purpose. by Joêl Daniel

They say that clichés are shortcuts for ideas or metaphors we all understand because they’ve been used so much. (So that makes them equivalent to words, doesn’t it? but let’s not get into semiotics. that’s not why I’m here.) They’re also often irritating, not-useful, and upsetting. For instance, you’re walking down the street just after your best friend has told you she’s got cancer, and a well-meaning stranger says, “Cheer up, it might never happen.” How is that ever going to help?

Not a place of fond memories...

Not a place of fond memories…

One thing people said to me a lot when I was made redundant five years ago was, “Oh, that happened to so-and-so, she was devastated at the time but later she said it’s the best thing that ever happened to her.” I repeat, how is that ever going to help? It certainly didn’t help me. I was recovering from a particularly bad bout of depression, had only recently bought a new house that probably cost more than I could afford, and I didn’t have much chance of finding another job. I was sure redundancy was not going to improve my life. I signed on for jobseekers’ allowance and desperately tried to find work. No go. No-one was interested in a middle-manager with out-of-date technical skills when the economic crisis had just started to bite.

My preferred definition of "redundant" (from Merriam-Webster)

My preferred definition of “redundant” (from Merriam-Webster)

It’s been a hell of a struggle getting to where I am now… but I can honestly say I’m happy. Not financially secure by any stretch of the imagination, and I work twice as hard as I ever did at the company which employed me for over a decade, but that stinking cliché turned out to be true. I enjoy my work more than I ever thought it was possible to enjoy work. I don’t just work to live any more, and that feels good.

I was sitting in Broadway last week, waiting to meet a friend, and I happened to bump into an ex-colleague – someone who joined the company around the same time as I did, and who’s still there now. It was lovely to see him, but intensely depressing to hear that everything there is almost exactly the same as it was when I left.

  • Short-term gain overriding long-term planning every time – “yes, it might make us millions in the long run if we do it properly, but if we don’t make any profit on it this financial year you can’t do it.”
  • Sales-driven development – “yes, I heard you say you can’t produce that piece of software in two months, but I’ve told the client that’s when they can have it so that’s when you’ll have to produce it by.”
  • Constant undervaluing of technical skills – “you don’t need trained programmers, the data developers know how to write SQL, you can get them to knock up a quick C# program, and they’re cheaper.”
  • Macho bullshit everywhere – “what do you mean you don’t understand that particular bit of sales jargon? I couldn’t possibly demean myself by explaining it to you…” Meaningless work – “so the products we provide simply help marketing executives target their adverts and campaigns more successfully, making loads of money for already super-rich tax-avoiding corporations and their fat-cat bosses, so what? isn’t that what we should all aspire to do?”

In a microcosm, that’s what seems to me to be wrong with the country, and with the whole of Western-style capitalism. It makes me so angry. People aren’t people, they’re resources to be used, and if they’re useless as resources they’re useless as people. What sort of system is that? A crap one, that’s what.

But, it also makes me very very grateful that they chucked me out of that world that was destroying me, enabling me to find a world that nurtures and supports and fulfils me. The cliché turned out to hold true in my case. But that still doesn’t mean it was any use to me at the time.

Not sure why I wrote this post, but it’s been on my mind. Make of it what you will.



Not quite sure how this has happened. I don’t watch tennis. I don’t really care whether Murray wins or not. That Djokovic has just broken serve in the second set has provoked no reaction in me whatsoever. In fact, I think they’re idiots, running around in this weather…

The grass is cut to 8mm here.

Gosh, really? Every single blade of it?

The excuses

There are many things I should be doing. And I’ve been using the length of that list to avoid writing blog posts. Of course, it doesn’t mean I avoid doing other stuff, like watching the sodding tennis. The idea was that those lovely young men would rush around in the background while I got on with a couple of ebooks, or perhaps hacked away at the Five Leaves website. Instead, I have eaten a bag of Sainsbury’s Dolly Mixture and completed a puzzle on Jigsaw World.

Oh yes, Murray’s father is sitting next to his mother. Glad to see they haven’t had a domestic.

D’you know what, I can’t be bothered with excuses. I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been busy and tired. So there.

The news

The NWS Goblin

The NWS Goblin

I am now a goblin as well as an elf. Robin Vaughan-Murray has left Nottingham Writers’ Studio… and guess who’s gone and got his job? Well, you probably already know, because I haven’t exactly kept quiet about it. SO exciting! Today, NWS, tomorrow, the world! (Except Robin will probably get there first – he’s left very big shoes to fill and is now down in That London doing Remarkable Things.) So, why a goblin? Because I’m definitely not a pixie, of course! Obvious when you know.

A nice skinny one with not too much fluff

(they’re talking about BALLS, you fool!)*

So, Ms Goblin, what did you do yesterday?

The Rights of the Writer (extract)

The Rights of the Writer (extract)

Apart from sleeping, I spent a morning at NWS (busman’s holiday) with a delightful group of teachers, doing some writing. Jane Bluett and Sheila Hubbard are starting a group under the aegis of the National Writing Project – “a collection of groups of writing teachers extended by an online environment and supported by NATE, the National Association for the Teaching of English.” The idea is that if you teach children and you expect them to write, you should write yourself. It’s a program that’s been running in the US since 1974 with a great deal of success. Simon Wrigley and Jeni Smith, who came along and led some exercises yesterday, have set up a similar program in the UK, and I am very happy that a group is forming in Nottingham. They will meet once every half-term and do some writing exercises, which will lead to discussion and reflection to help inform their teaching practice. I hope the NWS can support this worthwhile enterprise…

I wrote something I’d like to share with you. The exercise was to take an object and use it as an extended metaphor for writing. I chose at random, and ended up with a toy car.

Small red plastic toy carWriting is like a tiny plastic red car. It has wheels that are a bit stiff, you can push it along and it goes, reluctantly, where you want it to go. There’s no steering wheel, no delicate system of hydraulics that allows you to point it towards your goal with the merest touch of your hand. Steering is achieved by brute force. You really have to push.

Then you discover that if you do something counter-intuitive, say, like holding it down and dragging it backwards, it builds up a momentum all of its own, and you can simply let it go and try to keep up. It might not go where you think it will, it might go round in circles for a while and then shoot off in a totally unexpected direction, but that’s what brings a smile to your face.

You don’t know what happens inside the tiny plastic red car. There’s some mechanism that stores the energy gained from going backwards and releases it in a forwards direction. Someone, somewhere, designed that mechanism. Someone else put it together. You, all you can do, is pull back, then let go, and see what happens.

I’m getting excited

(Boris Becker, in a very sexy voice)

Silly game, this

(Andrew Castle, not in a sexy voice)

*(TENNIS balls, you twit!)

Vague assignments…

Just finished teaching for the term – last lecture on Writing Industries to second year Creative and Professional Writing students yesterday. Can’t wait to read their assignments, they’re a good bunch and have lots of great ideas. Although some of them are still a bit taken aback by the topic of the first assignment: “Write a 2000-word essay on an aspect of the writing industries.” Too vague? I don’t think so, they’re creative writers, after all.

There is nothing wrong with fun!

There is nothing wrong with fun!

Up yours, HR

Also had an interesting discussion after class with one of the mature students. The topic of the lecture was ‘the business of being a writer’ – so I talked about how to make money from writing and writing-related pursuits, and finished by telling them to make sure they have fun, whatever they do. This mature student said that coming from an HR (human resources? human remains?) background, she felt it was inappropriate to tell them to ‘have fun’, because it’s not clear what that means. She’d prefer me to say ‘enjoy what you do’. Personally, I can’t see the difference. A consultation of my Facebook friends has not enlightened me. And the more I think about it, the more I think it exemplifies a lot of what’s wrong with the corporate/capitalist/humans-as-resources mentality. Why shouldn’t people have fun at work? If you assume (as I suspect this person did) that ‘having fun’ implies frivolity… what’s wrong with that? It’s essential at some point in most work contexts. If you assume that ‘having fun’ implies slacking off, then you’re just plain wrong. The two are not in the least bit equivalent. A lot of the time I’m slacking off, I’m most definitely not having fun – I’m bored, or feeling guilty, or fed up. Not ‘having fun’. So I stand by my instruction… whatever you do for a living, make sure you have fun while you’re doing it, at least some of the time. You are not a robot. You are not a resource. You are a person. If you’re having fun, you will be more productive and more creative and more motivated.

Why I’m tired

As part of yesterday’s lecture, I talked about the possibilities of freelance and/or portfolio careers. And being a self-centred git, I talked about myself for a while – being, I think, a good example of someone with a freelance portfolio career. So to prepare for this, I wrote down a list of everything I’ve done since graduating last summer. By the time I got to the end of the list I had to sit down in a darkened room.

  1. Worked at Five Leaves 3 days a week
  2. Taught on the Creative & Prof Writing and Humanities courses at Nottingham University
  3. Typeset several anthologies
  4. Shadowed writing projects in secondary school and prison
  5. Run workshops at art galleries, prisons, schools, poetry societies, festivals
  6. Worked with schoolchildren (all ages), prisoners, college and university students, adults from many parts of the community
  7. Learned about ebooks (freelance and through Five Leaves)
  8. Produced ebooks for several writers and producers
  9. Given presentations and workshops on ebooks at festivals
  10. Run bespoke and general training courses on ebooks
  11. Published articles/essays in journals and books
  12. Published several poems in magazines
  13. Coached writers in IT skills
  14. Designed and developed a website for a bookshop
  15. Designed and typeset festival programmes, posters, and other publicity material
  16. Volunteered at Southwell Poetry Festival
  17. Helped set up Beeston Poets – a series of readings by well-known poets at Beeston Library
  18. Gained an industry-recognised qualification in proofreading
  19. Proofread several PhD theses
  20. Copy-edited and proofread a non-fiction book (about to be published)
  21. Obtained EU funding for and am managing a creative writing project with partners in Nottingham, Karlsruhe and Budapest
  22. Elected board member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio
  23. Elected committee member of Nottingham Poetry Society
  24. Active member of steering committee for Nottingham Festival of Words
  25. Joined Society for Editors and Proofreaders
  26. Joined National Association for Writers in Education

I think it’s reasonable for me to take a bit of a break…

Something of Nothing

It’s Mother’s Day in the UK. I have had a lovely lazy day, being waited on hand and foot, relaxing and pampering myself.


OMG, I'm a mum! How did that happen?Actually, it’s not so far from the truth. I went to bed early last night and had a good night’s sleep. Got up at a relatively civilised time this morning to find a beautiful card waiting for me, opened said card, and thus started the day with a smile. No sign of kids till lunchtime, so took the opportunity to get on with lots of work-type things I’m normally too busy to catch up with. Felt a craving for cake, so did the Sainsbury’s shopping that I’ve been putting off for days. Got back at gone 1pm to find there was still no sign of male lifeforms in the house… was half-way through unpacking the shopping when Simon (#1 son) returned from a fruitless quest for maple syrup, gave me a hug and told me to go and sit down while he finished putting the shopping away. Then he cooked us lovely lunch of eggybread and bacon (he had planned to do american pancakes, but that’s no good without maple syrup), and Blake (#2 son) and I watched the utterly ridiculous Land of the Lost. We also ate cake. I’ve spent a pleasant afternoon doing more work-type stuff, and I think I shall have a similarly pleasant evening. Which might involve more cake, and possibly beer. Or wine. And I might phone my mother…

Happy Mother’s Day indeed!

This is a pome wot I wrote a while back…

blakeandsimonSomething of Nothing

Nothing is not
         sugar, butter, eggs and flour
         a stout mixing bowl
         25 minutes at 180°

it’s not
         bricks and mortar
         floors and ceilings
         four good-sized bedrooms

         a block of marble
         a mallet and a chisel
         the body in the stone

not         words
     not    words.

You and I
        unsettled ghosts
you cannot rest
        a comforting hand
        on my shoulder
I cannot find
        on your lips

yet somehow
we made our sons
of nothing
and    oh

    they are

Closets and Wedding Rings

OK, I’m cross. Very cross. It’s all too frequent these days, what with the increasing idiocy of politicians and the gradual erosion of standards of living across the board (oh, did I say ‘across the board’? I meant ‘for those who already have criminally low standards of living’). But I’ve just read this article on the BBC News website, in which Tory MP David Davies says Cameron’s plan to put through a bill allowing gay marriage is ‘barking mad’.

It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from a Tory, I suppose. But what the f*ckwit says is so STUPID that I’m literally shaking with anger.

I’ve found myself in the uncomfortable position today of supporting David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, all of whom are in favour of permitting gay marriage. Wow. Never thought that would happen. But good for them. They’ve come up with a reasonable way of legislating to allow gay people to get married without forcing churches that don’t consider loving relationships between people of the same sex to be valid to carry out the ceremonies. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do for now.

And what does this idiot David Davies say? Let’s look at it in detail:

“…we’re going to lose a large number of very loyal activists…” So it’s not about whether this is the right thing to do. It’s about whether people will still like the Tories if they do it. So, to go to extremes, it would have been wrong to take a stand against Hitler in the mid-1930s because it might upset people? Umm…

“If there are any sort of areas where there isn’t full equality with married couples then I’d be more than happy to support making changes to civic ceremonies, so I really don’t know why we need to go ahead with this at all.” So the right to be able to marry one’s life partner isn’t included in ‘full equality’ then? Umm… [and before anyone says ‘it’s just a word’ – BOLLOCKS is just a word as well. As is FUCK. And if you’re offended by that, don’t try to tell me words don’t have any power.]

“I think most parents would prefer their children not to be gay, knowing most parents want grandchildren if nothing else.” Well, Mr Davies, my parents have three children, only one of whom has (or is likely to have) children. And that child is the one that is gay. Umm…

“…having gay marriage recognised by law which opens the door to all churches being forced to do that…” apparently because we have so many laws imposed on us by the European Court of Human Rights. Oh, for pete’s sake. I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.

“It changes the way that sex education is going to be taught in schools.” W, as they say, TF? How? Why? If there would be a change required by allowing gay couples to marry, then perhaps that change should be happening anyway, huh?

I’m furious. FURIOUS.

This issue isn’t particularly relevant to me as an individual at the moment, even though I’m gay. I’m not in any kind of relationship, and to be honest, there’s not much room in my life for all the shenanigans that go with finding someone to be in a relationship with. When would I find time to go on a date? I work 12-16 hours every day, 7 days a week. No time or energy for a quick shag, let alone a fulfilling relationship. And, strange as it may sound, I’m perfectly happy on my own.

However, it is very relevant to all of us as a society, and hence to me as a member of that society. Stella Duffy expresses the argument for allowing gay marriage a lot more clearly and powerfully than I ever could, so I suggest you read her recent post, Ten Reasons I’d Like To Be Allowed To Marry My Wife.

I have two sons. As younger teenagers, they adopted the playground use of the word ‘gay’ as a derogatory term. I tried to explain to them that this was hurtful to gay people and encouraged subconscious or casual homophobia. They said, ‘Mum, it’s just a word.’ I didn’t tell them I was gay.

A year or so later, when I did tell them, I’ve never been so proud of the way they reacted. Or rather, didn’t react.

Me: ‘Kids, come here, I’ve got something to tell you.’
[kids approach, looking worried]
Me: ‘I’m gay.’
Kids: ‘Oh, is that all?’
[Kids get back to whatever they were doing]

And ever since then my sexuality hasn’t been an issue. The only thing that changed is that the boys have stopped using ‘gay’ as a casual insult.

I know lots of young people. And I can’t think of a single one of them that is the slightest bit fazed by homosexuality, or would want to deny gay people the right to marry, or would treat gay people as inferior in any way. In fact, my older son is ruder about people with ginger hair than he is about gay people (I don’t approve of gingerism either, by the way – it’s just as irrational as homophobia).

Perhaps David Davies and all those idiots who think gay people don’t deserve the same rights as anyone else should listen to the next generation and stop living in the past.

WANKERS, the lot of them. (hey, it’s just a word)

Criminal Designs

Beeston Poets 2012 season flyer

I designed this over the weekend. Three things:

1. Tickets will be available very very soon. Probably tomorrow. Definitely by the end of the week. Buy them.

2. I’d love to hear what you think of the poster, design-wise. Any critiques gratefully received. Trying to get the hang of this graphic design lark.

3. This particular Beeston Poets elf is VERY VERY EXCITED about the whole project!

In other news…

Got lots of work on at the moment. Good job I can survive on 4 hours sleep for a couple of weeks. Caffeine addiction has firmly re-established itself.

Nottingham Festival of Words is taking shape, slowly but surely. I’ve volunteered to design the programme and they’ve accepted my offer. Whoop whoop! If you haven’t done so yet, sign up to the mailing list, like the FB page, and mark 9th-24th Feb 2013 in your diary. Oh, and don’t forget to sign up for the Festival launch, which will be at Antenna on September 12th, and is free.

And… tomorrow I’m off to prison.

Behind bars - and not the sort that sells beer



I’m going to a meeting to discuss a creative writing project at Sudbury Open Prison, where I’ll be shadowing someone and will have the chance to run a workshop with prisoners. What fun!

Lots of other stuff happening. But if I wrote about all of it you’d get bored and I’d get even less sleep.

I love being ignorant. It means there’s something I don’t know which I can learn.

Five Leaves' new camcorder

Scary? I don’t think so!

This is a surprisingly recent realisation. Someone expressed astonishment that I’m not scared of electronic gadgets (in this case, Five Leaves’ new camcorder) and asked, “Do you actually enjoy working out how to use them?”

There were so many exclamation marks in her voice that the proofreader in me had a red pen out of my rucksack before she’d got to the question mark. My immediate response was, “No, I just get on with it, and I find it relatively easy, so there’s no problem.” Later, on the way home, I thought about it some more.

C++ Pocket Reference

THIS is scary… (all will become clear)

I’d spent a little while playing with the camcorder at home, getting to know its basic controls. I captured this clip of #1 hairy brat… as you can see, he was impressed with my movie-making prowess. (Why isn’t there a way to embed the video into my blog post? Another area of ignorance on my part… excellent!) [edited: see below 🙂]

I thought that was enough to prepare me for recording the speakers at a Five Leaves event. After all, I was just going to put the camcorder on a tripod, point it in the right direction and press ‘record’. Um. No. Not that easy at all. It did lots of automatic adjustment stuff depending on where the speakers were, which resulted in an annoying variation in brightness. I didn’t zoom to the right shot for some of the bits. And, horror of horrors, I couldn’t ask the speakers to start again from the beginning so I could get it right. LOTS to learn. Goody goody…

From Revolution To Repression launch event flyerJust in case you’re interested in the event I was filming, this is the flyer (click on the image to see an enlarged version).

You can see two of the videos by following these links:

Gennady Estraikh answering the question ‘Why did Stalin murder Yiddish writers?’

Ross the Boss reading part of a story by Peretz Markish

[edited: Or you could scroll down to the bottom of this post where you’ll find all three videos embedded! I found out how to do it and am happy! It’s actually quite easy – you don’t use the embedding HTML generated by youtube, you just paste the URL into the post as plain text, and WordPress magic does the rest.]

The book, From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing 1917-1952, edited by Joseph Sherman, is full of fascinating fiction and poetry, and has a couple of essays about the history of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the decades after the Russian Revolution.

Ignorance = happiness

“So, Pip,” I hear you ask… “why is your life so much better now than it was when you were earning a fortune working in the computing industry?”*

My answer is: because I’m almost always working on something I don’t know very much about. And I love it. I’m always being challenged, but in a good way. I’m not expected to do everything brilliantly (even by myself these days, thanks to 12 months of CBT and a repeat prescription for antidepressants!), which removes a lot of the pressure, and means when I succeed it feels like a real triumph.


A teaser for the next blog… do you like this logo? what does it mean to you?

When I started working with computers I loved it. All those amazing things you could make them do, all the ins and outs of arcane programming languages and development frameworks. Designing software that would do exactly what the clients wanted it to do. It was an intellectual challenge, and it was fun. But after a while, I realised I was just doing essentially the same thing over and over again. I knew how to do it all. Yes, there were new languages and new frameworks, but the learning process was the same as the last time. And gods, it was BORING.

Variety isn’t quite enough. There has to be novelty too. And the best way to achieve that is through the deliberate pursuit of ignorance, then the resolution of that ignorance. My ex-husband says, “Stupidity is worse than ignorance. At least ignorance can be cured.” And for once, I agree with him.

* I have no idea why you would be asking that question either… but go with the flow…

Meet Brother Capslock

Meet Brother Capslock

The Workers’ Club

I went to London yesterday, just to keep an eye on the boss… this is what he got up to.

I was given charge of Five Leaves’ new camcorder, and this is my first ever youtube video… I obviously have a lot to learn, but I’m quite pleased that it’s watchable.

From Revolution to Repression event flyerFive Leaves was launching its newest book, From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing 1917-1952 at an event commemorating the execution of 13 members of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee by Stalin’s regime. Five of those murdered were writers, who are represented in the book alongside other notable Soviet Yiddish writers.

The event was fascinating, even though I know next to nothing about Soviet Yiddish writers and the social, political and historical context of the time. I know a bit more now… and am greatly looking forward to reading the book.