Sunday, 13 November 2011

A writerly autumn

I've just got back from a week in London and have barely had time to reflect on recent weeks. Suffice to say, it's been a busy time from the writing angle. My appearance at Bewdley's OctoberFest was very enjoyable. I sold a few copies of A Passenger in Time and got a very positive reaction from the children and adults who came along - so thank you very much to all those keen readers and supporters and to the festival organisers and librarians who helped to make it happen (special thanks to Neville and James.)

Just before I disappeared off to London, I had an article published in the October issue of the British Journal of Wellbeing and, on my return, I discovered I'd had another article published in the delightful Acksherley! magazine. So I'm on a roll and decided to submit a new short story - The Idea of Marmalade - for BBC Radio Four's Opening Lines. Let's hope they like it.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Live appearance

Wednesday 26th October
Anthony Gillam appearing live at Bewdley Library
(a free event courtesy of Bewdley Festival)

I’m delighted to announce I’m taking part in Bewdley’s First Authors' Week - a week of readings and workshops during autumn half-term (October 22-29) brought to you free of charge, courtesy of Bewdley Festival.

Octoberfest is hosting a week of free readings by local and nationally celebrated writers for children, teenagers and adults. This is a unique opportunity to hear authors read from their latest publications and talk about the ways in which their tales are woven. There will also be an opportunity to buy signed copies of their books.

I’ll be appearing at Bewdley Library on Wednesday 26th October at 13.00 to read from and talk about my book A Passenger in Time.

(The event is suitable for children of about 9-13 years and children must be accompanied.)

Further details from Bewdley Festival website:

Monday, 29 August 2011

A musical summer

I wish I could say it's been a long, hot, sultry summer but, as a slight coolness in the air already hints at autumn, I can at least say it's been a very musical one. It began in June when the little Worcestershire village of Arley held its ArleyFest 2011 with fiddler, singer and tenor guitar virtuoso Seth Lakeman headlining. Seth and his band were amazing and lit up the crowd. At the end of the evening, a couple of lads who must have been no more than 12 called out to our trio of fiftysomethings: 'Hey! Did you see Seth? Brilliant!’

That was the Friday night highlight. But the great discovery at the ArleyFest weekend for me was in the acoustic tent on Saturday afternoon where three girls with guitars and keyboards performed a set of songs that perfectly evoke the exuberance and longing of youth. They called themselves -- enigmatically – One Sixth of Tommy, and sounded to me a little like an English version of The Roches or The Be Good Tanyas. Great harmonies, delicate guitar playing, subtle use of keyboards and highly original basslines left me wanting more. Unfortunately, their CD wasn't out yet and I wasn't sure I'd ever see or hear them again.

Later in June, (while One Sixth of Tommy were apparently playing at Glastonbury), I went to Wolverhampton with my old mate Martin to see Fleet Foxes. I can’t remember the Civic Hall ever being so full -- I'm used to seeing unpopular acts in half-empty venues. The Bees were the support act. Martin seemed unimpressed by them -- despite admitting to owning one of their albums -- but I thoroughly enjoyed their performance and admired their musicianship. I was pleased they did their delightful cover version of Os Mutantes’ A Minha Menina. Even their own songs sound like they might have been recorded in 1968. There is something about them that reminds me of The Young Rascals. The Bees have a rare quality in 2011 -- they make happy-sounding music!

Fleet Foxes were magnificent. They gave away White Winter Hymnal early on in the show and played a blend of songs from their first album and this year's Helplessness Blues before lead singer Robin Pecknold finished with a solo Oliver James.

After Fleet Foxes, I thought that might have been the end of my musical summer but then I got an e-mail about the Worcester Music Festival in August and found, to my joy, that the city's Old Rectifying House was hosting, among others, One Sixth of Tommy. I persuaded my friend Phil to come along. One Sixth’s songs were as strong as I had remembered them but, unfortunately, there were inexcusable problems with the sound-mixing. Phil and I were stood near the front so were almost hearing the band ‘unplugged’ but the rest of the audience would have struggled to hear the subtlety and beauty of the music. The band seemed to be aware that the sound was poor and looked fed up at times -- a shame because their music deserves to be heard and The Old Rectifying House ought to have been a perfect setting. Phil and I agreed we would try to get one of our local music venues to book them.

Meanwhile, to console us through the autumn days ahead, a crumb of good news: their debut album You're in my Head is released ... today!

You're in my Head by One Sixth of Tommy is available from Helium Records.

Monday, 18 July 2011

New story in Aquila magazine

I'm delighted to say those fabulous people at Aquila magazine have published one of my short stories in their bumper July/August issue. The story Time's Wing'd Chariot is about Josh, a boy who is finding it hard to settle in, since his family moved to Worcester to make a fresh start. Thomas, an eccentric old man Josh meets in Cafe Republico, seems a bit crazy - but is there a grain of truth in his story of 'intelligencers' from the 17th century?

For those of you who haven't yet discovered Aquila - it's a fun magazine aimed at children between 8 and 13 who enjoy challenges. It reminds me a lot of Look and Learn - a magazine I used to enjoy when I was that age.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Letter from a windmill

I know I’m not alone in finding a certain romance in windmills. Cervantes had Don Quixote famously tilting at them, imagining them to be giants. Fictional TV sleuth and magician’s creative consultant Jonathan Creek lives in one as did, according to the song, the notorious clog-wearing mice of old Amsterdam. So I was thrilled when my wife Sue suggested - by way of celebrating both my 50th birthday and our 25th wedding anniversary - that we should stay in a converted windmill in Rye.

Rye is a special place to us, having been the destination for several family holidays, inspired by my love affair with Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine books, (a number of which are set in and around the ancient Sussex town.) A few days of escape in dear old Rye - familiar but still enchanting - sounded perfect.

Rye Windmill is now a Bed & Breakfast with a calm and calming atmosphere and owners who thoughtfully but unobtrusively attend to every detail. The room was so comfortable and the breakfasts so perfect that we couldn’t even object to the noisy carousing of what we later discovered to be marsh frogs in the river Tillingham beneath our window. (You can hear what a marsh frog sounds like by clicking here.)

We were blessed with a few precious days of May warmth and sunshine and were able to enjoy long walks around Camber Castle. The castle, like Rye itself, was once a coastal defence that now stands stranded by a receded sea, as if it has been built inland by mistake. And beyond Camber Castle, we discovered Castle Water. For a moment we could have been in the Lake District and it’s hard to comprehend that this beautiful wildlife sanctuary of Castle Water hadn’t been there as long as the 16th century castle but was actually a very unromantic large gravel pit created by the extraction of shingle between 1930 and 1970. Ignorant of this, we allowed the blissful weather and location to create the illusion of our very own desert island with its shingle beach, comfortably shifting, like some kind of sedimentary memory-foam, beneath us when we slumped down for a rest.

Over the years we’ve been visiting Rye it has inevitably changed. Some of the pubs which were previously unbeatable pockets of atmosphere are now not worth visiting. Conversely, one pub that has been given a completely new lease of life is the Queens Head. We’d unfortunately missed the performance of French medieval folk band Les Derniers Trouvères who had been there for the Bank Holiday weekend but we were still able to enjoy real ale and a satisfying vegetarian chilli for a mere fiver. And there can't be many other pubs that run arts and crafts gatherings where you can learn the skills of bookbinding and reflections painting.

One of the other changes to Rye since our earlier visits has been the closure of a few of its second-hand bookshops and some of these seem to be have been replaced by photographers' galleries like Clive Sawyers’ next to Landgate Arch. Clive produces limited-edition photographic art taking as his subject not only the landscapes of Rye and Camber but those of Manhattan and Chicago.

Of course, I took a suitable book along to read during our stay -- Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from my windmill). In the late 19th century Daudet was the most successful novelist in France. Nowadays his books are largely unread. I bought my copy of this charming book 30 years ago when I lived in Brittany and I had never read it properly. Why not? Perhaps because I had never stayed in a windmill before.

Monday, 18 April 2011

"I looked in the sky where an elephant's eye was looking at me from a bubblegum tree ..."

It's been a very bookish blog these last couple of months so I felt it was time to talk music again. Here at the Passengers in Time offices there's a fairly constant soundtrack going on. Musical tastes here are very eclectic but I thought you might like to sample a typical selection. We’re very keen on the shuffle facility which makes for a bewildering variety of sounds. For example, one minute, it's American singer-songwriter and one-time Throwing Muse Kristin Hersh, the next it’s Breton hip-hop band Manau. While French pop music is rarely successful there’s something about hip-hop in the French language that works surprisingly well, especially when it’s fused with Breton folk music.

Former Aztec Camera front-man Roddy Frame is next up and the pared-down sound of his 2006 Western Skies has all of Aztec Camera’s lyrical ingenuity and joyous guitar without the over-production of 1980s pop. That said, 1983’s High land, hard rain remains one of my all-time favourites albums, along with the next
selection, Jackson Browne’s 1974 Late for the Sky.

You can't go wrong with a bit of Echo and the Bunnymen followed by Regina Spektor (no relation to record producer Phil Spector but rather an anti-folk Russian-American singer-songwriter and pianist, of course). A Perfect Circle’s 2003 album Thirteenth Step introduces complex drum patterns and an unnerving sense of menace in the lyrics. To lighten the mood after that you can't beat Philadelphia soul group The Delfonics, featuring spot-on harmonies against a lush orchestral backdrop and a bit of electric sitar, no less. Speaking of sitars, more fun it is to be had with Traffic’s 1967 hit Hole in my Shoe. It's a wonder we get any work done here at all!

Sunday, 20 February 2011

It may be ‘deeply unwise’, but keep on trying ... and have a good time

Recently I've been researching the links between mental health and creativity and have come across the following extracts from Daniel Nettle's book Strong Imagination. Nettle is an anthropologist and a psychologist and he provides this warning to those of us who aspire to produce creative works:

“Now to take on a major imaginative project requires remarkable chutzpah. If, dear reader, you aspire to be a writer, poet, actor, artist, film director, or musician, then however you sell it to yourself, you must believe something like the following statement to be true. You have to believe that you can do something that is difficult, in a way that has never been done before, which will be of so much interest to your fellow creatures that they will reward you for it. But I have news for you, I am afraid. You are almost certainly wrong. I say this purely on statistical grounds. The vast majority of would-be writers, artists, musicians, and actors never become known for anything. This doesn't mean they don't have a good time trying, but it does mean that they were probably, in some orthodox sense, deeply unwise this to follow the path that they did.”

While reminding us that the creative impulse is in a sense a pathological one, Nettle is right to point out that, however wrong-minded creative people might be in an orthodox sense, we might at least have a good time trying to produce something. If we don't at least have a good time trying then it becomes even more questionable why we should bother:

“Writing, painting, and composing are lonely occupations, which lack the online feedback that in other domains, such as sports and social interaction, keeps us motivated, concentrated, and happy. Any feedback that comes, and mostly it won’t, will come years later when the person is working on something quite different. To ride through a difficult and enervating task, week in, week out, quite alone, without any validation from the outside world, one has to sustain an unreasonably enthusiastic mood. In fact, one has to be in a mood which, from the point of view of most other activities in life, is pathological. One should not blast on with unabashed cheerfulness in a relationship that gives nothing back for months, or persevere in economic activity that seems to be yielding nothing. The adjustive function of the mood system should draw us gently away from these things. But the creator of imaginative products has to remain abnormally, almost irrationally, buoyant, and, to be successful, he has to produce a lot ... What distinguishes the most eminent producers from the rest in any cultural field is not that their work is consistently excellent. It is mainly that they produce a lot, and the more they produce, the more likely it is that some of it will be excellent.”

from Strong imagination - Madness, creativity and human nature by Daniel Nettle (Oxford University Press, 2001) pages 153 to 154

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Short stories with a poetic touch

Review of Graham Mort’s Touch

(published by Seren, 288 pages, £7.99)

The Bridport Prize is one of the highest accolades for writers of short stories so, when those splendid people at Seren sent me of a review copy of this anthology by the winner of the 2007 Bridport, I was delighted. Seren Books are one of the few publishers in the British Isles to publish short story collections and they are to be applauded for bringing together these 21 stories spanning two decades of Graham Mort's writing career.

The prize-winning story The Prince is a mesmerising piece of prose. Recalling one summer in the narrator's Yorkshire boyhood, it is a rich meditation on childhood and death. Touch - the story that gives this anthology its title - is an equally fine but very different piece told in a series of alternating scenes, cutting back and forth from Miles in Uganda (who works for a UK-based NGO) and Carol, his schoolteacher wife, in Yorkshire. Each is contending with the daily battles of life, far apart from one another, and the story describes the anatomy of a marriage surviving this work-enforced separation. Several of the stories centre on couples. In Annik and Serge a husband struggles with his wife's mental illness, their stark situation reminiscent of a Beckett play. Blood from a Stone features a couple half-heartedly house-hunting: “She was from Wolverhampton and it never seemed to bother her,” the narrator explains, “She'd have been happy with a new house on one of those estates that made me want to scream." The tone of many of the stories is quite downbeat, evoking a slightly seedy atmosphere and a barely suppressed rage. In The Caretaker a single parent tries to cope with a sick child: “the lights were still on in the florists ... It was getting close to Valentine's Day. It made her want to smash something... "

For me, the opening story, A Walk in the Snow is one of the most effective - another story of a couple - and an impressive display of Mort's poetic talents: “snow-water floods the gutters and gurgles into grids. In one solitary entry we find undisturbed snow. It peers back at us like a blank page, quiet as a swallowed cry.” For once, the warmth of the relationship here seems to prevail over the hostility of the setting.

This collection is full of dazzling and convincing writing. There is not, though, much light to contrast with the dreary worlds many of these characters inhabit. My other slight grumble about Touch is the cover design which shows a woman wearing a necklace of amber beads (presumably taking its inspiration from the story Annik and Serge). It's not a cover which would attract many male readers, I suspect, if they happened upon Touch in a bookshop. These two criticisms leave me pondering two bigger questions for short story writers, readers and publishers: is there no place for humour or light-heartedness in contemporary literary short fiction and are anthologies of short stories - even those by male writers - thought to be only of interest to a female readership?

About me

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).