MIRLive : July 5th 2024

MIR (The Mechanics Institute Review) will be holding its third and final live event of the academic year on Friday, July 5th (Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square, 6:30 pm). The event will include eight readings, including six from current Birkbeck BA and MA creative writing students and two guest speakers. Guest speakers to be confirmed.

If you’re a current student interested in reading at the event, please send a piece of prose (up to 1,500 words) or two poems to mirlivesubmissions@gmail.com by 5pm, Friday 14th June. Submissions should have ‘MIR Live Submission’ as the subject line of the email.

Please include your name, the title(s) of your piece(s), and a contact email address at the top of the first page.

We will prioritise submissions from people who have not had a chance to read at one of our events this year.

The MIR Live team

An Interview with Anthony McGowan

By JB Smith 

Anthony McGowan was born in Manchester, went to school in Leeds, and now lives in London with his wife, two kids and a dog. In the past he has worked as a nightclub bouncer, a civil servant and a tutor in philosophy at the Open University. He is the author of over 40 books for children and adults.

 

Authors are a strange breed. They dedicate their lives to creating things of beauty, spinning webs of enchanting lies that show us the way towards truth. And yet to do this requires dedication verging on masochism that leads an otherwise sane individual to turn up day after day, week after week, as they attempt to pin the slippery threads of story to the page like trying to wrestle an eel into a jam jar.

I can’t think of anyone who embodies this split sense of character better than Anthony McGowan, the award winning author of over 40 books for children and young people, yet a writer whose career encompasses everything from literary thrillers to a treatise on how to teach philosophy to your dog. His books often draw on classical literature and he has a PhD in the philosophy of beauty, and yet to talk to him you get the sense of an unpretentious, no-nonsense writer who +++++. We meet on Zoom and he speaks in a rapid-fire stream of anecdotes propelled by self-deprecating humour and enthusiasm.

For McGowan the theme of contrast began right back in childhood. He grew up in the sleepy village of Sherburn nestled among the fields and fells of North Yorkshire, but went to a tough secondary school in the sprawling outskirts of post-industrial Leeds. His parents were nurses, which marked him out as distinctly middle class compared to the poor kids around him. But rather than dwell on the difficulties, he tells me that it was at Corpus Christi Secondary School that the spark of writing was first kindled.

“There wasn’t a great culture of learning at school,” he says. “But I was one of the brainy kids.” And the early encouragement he received created a positive feedback loop. “When you’re thirteen and you get praised for something, you want to do more of it.”

The trickle of encouragement swelled into a lifelong love of writing. Promising essays became promising stories, and then came the dodgy teenage poetry which apparently is in the contract of every author to have written to impress girls/boys (delete as applicable).

By his mid-teens he knew that his future would involve “something to do with words.” But on leaving school that “something to do with words” was hazy and undefined.

His undergraduate degree turned into an MPhil and a life plan unfurled ahead of him. “I thought I would carry on in academia, then probably write one literary novel per decade.”

But instead of a comfortable academic job and a leisurely output of literary works he was spat out of university into the grinding boredom of the Civil Service. And if there’s one thing you can be certain of, it’s that office drudgery will either wring every drop of creative juice out of the dishcloth of your soul, or light a creative fire under your backside. Thankfully for McGowan it was the latter.

The dullness of work was the impetus that began McGowan’s journey into publishing, but the route he took was circuitous, bizarre, and completely unreplaceable.

 

While still a Civil Servant McGowan began work on his first novel, Hellbent, a wonderfully unhinged retelling of Dante’s Inferno in which a teenager dies and goes on a journey through Hell. And this first foray into writing fiction felt like the bursting of a dam. “It just poured out of me,” he says, eyes gleaming with the memory.

So far, so relatable. But this is where McGowan’s story veers off into the leftfield.

“The rejection was completely dispiriting,” he says. “I was determined to get into publishing, but I totally hit a wall. And then there was, well, kind of a funny swerve in my career.” He pauses for a moment, and looks away from the screen. I wonder if he’s about to change the subject but he smiles back into the camera and ploughs on with the story. “So I reinvented myself as a woman.”

This was the late 90s, post Bridget Jones landscape and so McGowan wrote two novels under a female pseudonym which landed him first an agent and then a book deal. I wonder if this might be even more bruising to his self-esteem, having been rejected under his own name but accepted with a false persona. But that wasn’t the way his mind worked. Instead of simmering with resentment, he sent Hellbent to his agent, who had no idea about the pseudonym, under his own name. She loved it and took him on in his own right.

Once again Hellbent was sent out. Once again it was rejected across the board, but this time with far more encouraging, personally written rejections. The general consensus being “this is amazing, but it’s unpublishable because it’s so weird”.

“So my agent suggested I write something more commercial, and I went away and wrote a literary thriller called Stag Hunt.” Off the back of two chapters and a synopsis he signed the biggest book deal of his life and success seemed all but assured. But here is where his story veers out of the leftfield, crashes through a fence into the ditch of downright horror. I’m surprised to see that he’s still smiling as he relates the story.

“Stag Hunt was published by Hodder and Stoughton. Beautiful edition. Nice reviews. Tesco bought tens of thousands of copies.” But here’s the kick. “The barcode had been misprinted and wouldn’t run through the tills.”

Tesco returned tens of thousands of copies and, in the blink of an eye (or the bleep of a till scanner) he went from being the hot new thing to the guy who got Hodder and Stoughton stuck with 40,000 copies of his debut novel. I’m about to suggest that the blame might lie with the person responsible for printing the barcode rather than the author but I think it best to let sleeping dogs lie. Instead, I ask if this left him feeling as utterly crushed as I would be in that situation. But it turns out a healthy dose of naivety saved him from becoming a gibbering wreck.

“The exhilaration of getting published at all meant I just thought, it doesn’t matter. It’s only a small set back. But what I hadn’t realised was how crucial a step it was. Tesco would have made it a best seller, and my career would have been underway.”

McGowan’s status was obliterated. The sequel came out with no press and sold effectively zero. And here we reach another point in McGowan’s journey at which most sane individuals would abandon writing and take up knitting or competitive marrow growing. But, to paraphrase Octavia Butler, the most valuable attribute for an author isn’t erudition or literary flair, but downright bloody mindedness.

Now that he was a known author, Hellbent was picked up by a publisher. The book was reworked for a YA audience, and McGowan had unwittingly stumbled into the career that would lead him to write over 40 books and win the Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious award for children’s literature in the country.

I ask if this was perhaps a more fitting career path given that his first inclination had been to write a YA novel without realising it. I can feel the follow up questions bubbling about the psychic landscape of childhood marking us out as writers for young people but McGowan gently smothers my armchair psychology with his pillow of cheerful pragmatism. “I would have been quite happy as a literary thriller writer,” he says with a wry smile. “It’s just that my books for younger readers are what got published.”

The next few years saw a steady stream of novels in which McGowan continued to hone his trademark humour, offbeat storytelling and vivid imagination. After Hellbent came Henry Tumour about a boy with a talking brain tumour, then The Knife That Killed Me which was made into a feature film. But the sales of YA fiction just weren’t quite enough to sustain a career. So his agent suggested he try his hand at writing for younger readers.

And so after his initial aspirations to academia and the odd literary novel, McGowan now found himself the author of such titles as the Bear Bum Gang, Einstein’s Underpants and the Donut Diaries. Many would see this as a demotion but that couldn’t be further from the truth. McGowan brought all the same intelligence, humour and imagination to his books for younger readers, yet still driven by the pragmatism of a writer who needs book sales to pay the bills. “A teenager might get through one or two books a month,” he says. “But a seven-year-old gets through three books a week with their parents reading to them.”

After he had a few books to his name, McGowan was approached by Barrington Stoke, an independent children’s publisher focussed on books for reluctant readers. And it was this relationship that would see McGowan write the series of books that became The Truth of Things, arguably some of the most moving and memorable novels for young people written in recent years, and would ultimately land him the Carnegie medal.

The stories follow two teenage brothers, Nicky and Kenny, navigating an incredibly difficult childhood in rural Yorkshire. Mum has left, dad is a recovering alcoholic, and the older brother Kenny has severe learning difficulties meaning Nicky has to act as his carer. But if that sounds like a litany of misery, then think again. Each instalment sees the brothers tackling life’s challenges with humour, love and resilience. Each story centres around an encounter with the natural world such as rescuing a badger who was attacked by terriers, and nursing it back to health. But this act of healing goes both ways, and gives them access to stores of resilience within themselves, and connects them to the larger webs of nature and landscape that elevates them beyond the humdrum of their lives.

But if my unashamed outburst of sincerity makes the books sound worthy or trite, then once more it’s time to think again. Nicky and Kenny are gushing torrents of the usual potty mouthed buffoonery that characterises most teenagers and there isn’t a shred of sentimentality to be found.

The books are told though Nicky’s voice which is a funny and deeply authentic encapsulation of a working class teenage boy. I’m keen to know more about his process of finding that voice on the page.

“I kind of think with my fingers,” he says. “It just comes out through the hands when I’m writing.” But that moment of “thinking through his fingers” is accessing a whole lifetime of experience. “You’re drawing on all of your memory. All of the things that have happened in your life which get squished and compressed by the geological forces of time in your brain.”

Talking about meaning in a story is always a bit queasy. Whenever Ursula LeGuin was asked what this or that story “meant” she would “smile politely and shut my earlids”. But story and meaning are inseparable, and the Nicky and Kenny books are some of the most and meaningful books I have read in the last decade. So I take a deep breath and tiptoe towards the subject.

The final book Lark sees Nicky and Kenny lost in a snowstorm on the Yorkshire Moors, following a stream as they try to find their way back to safety. McGowan weaves together so many threads of meaning and significance, with the river connecting to story, to the flow of our lives, to confronting the hardships of life with family at your side. I wonder if he’s thinking about those layers of meaning as he writes, or if he just follows the story and leaves the rest to his reader.

“I don’t think I did consciously think about those layers,” he says after a pause. “My whole process was about getting into Nicky’s mindset. At the end you discover that he’s the author of the story, so he has his own poetic sensibility. So if there are layers, they are Nicky’s layers rather than mine.”

No matter whose layers they were, they certainly resonated with readers across the country. Lark went on to win the Carnegie medal, which he understandably describes as the crowning moment of his writing life.

Having spent four books with the same two characters rooted in the soil he himself sprung from, McGowan understandably felt the pull of new horizons. And this led to his most recent book, Dogs of the Deadlands, which leaves the rolling hills of Yorkshire for the depths of the Ukrainian forests in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But while the landscape had changed, McGowan’s fascination with the natural world had grown even stronger.

The story opens with the meltdown of the reactor that tears Natasha Taranova from her home, leaving her new puppy Zoya behind. From here the narrative splits, following Natasha’s attempts to adjust to life in Kyiv, but mainly focussing on Zoya and her pups who are thrust into a wild world of hunger, survival and wolves.

If the Nicky and Kenny books are close focussed and intimate, Dogs of the Deadlands is a sweeping epic; a post-apocalyptic Animals of Farthing Wood, where Fox rips Badger’s throat out in the first chapter.

The book had a long gestation period for McGowan, and the details of its conception are hazy. “I’ve told so many stories about the book’s origin that I can’t quite remember what’s true and what I’ve made up. I’m 90% sure that the idea began when I saw a National Geographic documentary about the rewilding of Chernobyl.” His eyes light up as he relates a scene where a wolf pack has taken over a deserted farmyard and one of the wolves jumps onto the roof of an outbuilding and howls. “In my memory you could see the ruins of Chernobyl in the background,” he says with a wistful smile.

From that image the seed was planted, but the soil was already fertile. McGowan was captivated by nature from a young age, and it was the natural world rather than the human tragedy that attracted him to the story.

“My fascination wasn’t so much the accident but the rewilding. When the humans left, the big herbivores moved in, then the big predators. So, because there are no people, it’s a fantastically rich and exciting place.”

And the book that grew out of McGowan’s fascination is equally as rich and exciting. It’s gripping and heart breaking, violent and life affirming, and the interior lives of the canine protagonists are brilliantly rendered on the page. I wonder how hard it was to balance making the animals understandable to a human reader while not anthropomorphising them beyond recognition.

“I didn’t want my animals to speak like little humans like the rabbits in Watership Down. I couldn’t make them completely animal, but I wanted the book to be true to the brutal reality of their lives and not romanticise them at all.”

And he certainly doesn’t romanticise the lives of the dogs. Their existence is a constant balancing act between evading starvation whilst not becoming a meal themselves.

As we reach the end of our allotted time, I try to give the interview a semblance of structure by asking a question about endings. There is something incredibly special about the feeling of getting towards the end of a good book. The sense of propulsion towards the narrative conclusion, the bittersweet feeling of a good story coming to an end. I wonder if he feels the same as he’s approaching the end of writing a book, or if he’s just happy to get the dratted thing done?

“Generally speaking, when I start writing a book I already know the ending, and usually there’s a momentum building as I get closer.”

He circles back to the ending of Lark which is one of the most beautiful yet heart wrenching endings I can remember. The series appears to come to a climax with the return of the boys’ mother, but that scene ends and there are a few pages left. We flow forward in time and see the life of Nicky blurring past, and we end beside the hospital bed of Kenny who is dying of cancer, at the very moment Nicky decides to pick up a pen and begin writing the stories we have been captivated by for four incredible books. When I first read that scene I must have looked like I had been chopping onions for days, but the emotion didn’t just go one way.

“A couple of years after the book came out I did a school visit and the teacher asked me to read the final part. But I had kind of forgotten what happened. When I got to the last bit, I actually started crying in front of all these kids. So that was when I realised that yeah, the ending worked out ok.”

Illustration from Dogs of the Deadlands by Anthony McGowan
JB Smith is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction who grew up in Shropshire and is now based in South London. Over the years his journalism has taken in topics such as music, art, science and mental health. HE is currently studying for an MA IN CREATIVE WRITING AT BIRKBECK, UNIVERSITY of london.
Breaking Kayfabe by Wes Brown

Breaking Kayfabe: An Interview with Wes Brown

By Craig Smith

It takes awareness, intelligence and creativity to compete professionally at sport. Its exponents have to process multiple sources of ever-changing information in real-time and react accordingly, trusting their body to back their decisions. It’s arguable sportspeople are not given enough credit for how good they have to be to compete at the highest level; they are judged on post-match interviews and PR-filtered press conferences, and only their counterparts and opponents truly know what it takes to survive and thrive in any given sporting arena.

Some sports are given more licence than others. No one is surprised when a cricketer speaks eloquently about landscape painting, nor when a loosehead prop quotes Greek, but these are sports most readily associated with expensive educations. The wider world expresses amazement when a Rugby League player has Grade 8 piano, or a footballer is studying GCSE Maths. There’s snobbery involved.

Professional wrestling might be the sport we expect least of. For many people, wrestling is Mick McManus fighting Kendo Nagasaki of a Saturday teatime, or a mulleted loud-mouth from Idaho smashing a tea-tray across an opponent’s head. We don’t imagine there are participants deconstructing the sport, examining its many layers of reality, and dreaming new ways to blend its combination of performance, athletics and theatre. There are people who don’t believe it hurts.

Wes Brown is a professional wrestler from Leeds, the son of wrestler Earl Black; he’s also a novelist and poet, and the Programme Director of the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. Wes grew up grappling with his brother in his dad’s front room, and piling through book after book at Leeds Modern, the alma mater of Alan Bennett and Bob Peck. His novel, Breaking Kayfabe, published by Bluemoose, is a retelling of his career as a wrestler and his growth as a writer, as he developed his strong style of wrestling and his ‘no style’ of writing.

Were you always a writer?

I began to get creative in my teenage years. I was in a short-lived band that didn’t go anywhere. Film was my main thing. We made a short film that was the only non-funded short film to be included in the Leeds Young Persons Film Festival.

But the bother of getting a location, getting equipment, working with people: it was a logistical nightmare every time I wanted to create something new. It got too much. You could have a vision for a piece but it might require a CGI budget of $700 million, or something ridiculous, yet if you write ‘thunderstorm’ in a story, there it is, a thunderstorm. I realised I didn’t need all those other people.

So that’s how I started writing. I wrote poetry to begin with, and weird genre stuff. I saw an advert for an Arts Council-run writing programme called the Writing Squad, that was open to writers in the North. I got on as a wildcard entry. They’re still going today. It’s become a bit of an institution; all sorts of writers have come through it. There’s an analogy to football, to a youth academy, the idea that you can take people’s skills to another level if you create an intensive environment to support them. Otherwise, they’re left to their own devices.

From the age of 16, I had some poems published through the online version of Sheath magazine, which was connected to Sheffield Uni.

Was that run by Ian McMillan at the time?

It was, yeah. I also had poems published in Aesthetica, and one or two other places. When I was 18, I sold a short story as part of an anthology for Route publishing, who were a Pontefract-based fiction publisher who switched to publishing music books. I did an internship with them. I was quite young – eighteen, the same age as Wayne Rooney. I’d sold a story for 50 quid. I was the Wayne Rooney of the writing world, both breaking through. Nothing could stop me.

And then there was a period in the wilderness where I was experimenting, writing nonsense. When I was 24, I published a novel with a small press. And it was just bad: the novel wasn’t fully finished, I didn’t like the production, there were proofing issues. It just felt fake.

Round that point, there were other things going on in my life. I had a massive identity crisis for a few years, which lasted till I was offered the opportunity to train as a pro wrestler. The Writing Squad offered to pay my training fees, so long as I wrote something about it. And I thought ‘I’ve got nothing better to do. I’m pretty depressed. I’ll go be a wrestler’.

I got into wrestling training and literally became another person, Or at least, I pretended to be.

Wes Brown
Wes Brown


Were you still writing?

I went to Birkbeck at the back end of that. Doing my MA got me back on track with fact-based fiction, blending fact and fiction, as I felt that’s where I needed to be. The novelly novels and the fiction I had written felt cartoonish and fake. Birkbeck got me into a space where I felt my writing was a lot better. And that became the book, Breaking Kayfabe.


What was the benefit of the MA for you?

I spent a long time not being able to control my writing. Some good stuff would come out, and some bad stuff would come out, too. And people would be into the bad stuff or pretend to be. I thought people were Kayfabing me. I was thinking, ‘Do you really think this is good? Or are you just being nice?’ I had that doubt.

I was doing what a lot of new writers do, where they want to show that they can write. They don’t write normal sentences, because everything has to be about dazzle. And nobody is impressed. ‘That’s all very well, but tell us a story.’

And it wasn’t until I went through the workshop process on the MA that I realised what people really thought, and found I knew what I wanted to do.

Describe the connection between strong style wrestling and no style writing.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to write in a high literary style, and people have gone, ‘but that’s not you’. It suggests that if you’re southern middle class, you can write like that but, if you’re from the north, you can’t, and I thought, ‘Well, what if I want to have a literary style?’ But on the other hand, there is a kind of truth to it.

And through the MA, when dazzle didn’t work, I developed this new style that I call the ‘no style’ style. I wanted to write invisibly. I didn’t want my fiction to feel laborious. I wanted it to be a rush that I got into, that didn’t feel like writing. Weirdly, people reacted better to ‘no style’. I have a no nonsense, direct, colloquial way of speaking that I’ve grown up with, which I bring to my style of literature. It’s that flatness that makes the style different and literary in a way.

So I wanted to be strong style in the ring. And I wanted to be strong style on the page as well. In wrestling, there’s a phrase that no one’s going to believe it’s real but you want to make people forget that it’s fake. I wanted an MMA vernacular that would be plausible, that would be realistic and would look like it might hurt somebody, something you may use in a fight, to create that reality effect.

And so that’s what the ‘no style’ was. I wanted it to seem spontaneous, to deliberately not write well. And that was a risk because if you want to purposefully write with a little bit less gloss and a little bit less polish, it could come off like you just can’t write. But I wanted it to be a bit rugged, you know.

William Regal is a British wrestler who trained people in a WWE Performance Centre. For him, the aesthetics of good wrestling should be a little ugly. It shouldn’t look too choreographed. It shouldn’t look too clean, because it should still look like a proper fight. That’s what I wanted in the book. I wanted it to be a bit ugly. I wanted it to be a bit sort of rough and rugged. It wouldn’t be too pristine.

There was a macho man match in WrestleMania 92, or something like that, where they choreographed every single movement in the match. That was largely unheard of at the time, but it went over really well. Over time, that has become the template. Everything’s highly choreographed.

The alternative is to do it spontaneously. You call it on the fly. You feel the crowd. You feel the story of a match and just run with it. And I wanted some of that spontaneity in the book because I love calling it on the fly. In the ring, it adds a sense of unrehearsedness. There’s the thrill of the real.

And with the book, I wanted that flow. I wanted it to flow out of me. And it wasn’t always possible because it’s a difficult state to get into, but I didn’t want to do it in too cogent a way. So for the most part, Breaking Kayfabe doesn’t have chapters, but it’s got collections of scenes that constitute chapters, and I wrote each in one go. I did everything in one sitting. And if it didn’t work, I did it again the next day. I just did it again until I got it. So almost all of it is written spontaneously. I tweaked it a little bit, and the editors added stuff, but by and large, that’s how it came out.


If you’re blending fact and fiction, does that affect the reader’s assumptions about you?

There’s a Nabokov quote: ‘You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose’. And you can always count on a pro wrestler to be an unreliable narrator. They’re slippery and you never know when a pro wrestler is working you or not. That’s one of the joys of the book for me, because people don’t know. I like to see how much have I worked you. This could be a work, it could pretty much all be fiction. It could be a shoot – this is a wrestling term where it’s legit – or it could be a worked shoot, where I make it look like it’s a shoot, but it’s actually a work. Or it could be just a shoot, that I’m pretending is a work. Or it could be elements of all those things.

And people will want to know how much of it is true or not. One reviewer said I was greedy because I was trying to have this pro-wrestling character protagonist, who is also literary, making literary allusions. And I’m like, I am Dr. Wes Brown, literary critic, novelist, programme director of a Birkbeck MA: it would be unusual if I weren’t to think of literature. What am I to do, self-censor, just because he wanted some sort of wrestler who doesn’t think about these things?

Pro wrestling likes to introduce real-life elements, or sometimes real life intrudes into it as well, when people start fighting for real or real feuds come to the fore.

I want that slippery slope of how much of this is real, and never really give a conclusive answer.

Breaking Kayfabe by Wes Brown
One of the things that made me think the story was true to your life was the short story you drop into the middle of the narrative. It seemed such a writerly thing to do: you’d written the short story and didn’t want it to go to waste, so you found a home for it.

At the time I was writing that section, I realised it was about my dad. So, the current protagonist in the story feels like it should be my dad, but actually that’s me. And the bear is my dad. And I let go of the bear, foreshadowing what’s to come. But also at the time, that was a very fictionalised way of dealing with some of these same things.

The whole story is a search for approval – as a writer, from the narrator’s father, from his girlfriend. It’s that about validation and acceptance.

It’s to do with status, and family as a micro society. You’ve got your own status in there: I’m now really important to those people. I’ve got people who depend on me, who I need to take responsibility for. I’ve got people I need to, in the best possible manner, be a dad for. I need to be a husband. I need to be a more whole person. Status is huge.

And I think, coming from a lower social status, and having difficulties in your upbringing – it’s not directly coming from my parents, but from circumstances as well, that you weren’t really wanted. Nobody really thought anything of you. It was all polite and there’s nobody really actively discriminating against you, it’s just nobody thought you were special. You were nobody’s favourite.

And you wanted to be the man you want to be. You wanted to be the champion. And then growing up in the big shadow of somebody like my dad: when you’re the son of a wrestler, that’s all you are.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a true crime book about Shannon Matthews, who was kidnapped by her mother. This happened in Dewsbury, not far from where I grew up.

The book started out as faction, as a David Peace-style story, which had the same themes as Shannon Matthews’ story, but which was not specifically about her. But I could never make it work.

And then I tried to make it an oral history, like Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, but I found nobody in the community would talk to me.

I ended up doing it as some sort of true crime thing. I was worried it would be artless, merely a document of what happened, but actually, what I’m finding is, in writing this way, even though it’s nonfiction, all my skills as a novelist are coming to the fore. I’m trying to let the story come through the characters as the events happen, so the tension builds and any reflection or knowledge is revealed naturally. I’m not necessarily going into the heads of the characters because obviously I don’t have access, but you can safely assume that say, this person finds out this given fact at this given point. And I’m gradually pulling the story out, like a string, and not just bombing everything with exposition and knowledge and opinion.

I moved to this format because I wanted it to be as real as possible. I wanted nothing to be fictionalised.

That’s why it’s taken me 13 years to write it.

Breaking Kayfabe is published by Bluemoose Books

CRAIG SMITH IS A POET AND NOVELIST FROM HUDDERSFIELD. HIS WRITING HAS APPEARED ON WRITERS REBEL, ATRIUM, IAMBAPOET AND THE MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE REVIEW, AS WELL BEING A WINNER OF THE POETRY ARCHIVE NOW! WORDVIEW 2022.
CRAIG HAS THREE BOOKS TO HIS NAME: POETRY COLLECTIONS, L.O.V.E. LOVE (SMITH/DOORSTOP) AND A QUICK WORD WITH A ROCK AND ROLL LATE STARTER, (RUE BELLA); AND A NOVEL, SUPER-8 (BOYD JOHNSON).
HE recently received an MA IN CREATIVE WRITING AT BIRKBECK, UNIVERSITY of london.

TWITTER: @CLATTERMONGER

MIRLive : March 8th 2024

MIR (The Mechanics Institute Review) will be holding its first live event of 2024 on Friday, March 8th (Keynes Library, Gordon Square 6pm). The event will include eight readings, including six from current Birkbeck BA and MA creative writing students and two guest speakers: Ben Pester (whose short story collection Am I in the Right Place? was published by Boiler House Press in 2021) and Melody Razak, who was  selected as one of the Observer’s ‘Ten Debut Novelists’ for her novel, Moth, in 2021.

If you’re a current student interested in reading at the event, please send a piece of prose (up to 1,500 words) or two poems to mirlivesubmissions@gmail.com by 5pm, Friday 23rd February. Submissions should have ‘MIR Live Submission’ as the subject line of the email. Please include your name, the title(s) of your piece(s), and a contact email address at the top of the first page.

We will prioritise submissions from people who have not had a chance to read at one of our events this year. (Because we expect submissions to exceed available slots, it’s unlikely that everyone who submits will be able to read this time around.)

We look forward to reading your work!

The MIR Live team

Melody Razak is a British Iranian writer who lives in Brighton.

Melody has had short stories published in the Mechanics Institute Review, the Bath Short Story Anthology and the Brick Lane Short Story Prize. She has also written for the Observer Food Monthly and The Sunday Times.

In 2021 Melody was selected as one of the Observer’s ‘Ten Debut Novelists’ for her novel, Moth. Moth went on the be shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, longlisted for the Desmond Elliot prize, and was selected as the readers jury for the Festival du Premier Roman.

Ben Pester’s debut short story collection Am I in the Right Place? was published by Boiler House Press, and was long listed for the 2022 Edge Hill Prize. His work has appeared in Granta, The London Magazine, Hotel, Five Dials and elsewhere. When not writing fiction, he is a technical writer. He lives with his family in North London.
https://www.benpester.co.uk


 

They Called Me Kyle, by Owen Bridge

They make us eat together. Altogether, so were never alone, sing it; – Never ever be alone –

– Don’t sing now Kyle, love –
That’s Mrs Turner, she’s old and from Yorkshire, she calls everyone ‘love’ even though Queen Bitch (I can’t say that word but I can think it) Abigail, big sour face, says it infantilises the service users. (That’s me and my friend Emma, and all the other people who live upstairs. They put bars on the windows so they don’t throw themselves out, not because this is a prison, bad people go to prison. I’m not bad, but I think some of the people here might be, like slack-jawed Billy Bloodworth. He can’t keep his mouth closed when he’s eating, and the other day he was throwing his mashed potatoes at everyone. They made a bloody awful mess, splat, all over the windows, and poor old Mrs Turner had to clean it up. But I made Billy stop with my mind.)

Nice Lady Shan is feeding Nathan, who lives across the hall from me. -You like your Thai green curry, don’t you Nathan -. He can’t really move much or say much, our Nathan, but he’s a good lad; if I see a sticker I think he’ll like then I save it for him, even if it’s shiny. They have a tiny crane they use to hoist Nathan in and out of his giant blue chair.

They can only see me if I let them, not like Emma, she doesn’t like to be seen. When I was little, before I moved here, I lived in a big house in the countryside. Something was living in the attic, you could hear it scratching about, but we just ignored it, till one day, my dad was eating bangers and mash, we could hear the thing start charging about, and a big chunk of plasterboard fell into his dinner and he banged his knife and fork down on the table.

– That’s it, I’m going to get that bloody thing, – he got a pillowcase and a cricket bat, – it’s him or me Kyle, – and he went up to the attic. He was banging around for ages; we could hear him. – Come on you little bastard, where are you? – That’s when he went through the ceiling, just his legs trying to walk on air. – My ———Kyle———are–

– Kyle? – someone shaking my shoulder, – Kyle are you alright, love? –

– Yes Mrs Turner. –

-Ok you went right wobbly then-, smiling, her hand still on my shoulder, -Don’t forget you’ve got an appointment with Dr Marshal. –

Yorkshire must be a wonderful place. Mrs Turner’s always saying the best people come from Yorkshire. I wish I came from Yorkshire, I bet life would be good then. I could have a flat with a lift up to it, so Nathan could come and stay, and I could put up whatever posters I want. The corridors here have funny paintings all along the walls, they’re not like pictures of people or anything good, they’re just like squiggly lines and blobs. If I was in art and just did a load of blobs and squiggles, I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face.

After lunch, we all move back into the activities room. It’s where we go after breakfast, that’s pretty much our day: wake up, breakfast, activities room, then back to the dining hall, lunch, until eventually we go to bed. You feel lucky if you’ve got a hospital appointment, just to break it up a bit (once when I had a hospital appointment Shan took me to a McDonalds, but we can’t let Abigail know, even though I had carrot sticks instead of chips, and I got a turtle toy, but I have to hide it from Abigail, because she’ll know I went to McDonalds if she sees it). I can walk on my own but a lot of the people who live here need help, I’m not very big but when I grow up I could push Nathan. We only have lessons three days a week, the rest of the time Doris reads to us, or Shan does an activity with us, like one time she showed us how to draw a cube. It’s dead easy, even I can do it and I’m awful at drawing. Today we’re going to make masks out of paper plates. You can be a bird or a cat or elephant, I want to be a Pikachu, because when I was very young I wanted to be a Pokémon trainer, I know how silly that sounds, but Billy Bloodworth still thinks he’s going to play for Chelsea, and he’s almost as bad at football as me.

The activities room is big and oblong, the carpets mostly grey but there’s one bit that looks like a city from above, and you can play cars on it. Nathan can’t play cars, because he’s stuck in a chair. No one’s ever told me what’s actually the matter with Nathan, but I don’t think it’s catching. Billy Bloodworth used to make fun of me, saying I’d catch Nathan’s mong, but Shan heard him one day, and told him it didn’t work like that, and that mong was a horrible word, and he should be ashamed of himself for being so rude.

Wendy, who thinks she’s a ghost, is clicking the beads in Nice Lady Shan’s hair like a rosary. I don’t know why Wendy thinks she’s a ghost. The first time I met her she was biting Yannis the giant Greek on the arm. He was trying to pretend it didn’t hurt, but you could tell by the way his voice kept going up and down that it did. – I’m sorry, I’m sorry, little girl if you say you’re a ghost, then you are a ghost please, stop biting me ghost, ahhhh I’m sorry -, and she let go, I expected her to have blood all round her mouth, but she just looked dead pleased with herself.

– Thank you Yannis – she said, – that will be all today, – like she owned the place, which was absolutely hilarious.

Shan turns to face Wendy, – I’m going on my break now, Wendy. – Wendy nods. – I’ll be back soon. – Wendy nods again, just once in a sort of jerky motion.

-Hello Kyle, how are you today? – Abigail looms over me, her face right into mine. All the people who work here do this when they want to talk, but it’s awful when Abigail does it, it’s just awful. Mrs Turner is really funny, she says things like, – I’m too old for this, – or, – They’ll need six strong Irishmen and a winch to get me up from here. – She doesn’t loom over you grinning. That’s one thing I know, you don’t grin, it’s all I can do not to run and hide.

– Hello Mrs Abigail, I’m feeling very well. – That’s a lie, but I need to do good manners, – How are you today? –

– I’m very well thank you Kyle, – she looks like she’s trying to eat her own lip, but I know she’s just thinking what to say next – I see you have an appointment with Dr Marshal. It’s really important, – she puts her hand on my arm, – that you have a good chat and tell him all about Emma, and———Kyle did you get that, are you ok? –

– I think so. –

– Jolly good. Now go make your mask. – Abigail stands up and, as she’s leaving, she stops by Doris, who’s changing the batteries in the telly remote, and real sneaky-like, she starts talking about me.

– Doris, how do you think young Kyle seems? –

Mrs Turner is banging the remote hard against the flat of her hand. – He seems very well to me, have you asked him? Poor lad had one of his funny turns earlier. –

– He did? Why was I not informed? It’s important that all of our service users’ symptoms are documented, so the council gives us a good deal on funding. If he had an accident and could have fallen… – it all comes out fast, like a blur. – You didn’t have to fill an incident form? – Abigail’s face goes all contorted (I learnt that word from Houdini, he was a magician who could do anything, but one day someone punched him when he wasn’t expecting it and he died) and her nostrils go all wide, like she’s about to charge.

– Well no, he didn’t have an accident, he just went a bit wobbly. – Mrs Turner rubs the back of her neck.

– And then what? –

– He was alright, I think. –

– He could have fallen over though, is what you’re saying? –

– Maybe. I don’t –

– I might be able to wrangle more funding, so Kyle can have a one-to-one carer. An extra staff on the floor would make life easier. –

– Oh, he doesn’t need that. It seems dishonest, asking for something that he might not need. –

– You leave it to me. – Abigail turns on her heel, but then stops and turns, – By the way, where’s Shan? –

– Just having her tea break –

A- Oh, well make sure she only has fifteen minutes. –

Finally she leaves. Mrs Turner mutters something and gives the remote one last whack and the batteries come flying out and go skidding under the table. – Oh, marmalade! –

– I can get those for you, – I say.

– Good lad, if I went under there I wouldn’t be getting out in a hurry- she giggles but I can tell she’s thinking about how much she’d like to slap Abigail. The table next to the telly’s big, and going underneath it feels a bit like going to another world. It’s dark, I keep thinking of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I know I’m not going to Narnia but it’s fun to pretend.

– Have you found them Kyle? –

– Yes, Mrs Turner I’ve got them. – I shuffle backwards, out from under the table, clutching the dead batteries. Mrs Turner must have put the new batteries in, because the telly’s on and she’s flipping through the channels.

This is the only thing Shan and Mrs Turner argue about, because Mrs Turner likes to watch Jeremy Kyle, who I don’t mind so much because he has the same name as me, and I like to imagine what it would be like if I had my own telly program. Hello and welcome to the Kyle show, we’ve got a load of entertainment for you tonight, along with my co-host, Nathan, we’ll be bringing you hit music, and zany guests. Instead of interviewing famous people, I’d only interview normal people like Mrs Turner. You know the bit where they’re doing the whole, so Mr Z you’ve sold loads of records, how did you ever manage that? I’d say things like: Mrs Turner, you were out of bed at half past six this morning, so you could get to a job where you spend all day helping other people, and I’d put on the applause sign. I think it would be the best show on TV.

– Good lad Kyle, I’ll put them in the recycling. –

– It’s important to recycle! This is the only planet we’ve got. –

– That’s right –

– If we didn’t recycle then… –

– I know Kyle. Why don’t you get back to your cars? –

Recycling is one of my obsessions, I can’t help it, I just think about how it just makes sense and I get really cross, that some people don’t do it just because they can’t be bothered. Like my nan, she never recycled, I remember when I was small I went to live at her house for a little bit. She lived on the Burlington Estate somewhere in a place called South Staffordshire. The people sounded even stranger than Doris, I could hardly understand a word anyone said when I first got there, Yowalright, was a new word I learnt, it meant hello how are you? But it was all just one word, which I thought was really clever. If you say it to someone who’s never heard it before though, they give you a right funny look.

It was nice at my nan’s house though, there were a load of places to go, like the Sea Life Centre, that was dead interesting, they had fish there that all started off life as a girl, but they turn into boys if they want to. They had a big underwater tunnel, it was like something from the future, and the shark swam right over us. They have sea anemones too, that you can touch. I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while then but I can’t swim, I don’t think they’d let Nathan go out to sea, and I wouldn’t like to not see him for months on end.

I can’t remember why I went to live at my nans, it was just after dad had fallen through the ceiling. Maybe the thing in the attic got out, and he was worried it might bite me and I’d have to get a series of subcutaneous injections (I can’t remember where I learnt that word, but it’s a good one) or I might go septic like mo.

———slap———I———I’m on the floor, and someone is kicking me.

-You shouldn’t laugh at ghosts, – Wendy kicks me, and it really hurts, – I am a ghost – she screams, Nice Lady Shan scoops her up, but Wendy’s legs keep kicking at me. I roll away, my head all bloody. I lose track of where everybody is, and when I try to sit up I feel woozy and sick so I roll the other way onto my side, and I can see Shan telling Wendy off, but I can’t really hear, the only sound I can make out is a sort of whooshing sound, like when you put a shell up to your ear and you can hear the sea. It’s hard to concentrate, so I can’t get Wendy to calm down with my mind. The mask making things are all over the floor, I think I might have bled on some of them a bit.

Mrs Turner comes around the corner, she must have gone on break because she has her phone out and is smiling at whatever is on the screen (Mrs Abigail has a fit if anyone goes on their phone when there working, but she can’t stop them when there on break). She looks up, notices where I am, and her hand flies up to her mouth.

– Jesus, what happened here? –

I try to answer her, but my mouth’s all dry, and before I can, Shan interrupts.

– She just started knocking the shit out of him. –

– God, Kyle, are you ok? Shan go fetch the nurse. –

That’s one of the things that annoys me about this place. We have three floors filled with all different types of people, with different things wrong with them, but only one nurse. What if two people get hurt at the same time? No good, very bad indeed.

– Can you sit up Kyle, love? What happened? –

– I’m ok. I don’t know, really.

Wendy’s pacing the other side of the room, staring daggers at me, – HE DOES KNOW – she screams.

– CALM DOWN – Mrs Turner shouts, but only to Wendy’s back as she stomps her way down the corridor.

I try to stand up, but my legs and tummy don’t feel very good. I think that I might be sick, but nothing happens. They don’t tell you about this in films; you see a load of violence, people shooting and stabbing each other, and maybe they die or lose an arm or a leg, but you don’t see how it makes someone feel. The sick to your stomach, desperate for it to stop, taste the other person’s anger feeling. You might think you deserve it, but you just want it to stop. You see all these superheroes who can shoot lasers out their eyes, or have superhuman strength, but that’s nothing, they can’t really make the world a better place, they just make more fighting happen. That’s why my favourite superhero is Molecule Man, he has the power to alter anything he wants on a molecular level, so if someone wants to fight him he can just go, no, boom you’re a marshmallow. I’d trade in being able to make people stop with my mind, if I could have molecule man’s powers, because he can change anything, cure illness and stop world hunger. I’ll just turn sand molecules into tasty banana bread, that’s what I’d do.

Shan comes rushing in with Nurse Kath, she’s everyone’s favourite. She comes from somewhere called the Czech Republic, and her name isn’t really Kath, it’s something completely mad and unpronounceable.

– Good morning Mr Kyle, now don’t tell me you have been fighting? – The way she’s smiling I know it’s a joke. – Now let me take a look at this booboo. – I can feel her scrutinising my wound. – Kyle, – her voice goes serious, – I believe you will live, but you have taken a nasty blow to the head, you are going to need to stay awake, just to be on the safe side, you know to make sure you don’t have a concussion. –

I like the way Kath talks to me, like I’m actually there.

– You say he fell, did he? – Abigail stands over us now, with her hands on her hips, looking right happy with herself, like the cat that got the cream, as my nan always used to say. – That’s really good, now I can definitely get some more funding from the council. –

– Where’s Wendy gone? – Shan asks, and that’s when we hear the screams. Billy comes staggering in, all caked in something, I can’t figure out what, I can see something sticking out of his head, it’s all white. I think it might be his skull.

And then———


    When Emma met Dr Marshal.

    Good afternoon he says, spends forever in his notes.
    Scribble, scrabble, dibble, dabble, won’t you hurry up. Better things,
    to do with my time, no golf on the weekends for me. you can keep that,
    ratty Mrs of yours mind, that’s her photograph isn’t it,
    nothing to be proud of.

    If you want to know which one of us you’re talking to, just ask.
    Oh, no he didn’t deal with that very well, he blames himself, see.
    Thought he switched her off? It don’t make any sense.
    She was in pain, you Muppet.
    Who am I? That’s a bit bloody rude, I know who you are, you’re a bloody sphincter.

I tell him stories, once upon a time and all that, shall I tell you a story. Once upon a time, in the land of no place else, there lived a doctor, horrible ugly little man, terrible erectile dysfunction, awful, couldn’t satisfy his wife, and what’s more he had the worst dandruff. One day a boy arrives in his office, he’s all types of mental: no mom, his dad is entirely useless.  . The ugly little doctor tries his best, but it’s not good enough, day after day, despite his best efforts, the boy’s still a mental.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I’m his best friend you doughnut, apart from maybe that Nathan, maybe, I don’t know. Should have drowned him at birth.

That bloody ghost got an attitude an all.

Don’t you take that tone with me, do you even know who I am?

———and then my hands are hitting something. I don’t know where I am, but I’m hitting something. It catches me by the wrists, and I realise it’s Dr Marshal. – Hush now, you’re okay, – he says. The door opens, and in steps Kath’s son, Pavel.

– All ok? I heard the buzzer. –

-Yes, we’re fine Pav mate, Kyle just had a bit of an episode. Better safe than sorry. –

– No sweat. – He makes his voice go more upbeat like, – How is little Kyle feeling today, it is Kyle? – Dr Marshal nods. – You want to watch football tonight? Man-U are playing. – Pavel loves football, and because Manchester United are his team, and I’ve been to Manchester once, that makes us friends, I think that’s how it works. I like watching football, and trying to switch people off. It’s the only way to get through it really, it just goes on and on, and then there might be extra time.

– I think this is a good point to end this session, – says Dr Marshall.

– Is it nearly dinner time? – I ask.

– Yes Kyle, we will go straight to the dining room, – says Pavel, ushering me out.

– Goodbye Dr Marshal, – I shout back over my shoulder.

– Bye Kyle. –

Today’s been a really confusing day, I don’t quite know what to make of it all.

Billy Bloodworth’s not dead, which is a little bit disappointing. (That was nasty but I don’t mean it). I asked Shan what had happened. When we were having supper, I walked in and Billy was just there eating pasta.

– Oh that, no Billy wasn’t hurt, – giggling to herself, – Billy had got into the kitchen, someone left the door unlocked, and he stole a tub of ice cream. He must have bumped into Wendy after she stormed off, and the tub ended up on poor Billy’s head. –

So, Billy’s alive and well. Which isn’t really a bad thing, he and I don’t always get on but I think it’s good to have a rival. Where would Batman be without the Joker? He’d spend all day sat in the bat cave, more tea Alfred, it doesn’t look like they’ll be any good crime today, all glum and depressed. It’s funny though I could have sworn Billy had his head bashed in, absolutely sworn blind that’s what I’d seen. I suppose a lot of the time people just sort of trick themselves into seeing things.

Apparently, I went to see Dr Marshal, but I don’t remember that. The last thing I remember is seeing Billy. I get woozy when I see blood, even when it’s actually ice cream. I don’t know why, my Nan was the same, – If I want to see two idiots knock each other’s teeth out, I’d go stand outside the Dog and Duck on a Saturday, that’s what she used to say.

I can hear Nathan being put to bed, it takes two people to get Nathan in and out of bed, or if he wants to go to the lavatory. I don’t really need that kind of help (lavatory is a much better word than Bog). If I had loads of money, I’d leave here, just me and Nathan, we could buy a flat in Yorkshire, and I could get a job at the cricket ground, not for the money but just to stay busy. Me and Nathan could go out whenever we wanted to get a takeaway curry. But I’m stuck here. I can’t really complain, there are folks in worse places than this. Mrs Turner told me about a place she worked at years ago, where they electrocuted people’s brains. I don’t know what they expected it to do, except for making their hair stand up on end. This is the only time of day I get much of a chance to be lonely. Sometimes I get visitors, but not many recently. This is the only time of day I get much of a chance to be lonely, sometimes I get visitors, but not many recently.

This always happens right before I go to sleep, I start thinking about my life and get all maudlin (my nan’s favourite word). I can’t remember big chunks of things that have happened to me, and no one will explain it to me. Maybe they might have and I’ve just forgotten. I can keep hoping that maybe one day I’ll wake up and I’m not me anymore, that instead I’m someone who can do things and who isn’t laughed at when they say they want to be a marine biologist. Maybe I’ll wake up in Yorkshire, the best people come from Yorkshire.

Owen Bridge is a Welsh/English writer living in the wilds of west Wales. Previously published in NAT1 LLC and Brain Mill Press. Currently in the process of completing a PhD at Swansea university having achieved an MA in creative writing at university Trinity Saint David’s Lampeter campus.

Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing WINNER : Bediye Topal

Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing

Birkbeck Creative Writing and the family of Birkbeck alumni Cordelia Feldman, are delighted to announce the inaugural Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing.


Statement From the Feldman Family

This prize is awarded in commemoration of the writing life of Cordelia Jade Feldman (15th May 1979-8th January 2022), who completed the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck in 2007. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, after many years of suffering and debilitating treatment, which Cordelia confronted with indefatigable courage and humour, she eventually succumbed to the illness, but not before she had published two books. In Bloom (Dandelion, 2021), Cordelia’s first book, was conceived and took shape during her MA at Birkbeck. An autobiographical novel, In Bloom is work of young adult fiction concerned with teenagers’ experiences of recreational drug use on the 90s techno and drum n bass scene, and their psychiatric consequences, depicted through the richly imagined interior life of the novel’s protagonist, Tanya.


Cordelia’s second book, a memoir entitled Well Done Me (Dandelion, 2021), is an intimate portrayal of the illnesses from which she suffered and the strategies she evolved to cope with them, mingling pain and humour, the stark realities and indignities of Cordelia’s everyday life and the surpassing optimism and bravery with which she confronted them, retaining always a sense of the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us, the animals and birds and flowers with which she shared her life, and in which she found solace.

In a life bedevilled by illness—Cordelia suffered from bipolar disorder for twenty years as well as cancer—writing gave Cordelia purpose. Writing helped her to structure and narrate her existence, providing a focus for her energies, diminished though they were during her final years, and allowed her to experience forms of productivity and accomplishment denied to her in other spheres of her life. No single experience was more positive or formative in this pursuit than her years on the MA at Birkbeck, where Cordelia found inspiration among her tutors and peers, found community, companionship and a sense of shared endeavour among her fellow students, and a wealth of techniques that would inform her writing process for years to come. Cordelia’s mother and father, Teresa and Keith, and her brother, Alexander, make this award to a Birkbeck student in Cordelia’s name, in recognition of her dedication to life writing. We believe that Cordelia would be delighted by such a legacy, supporting writing as writing always supported her.

You can read and Extract from Cordelia’s memoir Well Done Me on MIROnline.

Statement from Julia Bell:

‘I remember Cordelia well and we stayed in touch after she graduated. I was always in admiration of the way she handled the hardships life threw at her, but also how well and honestly she wrote about it. She had a talent for straight talking prose and I’m so pleased we can keep her presence with us at Birkbeck with this award. I also remember that while she was on the MA she played a prominent role in Stephen Fry’s EMMY award-winning documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, which was also filmed at Birkbeck.

The Prize:

 

The prize is awarded at MA Creative Writing Exam Board each year and is the sum of £150. The prize-winner is chosen from the top 3 highest graded pieces of life-writing from across the Writing the Self and Creative Non-Fiction Courses. The Feldman family choose the winner from the 3 pieces they are sent.

 

The Winner:

 

The winner of the inaugural prize is Bediye Topal with her piece X and I.

Bediye was born and raised in a village in Southern Turkey and came to the UK as a refugee in her early twenties. Her piece X and I is about that experience. You can read and extract from her winning piece on MIR Online.

Well done me, by Cordelia Feldman – extract

I’m sitting up in bed at my parental home, writing this on Mum’s computer.  At the moment I spend about four days per week here, and three days at my flat.  This house, where I spent the first thirty years of my life, is in Radlett in leafy Hertfordshire, just on the edge of the green belt.  My cat Spitfire, also known as the Fluffy Monster, or more recently, Precious Angel Fluffball lives here as I am too ill to look after him. 

 

At the moment, my life looks like this: personal training once a week; two regular dog walking clients, Pilates once a week, Barre Pilates twice a week.  No actual job since being sacked from my dream one at a new bookshop in Radlett.  Before that I worked part-time at an authors’ and actors’ agency for nigh on fifteen years.  Seb, the love of my life, split up with me at the end of March five years ago. We’d been together on and off over a period of eleven years.  More, no doubt much more, to come on Seb later.  My new man is called Film Chap. We will meet him soon.

 

This is the house where A Clockwork Orange was filmed. Designed by Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, it was hailed as a modernist masterpiece and Stanley Kubrick saw it whilst scouting for locations for the film and fell in love with it.  It’s the house of the writer who is injured and whose wife is raped by Alex and the Droogs.  Spitfire has just turned seven and a half.  My brother lives in Haifa in Israel.  The panther is here now.

               “What’s the point of you writing a Memoir?” the panther says, gazing at me with amber eyes.  “Who do you think is going to want to read about your life?  You don’t do anything or…”

               “It’s going to be a book about living with mental illness, living with cancer, living in recovery from addiction,” I say.  “People say that I’m brave and inspirational and…”

               “But you’re not,” the panther says.  “You’re fat, unemployed and unemployable as far as I can tell, lazy…”

               “If I write it, and it’s good they will read it,” I say, feeling unsure about this. The panther returns to grooming his flank with his sandpaper tongue.  I stroke the soft back of his neck.  He rests his enormous head on my shoulder.   His breath smells of rotting meat.

 

I used to suffer with Writer’s Block until I completed a Nanowrimo Write A Novel In a Month challenge, set up by a group of techies in San Francisco.  It’s an output challenge, the aim is to write fifty thousand words of a new novel in a month.  That first November I wrote sixty thousand words.  Ever since then, I haven’t had a problem with writer’s block.  Also: for the last few years I’ve been writing a blog.  First it was a Dating after Breast Cancer Surgery one called Scars, Tears and Training Bras, and now it’s one about exercise and my life, my Bipolar Disorder and Secondary Breast Cancer called The Rapid Cyclist.  So, I write every day.  And people read my writing every day.  As to whether it’s any good or not, I try not to worry about that.  I’ve just published my first novel “In Bloom” to rave reviews.  It’s doing really well.

 

This, though: this has to be good or no-one will publish it.  And no-one will read it.  And ever since a whole army of publishers rejected my first novel some thirteen years ago, I’ve been putting off starting another major project due to the fear of writing hundreds and thousands of words that no-one will read.  But in recent times I have been reading a lot of memoirs: Amy Liptrot’s brilliant The Outrun about her recovery from alcoholism, A A Gill’s Pour Me about overcoming alcoholism and  Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl about her obsessive compulsive disorder.  I’ve just read the Karl Knausgaard series which begins with ‘A Death in the Family’. There’s been a thought at the back of my mind that I’m reading these memoirs for research, that perhaps a memoir rather than another novel is what I will write.  And so at last I’m starting.

 

My psychiatrist Dr Joshua Stein, who I’ve been seeing privately for nearly twenty years – put me on Librium to stop me drinking when I went into hospital for a major cancer operation on 30th August 2016, so I’ve been sober for almost five years now.  Part of me thought that it was the drinking stopping me from doing proper writing.  I no longer have that excuse: I have a clear head, space, time and writing to do. Now is the time for action.  I’m almost forty-two, I wanted to publish a book by forty and managed to publish In Bloom just a year later.

 

I’m tired, so very tired.  I’m on thirteen I think different medications for my breast cancer and my Bipolar and other things.  Let me list them:

1.     Latuda/ lurasidone: antipsychotic for my Bipolar, as a mood stabiliser.

2.     Venlafaxine: SSNRI antidepressant. I can’t take SSRIs due to the ‘manic switch’.

3.     Gemcarbo chemotherapy: gemcitabine and carboplatin.

4.     Fexofenadine: a non-drowsy antihistamine: for my allergies.

5.     Clonazepam: an anti-anxiety benzodiazepine to help me stay off alcohol.

6.     Sodium docusate: for constipation caused by the cancer drugs.

7.     Zolpidem to help me sleep.

8.     Bisphosphonate implant: to seal my bones against cancer and to strengthen them as osteoporosis is a common menopausal side effect.

9.     Colecalciferol and calcium carbonate:  Calcium and vitamin D supplement to go with the bisphosphonates.

10.  Vitamin C to guard against colds, from which I suffer due to abnormally thickened nasal passages.  The result of allergic rhinitis which I have had all my life.

 

So, the cumulative effect of all these treatments is to make me exhausted and nauseated.  Plus I do Pilates or Barre or personal training on Zoom every day.  I tend to sleep for up to three hours in the afternoon.  This book will be written in one late morning session and one early evening session every day.  I’m starting to worry about it.  And my shoulder is hurting.  But I must focus, and write.

 

When he found out that my cancer had spread to my lungs, my oncologist gave me two years.  I’ve already survived another seven years on top of that, so I’m living on borrowed time.  All the more reason to start this book.  It’s going to be tough going though: due to feeling so ill most of the time.  The medical treatment described in this book is a mixture of NHS and private: NHS Breast Care Clinic: Cancer diagnosis at Accident and Emergency; NHS chemotherapy; private surgery; private radiotherapy; ongoing check-up appointments with private oncologist and breast surgeon; private appointments with plastic surgeon, private psychiatrist for the last twenty years and later private psychologist; bisphosphonate and Gemcarbo chemotherapy administered privately  Like various other cancer patients I know, my treatment has been a mixture of some treatments available on the NHS and others – like bisphosphonates – that at the moment are just available with health insurance.

 

As I write this I’m in a period of hypomania which has been going on for six weeks.  Now my mood has come up, writing and life have become easier.  I’m going to do two thousand words of this before turning to the blog, which I have to write and post every day without fail. One second: I must find some lemon squash.  Now I don’t drink alcohol I consume vast quantities of lemon squash and fizzy water, Diet Coke and coffee.  It’s swings and roundabouts once you’re sober.

CORDELIA FELDMAN

SONY DSC

Cordelia Jade Feldman (15th May 1979-8th January 2022), completed her MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck in 2007. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, after many years of suffering and debilitating treatment, which Cordelia confronted with indefatigable courage and humour, she eventually succumbed to the illness, but not before she had published two books. In Bloom (Dandelion, 2021), Cordelia’s first book, was conceived and took shape during her MA at Birkbeck. An autobiographical novel, In Bloom is work of young adult fiction concerned with teenagers’ experiences of recreational drug use on the 90s techno and drum n bass scene, and their psychiatric consequences, depicted through the richly imagined interior life of the novel’s protagonist, Tanya.

 

Cordelia’s second book, a memoir entitled Well Done Me (Dandelion, 2021), is an intimate portrayal of the illnesses from which she suffered and the strategies she evolved to cope with them, mingling pain and humour, the stark realities and indignities of Cordelia’s everyday life and the surpassing optimism and bravery with which she confronted them, retaining always a sense of the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us, the animals and birds and flowers with which she shared her life, and in which she found solace.

X and I, by Bediye Topal

‘Once while the soldiers were asleep a man broke out of the letter X. He burst through its centre and emerged into the world in a loincloth and began to run.

Robert Priest

I belong to a race whose alphabet contains the letters Q, W and X. They are letters. Just letters like any others. But for the Turkish state, these aren’t just letters. They banned them.

****

My journey with the X began with the death of my father. He slipped away quietly in his sleep. We took him to Hançıplak, a village in Southern Turkey, where he was born. The crowd made a circle around the rectangular hole dug into the ground. Men lowered the coffin slowly until it hit the bottom of the grave. The ropes with which the coffin descended wrinkled like ribbons on the coffin. My grandmother said to the men with spades, “Put me there too.” They didn’t. Instead, they held her shoulders to stop her from leaping into the hole like a lizard. When we went home, my grandma said, “Your father wanted to call you Xeyal. From now on your name is Xeyal,” announcing it with a voice soaked in grief. I was fifteen. I knew nobody whose name started with X. I rolled the name on my tongue like a sweet. I wanted it to melt in my mouth and mix with my body. I said out loud, Xeyal, Xeyal, Xeyal. I did not belong to it, nor did the name belong to me.

That day, I wrote an X on plain paper. I stared at it like I was expecting it to talk to me. I remembered:

I was in Year 5 in my Grandmother’s village, Hançıplak. When the school bell rang, we ran outside to play hide-and-seek. I was the seeker. I put my hands on the wrinkled mulberry tree in the playground and placed my face on my hands. I began to count up to ten. Slowly. Yek, du, sê, car, pênch, seş, heft, heşt, neh, deh. Ready or not, here I come. I turned around. To my horror, Mr Mustafa stood in front of me like the bark of a tree. He began to move his eyebrows. They looked like bird wings getting ready to escape from his forehead.

“Come inside with me,” he ordered me.

Hiders stuck out their heads from their hiding places, peering at me.

“At school, we only speak Turkish. Nobody is allowed to speak in Kurdish.”

“I forgot. Cos my grandmother doesn’t know Turkish. At home, I speak… Kurdish… all the time.”

“Get me the punishing stick,” he commanded again.

“Hold out your fingernails.”

I brought my fingers together, facing up. They looked like children making a circle with their heads. Then I extend my hand out to Mr Mustafa. 

****

I began to listen to my grandma’s laments and catch the letters Q, W and X like a cat seizing a mouse, twisting them on my tongue.

I often wondered if these letters could have made themselves invisible among the other letters. Q could have hidden behind O and curled its tail around it. W could have folded its body in half, pretending to be a V. X could have straightened its diagonal lines into one and settled itself behind I. But that would have meant denying their identities, losing their sound, and uniqueness, and living in fear of being discovered. Q hidden behind O would have forgotten its qeh sound, W concealed behind V would have lost its weh sound, and X buried behind I would have lost its kheh sound.

I imagined Q, W, and X locked away behind barred doors and declared guilty for removing their veils.

Would it have been worthwhile to have been veiled and lived?

****

The next time I heard about X alongside Q and W was when a friend from Istanbul visited me. She told me a man got arrested for asserting his name started with an X. I was sixteen, and I was on the lookout for X. But, of course, he did not go to prison solely for that reason. The authorities claimed he was a terrorist, wanting to split the country into two like a watermelon: Turkey and Kurdistan. But people who knew the man said, “He was a poor man who knew nothing.” In fact, he did know P for Politics.

****

When I was seventeen, I met a man and fell in love with him. He was twenty-five. He was a Kurdish activist working for HADEP: People’s Democracy Party. He called himself Kawa. Of course, that was not his real name. On our first date, he took me to a stinky restaurant. The smell of rotten meat escaped from the kitchen and hovered in our nostrils. I wanted him to see me as a girl fiercely passionate about the Kurdish language, especially the letters, Q, W and X. Kawa taught Kurdish to people behind the closed doors of HADEP, filling their heads with dangerous letters like Q, W, and X.

“Would you teach me how to read and write in Kurdish?” My heart was beating against my chest like it wanted to leap into Kawa’s.

“I would be delighted,” he said.

“Let’s start.” I looked into his oval-shaped face like it was a mirror held for me. Just for me.

“What would you like to know?”

“Everything,” I answered immediately.

Kawa scanned my face. I fidgeted on my chair and crossed my legs under the table. My right foot touched his lightly. With the touch, my heart sizzled like butter in a pan.

I looked under the table and said, “I am so sorry.”

He said, “It is ok.”

Kawa began to fill my head with politics and poetry. I did not understand either. The most poetry he gave me was by Murathan Mungan. The first poem he gave me said, ‘If I was a poet, I would have beaten you with each of my sentences.’ And You would have hung yourself from each letter.’ The beating and hanging made me shiver like a branch trembling in the wind, and I thought the poet was very sick and needed immediate psychiatric treatment. But it made me realise something: I wanted to do things with sentences and letters, especially Q, W and X. I wanted these letters to hammer my consciousness.

“Do Kurds have poetry?” I focused my eyes on his knowing face.

“Ahmedê Xanî’s epic poem Mem û Zîn is an extraordinary love story. Better than Romeo and Juliet,” he said.

I looked into his wide eyes and long curved lashes.

“Do you know any lines from Mem û Zîn?” He flapped his long eyelashes like butterfly wings.

“Oh, yes,” he said.

Kawa’s eyes moved to remember lines: they made a pattern as though they were swaying on a swing that swung from side to side.

‘I wonder at the wisdom of the Lord

The Kurds in the State of the World

For what reason is their deprivation

For what purpose is their condemnation.’

Kawa stopped and his eyes focused on me like klieg lights; I returned his gaze with confusion.

“Are you sure this is a love story?” Maybe the love was hidden behind the sentences, I thought.

“Ahmedê Xanî is more complicated than William Shakespeare, at least as a thinker. The pages … are full of thoughts, often dominated by philosophy, particularly Sufism, shades of meanings, double-meanings, metaphors, and symbolic expressions, play a major role.”

I still didn’t understand where the love was. Love must have concealed itself in the language like Q, W, and X. Or maybe the Kurds are shielded in the Love story.

“When was it written?”

“1692.”

We, the barbarian with a language that contains Q, W, X have a poet, and he wrote in 1692, and he is better than Shakespeare, I must let the world know, I murmured to myself.

“Pardon me,” said Kawa.

“Let’s go. This place stinks.”

While we strolled, Kawa gave me facts with no poetry.

‘In March 1924 … the Turkish state had officially prohibited the use of Kurdish in schools and law courts … traditional Kurdish clothing and music were also banned.’ If you publish anything in Kurdish, without doubt, you would be imprisoned, tortured and killed. The official began to describe Kurds as ‘mountain Turks who have forgotten their own language.’ Kurds were told ‘You are not Kurds, but Turks, and we are going to make you see that … You are enemies of the state, and should be destroyed, but instead, the state has decided to educate you, to make you good Turks … We will fit you for society.’

Kawa stopped and looked at the ground wordlessly. Then he peered into the sky, and new words landed on his tongue.

“Call me Xeyal,” I said.

Bediye was born and raised in a village in Southern Turkey and came to the UK as a refugee in her early twenties. Her piece X and I is about that experience.

MIRLive : Dec 8th 2023

MIR (The Mechanics Institute Review) will be holding its first live event of the academic year on Friday, December 8th (Keynes Library, Gordon Square 6pm). The event will include eight readings, including one from Wes Brown (Programme Director of the MA in Creative Writing and the author of Breaking Kayfabe) and six from current Birkbeck BA and MA creative writing students.

If you’re a current student interested in reading at the event, please send a piece of prose (up to 1,500 words) or two poems to mironlineeditor@gmail.com. Submissions should have ‘MIR Live Submission’ as the subject line of the email. Please include your name, the title(s) of your piece(s), and a contact email address at the top of the first page.

We look forward to reading your work!

The MIR Live team


Featured Speakers

Wes Brown

Wes Brown

Wes Brown is the author of Breaking Kayfabe, an autofictional account of his time as a champion pro wrestler. He was awarded a CHASE Scholarship to research Narrative Non-Fiction at the University of Kent, founded the publishing press Dead Ink Books and his stories, reviews and essays have appeared in publications including New Humanist, The Critic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Real Story, Literary Review, Litro, the Mechanic’s Institute Review and 3:AM Magazine. He is the Programme Director of the MAs in Creative Writing and Creative Writing & Contemporary Studies at Birkbeck.

Elsa Court

Elsa Court is a writer and translator based in London. Her short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, The Brixton Review of Books, The London Magazine, The Tangerine, and Worms, and she is the recipient of a 2023 International Literary Seminars + Fence Reader’s Choice Award in the short fiction category. Her essays on contemporary literature have featured in Granta, The White Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement, among others. She is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, and a Lecturer in French at the University of Oxford.

Dead Mouse, by Charlotte Turnbull

When we finally found it in the corner of the downstairs loo – the dead mouse – the children covered their noses with their sleeves and refused to eat breakfast in the kitchen because of an alleged lingering smell. They leaned into the drama. What child doesn’t relish revulsion and swoon? They defined themselves against something – it, or us – and found a purpose, a unity, that morning.

There are maggots, my husband said, taking rubber gloves from below the sink: he was ready to get dirty, but not too dirty. How long has there been a smell? 

A few months, maybe longer, I said, confident and complicit in our marital myth that my larger nose led to engorged nasal cavities, ergo a heightened olfactory sensitivity, along with all my other heightened sensitivities: lively digestion, easy fatigue, wet flushes.

A few months, maybe longer, he repeated, staring at my belly. 

In the kitchen, the children began to mutter – that kind of bored mutter that builds to skirmish, then civil unrest – so I led them, their plates of toast stacked up one arm, into the living room, to the TV, and closed the door on it. The smell. 

*

The children ate their breakfast but refused to leave the living room until I opened the window so they could climb straight into the garden. 

The eldest went first, then climbed back into the house seeing my husband upend a plastic bag into the rhododendrons. Retreat, she shouted. The little one backed away, accommodating and grateful not to be in charge.

We are trapped, the eldest shouted from the window at her father, our home is a mortuary. 

I was impressed with the eldest’s vocabulary, wondering if I had not spoken to her properly for a while, when the little one began to cry from a deeper sense than the rest of us about what was at stake. 

On the lawn, my husband stuck his arms out and lurched about like a zombie, delivering the wrong punchline to the right joke, and I considered whether another coffee would kick me through the rest of the day into the familiar sleepless night.

I took the little one onto my lap and kissed her forehead, but she pulled away and fell to her knees, officiating the marriage of two Sylvanian animals in one smooth, quick movement instead of putting her arms around me: instead of pulling my t-shirt to palpitate my breast.

*

If we had pretended – if my husband and I had frowned at each other, turned the corners of our mouths down, looking from side-to-side, avoiding the hard truth of the eye, the grey frame of our faces – could we not have just left it? Could we not have ignored the smell? 

I didn’t tell the children that a rotting mouse smells exactly like an old, used tampon. I didn’t want an old, used tampon to be their first experience of death.  

 

 

Charlotte’s fiction made the Galley Beggars Story Prize long-list 2023 and the Caledonia Prize long-list 2022. She is also published in Litro, The McNeese Review, New England Review, Denver Quarterly and as a chapbook with Nightjar Press..

.