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.

Review: Encounters With Everyday Madness by Charlie Hill

Summer Kendrick reviews Encounters with Everyday Madness by Charlie Hill

Charlie Hill’s Encounters with Everyday Madness (Roman Books, 2023) isn’t just an exploration of modern madness, it tilts the concept completely, leaving the reader to decide: what is normal, anyway?

From the author of The State of Us (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023), Books (Profile Books, 2013) and The Pirate Queen (Stairwell Books, 2022), Charlie Hill’s latest book, Encounters with Everyday Madness, follows suit with a bold and rather wry collection of short stories.

Aptly named, each story chronicles a brush, and sometimes a crash, with the uncomfortable truth of the inner mind. The word ‘madness’ covers all manner of states – whether it’s the crushing weight of anxiety, the manic conversation of a presumed junkie or the eeriness of going for a walk through an isolated forest. Hill presents each story like a case study, but refuses to make judgement on who or what is crazy. In fact, the reader begins to believe that craziness is an inevitable condition of being human.

Hill plays with form throughout the book, to great effect. Some stories are epistolic, others are poems, reports or trailing snags of small talk on the School Run. The use of experimental form compliments the overall theme and objectives of the collection, reminding us that rules and reality are flexible conditions.

A Walk by the River, the opening story, was particularly strong. Second person is notoriously hard to master, and while the internal dialogue was jarring, the POV lended powerful interplay between nature and the mind.

Madness can often manifest in isolation and loneliness, which was the principal challenge throughout. With a few exceptions, Hill handled this with extraordinary care and humour. Some stories, such as Stuff, were prone to lengthy monologic exposition that diluted Hill’s otherwise punchy and wry writing style, but the clear voice in Love Story and Temping kept the pace up throughout the collection.

Hill establishes a very working class British tone of voice, consistent with his other works, through most stories. He uses the quotidian bore of waiting for a bus, making a frozen dinner or building Lego to create complex characters who challenge the concept of sanity. Encounters with Everyday Madness is an uncomfortably poignant and successful tribute to madness, in all its shapes and forms

Charie Hill. Encounters with Everyday Madness. London, Roman Books, 2023.

Summer kendrick is joinT editor OF MIR and A recent alumnus of the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA. She is currently writing a novel set in London and Australia.

Rabbit Hutch, Tess Gunty

Review: The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Natasha Carr-Harris reviews The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Tess Gunty’s widely acclaimed debut novel takes place in fictional Vacca
Vale, Indiana, an obscure town in the Rust Belt of America which we discover early on has topped Newsweek’s notorious list of “Top Ten Dying American Cities” (31). At the edge of town, a motley cast of characters fight to survive and aspire to thrive in separate units of a low-cost housing complex, a building named “La Lapinière”, or “The Rabbit Hutch”. Unfettered by the restraints of chronology, Gunty takes the reader on a polyphonic dance that offers both fleeting glimpses and cutting insights into the sad decline of a once bustling industrial centre and the characters who struggle haplessly against the oppressive systemic forces that disrupt and upset their lives.

There are grand, overarching themes which loom portentously over the unfolding personal narratives, omens of ecological doom and economic collapse and a depressing paucity of societal communion, all echoed by carefully detailed accounts of the city’s deterioration and stricken portraits of its unhappy denizens. What we learn about Vacca Vale’s decline throughout the novel seems to substantiate the current discourse on the predicament of America’s Rust Belt. The Vacca Vale river, which cuts through the city’s centre, is hopelessly polluted, countless businesses foreclosed, shops, buildings and houses abandoned, streets littered with trash, and we soon learn that the town’s only bit of untouched beauty, an expanse of park called Chastity Valley, is set to be transformed into a cluster of condominiums as part of a development plan.

Blandine, the eighteen year old star of the novel, opposes the development plan and stages an unnerving protest during a celebration dinner for its official launch. We witness her quietly agitated moments before the attack, poised on the precipice of dissidence, desperate to defend the Valley, embroiled in a strange, unsettling conversation with Joan, another resident of the Rabbit Hutch. The actual attack occurs off page, but I was far more interested in these preceding moments of inner turmoil as they set the stage for what we will come to learn and expect of Blandine: her fascination for mysticism, her uncompromising principles and ideals, and above all, her particular brand of profound loneliness.

Precocious yet troubled, Blandine strikes me as a conduit for important and necessary criticisms about the state of her hometown and the crises that permeate our reality at large. Freshly aged out of the foster system and unceremoniously thrust into adulthood, we find her cohabitating with three teenage boys who come from similarly unstable backgrounds, grappling with the trauma of having been betrayed by a mentor figure, a teacher from her old school. As much as her intelligence helps her escape her pain through her readings of the mystics, she is bereft of the resources to actually help herself, and her awareness of how much is beyond her control
contributes to a terrible anger.

Described as beautiful in an unassuming, ethereal way, Blandine is undoubtedly set apart from the other characters, but I found a great deal of her sentiments, beliefs, habits and thoughts to be intensely relatable and resonant. For instance, in a conversation with Jack, one of the boys she lives with, Blandine delivers a scathing diatribe on the exploitative perils of social media and its contribution to a cultural erosion that leaves room for little else than artificiality and incessant comparison. In response to Blandine’s deliberate abstinence from social media, Jack accuses her of snobbery, to which Blandine replies, “Not at all. On the contrary, I’m too weak for it” (177). For me, this attitude succinctly encapsulates an aggravating paradox about people who avoid social media and those who long to break free from it: that they are principally opposed to the proliferation of “hacking, politically nefarious robots, opinion echo chambers, [and] fearmongering,” yet equally as susceptible to its addictive algorithm (177). But as articulate as Blandine is when it comes to expressing her discontentment, she is helpless to effect any real change. She is as much a relatable nobody as a burgeoning mystic, all of which makes her role in the novel’s harrowing climax both tragic and poetically satisfying.

True to its polyphonic structure, the novel is stylistically experimental with a wide range of perspectives and voices which range from finessed prose with rhetoric, metaphors and sensory detail to the colloquial chatter of a teenage boy. There was one chapter I found quite striking in its unprecedented structure: in the aftermath of the novel’s climax, nineteen year old Jack relays the sequence of events that culminate in the story’s final, violent confrontation through a chapter composed solely of single-sentence paragraphs. Entirely devoid of effusion, the terse list of one-liners resembles a factual police report and I was left with a curious sense of emotional obstruction and an understanding that perhaps for Jack, the horror of what transpired necessitates a sort of removed detachment.

Here and there, the fragmented narrative dips delicately into surrealism, never departing too far from the banalities of real life. Many of the characters come from different walks of life and subsequently face a scattered array of hardships unique to their backgrounds, though they share humanising attributes. But before they are real, they are merely strange. One of the first things we learn about Moses Robert Blitz, for instance, is that he habitually stages nocturnal attacks by covering his nude body in glow-stick liquid and breaking into the houses of his enemies to frighten them. What could possibly motivate his bizarre behaviour emerges as puzzle pieces from a painful past that he cannot let go of; these pieces all point to a mother who hurt him deeply, and has recently skirted any possibility of resolution or reconciliation through death. Meanwhile, the mother in question, the Hollywood starlet Elsie Blitz, is as haunting and formidable in her living moments as she is in death. In a truly innovative auto-obituary, she offers a haphazard collection of life lessons, chastises her adult son for his nocturnal escapades, and outlines a startlingly vivid encounter with Death himself. Moses eventually arrives in Vacca Vale on one of his punitive missions, but he and Elsie are the only two characters whose lives actually take place outside of the town. And while they certainly embody what the dying town lacks—namely, wealth—it is equally as clear that they are not impervious to its smog of despair. The relationship between Moses and Elsie, which explores fundamental misunderstandings and limitations on both ends, was, for me, one of the novel’s most convincing portraitures of a dysfunctional relationship, and certainly my favourite. As Gunty pithily summarises: “In the end, there was a woman and a man. But the man was too much son and the woman was too little mother” (166).

I enjoy my fiction with a touch of surrealism, which exercises my imaginative faculties, but what I was not expecting to enjoy was how much the internet features throughout the story. We live in a virtual age, after all, though this is a fact that I am not always at peace with, so when a book succeeds in depicting the online world authentically, replete with internet vernacular, emojis, typos, and the kind of unsightly language borne behind the safety of anonymity, I find myself genuinely paying attention. One of the Rabbit Hutch tenants, Joan, ekes out a living screening obituary comments for “foul language, copyrighted material, and mean-spirited remarks about the deceased”, amongst other varieties of unruly internet conduct (34). In a chapter wholly comprised of obituary comments, Gunty relays a barrage of offensive material that Joan is forced to delete. At first glance, the comments seem nonsensical and random, as internet content so often is, but there is, in fact, much to glean from the remarks on what is ailing us all. One comment, in all caps, promotes a young hopeful’s new music album; another spouts political non-sequiturs; yet others spell out conspiracy theories, sexual propositions, requests for charity, and even existential provocations. In these pleas for attention and shouts into the void, I gathered a core truth about what Joan calls the “collective American subconscious”: that America may be lost, but Americans are fighting to find themselves.

I have included in my review those moments from the book that struck me most viscerally, that I can recall without effort and feel a great urge to discuss with others, but I have no doubt there is much I am forced to overlook—or have not yet discovered—and I would urge any reader to look for those moments of humour and insight. As much as it comments on the state of America, The Rabbit Hutch meditates equally on modernity, and people, such that while my reader’s greed longs for more, I have to defer to the novel’s unresolved ending, which mimics what we know of the questionable nature of life.

Gunty, Tess. The Rabbit Hutch. London, Oneworld Publications, 2022. Print.

Natasha Carr-Harris is an editor and features writer for MIR and recent alumnus of the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA.
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

iocus mortis by Joey Barlow

 

It’s another sellout crowd for Hugh Briss—his third in as many days at the famous Club Comedia. His set, titled ‘Laughter for a Lifetime’, consists of only one joke—not a particularly funny one, and one that isn’t even originally his, so they say, but according to the critics it’s all in his delivery. See, he does this thing, where he

     pauses, for comedic effect. He starts talking, with this golden voice, a twinkle in his eye that says, “I have had a vision of the future, and you will still be laughing.”
And then, when he feels like it, he

   stops. Just like that. And the audience waits on him, afraid to even inhale lest they displace his oxygen, rendering him unable to deliver a punchline prophesied to make them laugh into the future. They are in a state of religious awe as they wait, and for those precious seconds, Hugh has total control.

The pregnant pause, comedians call this. A moment full of endless possibilities. Hugh calls it ‘God’s Fag Break’, likening it to the brief moment God took—post-plucking of Adam’s rib from which he created Eve, while waiting for the sinew of Eve’s new corporeal form to set—to reward himself with a quick cigarette.

There are only two ways that the joke could go wrong: you fumble the setup, confusing your audience; or you miss the punchline. Yes, that’s right, it can be done. Others have. They waited too long. The margin is so fine that to an amateur comedian, they may not even notice they’ve surpassed it—but they will discover as much when the punchline limps off the tip of their tongue, to the vacant eyes of the unimpressed masses. In that fraction of a moment, the joke dies and the comedian enters a state from which there is no recovery.

The scientists call it—iocus mortis.

***

Hugh Briss takes to the stage late. On his first night, he had been too keen and walked out four minutes early. He had to wait for the back rows to finish filing in before he could begin the joke’s setup. On his second night, he learned from his previous mistake and walked out at precisely the right moment. Tonight, pleased with how the previous night went, he walks out seven minutes late and a little tipsy.

The mutters and tutters of the patient crowd fade away. The spotlight seems brighter than it was yesterday. Hugh wafts his hand around and the lighting engineer brings it down a touch.

“Cheers,” he says, and the front few rows giggle. For any lesser comedian, that would have been enough to call it a successful gig, but Hugh is here for another night of rapturous applause. Some comedians might introduce themselves first, then welcome the audience and thank them for coming. But Hugh doesn’t. That’s a bit beneath him.

He launches straight into it, the words collecting around his taste buds, rolling down the central valley of his tongue and soaring past his two front teeth and into the stands; he paces across the stage, building a rhythm slowly, methodically, seeing the audience raise one eyebrow (they’re hooked) then the other (they’re on the edge of their seat—what could possibly come next?) and then Hugh’s right heel touches the ground, as his left foot rolls up onto his toes, and he


        admires how exquisitely he set the joke up— the look on the faces of a young couple in the front row, clearly a first date, but the
perfect one; she’s happy to be here, he’s happy her hand is resting on his knee—a man in seat four, row J, block two, holds a single kernel of popcorn to his lower lip, as if his neurons have forgotten how to instruct his hand to raise up that little bit higher in order to drop it into his open mouth; not until that post-punchline dopamine hits, please—a young boy tilts his head quizzically, and for a moment within the
moment Hugh worries the setup has confused the boy, but he decides he doesn’t care what he thinks as long as the rest of the audience are having a good time—unless of course this boy is a critic from the Guardian, in which case he is concerned that this boy is confused and rather hopes that he isn’t (he would not want to get a bad review on the closing night of his show, God no) but then the boy drops one of his eyebrows, so that he only has one eyebrow raised instead of two—which settles it, Hugh thinks: the boy is confused, but he can’t work out why when the setup had been performed so exquisitely—then realises, therefore, that the only reason the boy could pull such a face is if Hugh


       delivers the punchline late— and remarks to himself how the quizzical young boy looks almost identical to himself
when he had been a child, attending his first comedy show; in fact, it was the very same comedy show in which he first heard the joke he is now performing, and had found it so funny that it changed the course of his life; he begged his father to send him to comedy school but his father told him to wait until he was older, so he begged his mother to beg his father to send him to comedy school, and she too told him to wait until he was older; so he waited, and waited, and closed his eyes squeezed them tight fists clenched and prayed to God that he could be older so that his parents could send him to comedy school, and God looked down and told him he already had all he needed to be a comedian—but the quizzical young boy does not look impressed, in fact he is now distracted by his older sister, sat next to him, pulling out her phone, face illuminated by the text message she’s sending to her best friend telling her how much second-hand embarrassment she’s currently feeling for the quivering, frozen man on stage—and doesn’t she just look the spitting image of my daughter, he thinks—and next to her is his daughter’s daughter who is yet to be born—and next to her, her daughter’s daughter’s son’s daughter’s daughter, who will look back on this night in six hundred years time and call it the most disappointing night of her pre-existence—and inside the bright but slightly dimmed spotlight above him, Hugh sees the face of an old man; it could have been his father, had he lived long enough to reach such an old age, or perhaps it was his father’s father (or his father’s father’s mother’s father’s father) and the old man smiles, despite the second-hand embarrassment he feels at Hugh’s expense, and takes a satisfied, long drag from his cigarette.

    THE

                END

 

 

Joey Barlow is studying an MA at Birkbeck, University of London. This piece was performed as part of the MIR Live event in December 2023

The image is iocustelly.png, MIR Graphics

 

I Have Nothing New To Say by Sinéad MacInnes

On your whistle-stop tour of the Highlands
and Islands our whispers are said
to be heard by native ears

O Dhia
dè rinn iad?

              Oh God
              what have
              they done?

Aon.
One.

The Barabhas moor on Lewis is empty.

Leòdhas – far an do rugadh mo sheanair

              Lewis – where my
              grandpa was born

I have nothing new to say. And yet
perhaps I echo the emptiness they pronounce
as they roll in brazen on bulldozer. As if it is a tank.
Nothing to see here! No sign of life.

The shaft of ephemeral light hits the same spot
on Donald-John’s rowing boat at the same time of day,
each day this season, as we continue to live
in the shape of our shadows, lapping against low tides.

Dhà.
Two.

Uibhist a’ Tuath – far an do rugadh mo shinn-seanmhair 

              North Uist – where
              my great-
              grandmother
              was born

My grandpa sits atop a rock on the Cnocaire at number 10, Bàgh a’ Chàise/highest hill point above the croft/I am small enough then to still be sat atop his knee.            

His walking stick props up the rock next door to our stone throne
its head gracefully carved by Duncan Mathieson of Kintail
into the face of a bird
whose wife force feeds me biscuits and strokes my cheeks

(Duncan Mathieson’s wife does, not the graceful bird walking stick),
twice a year when visiting on our way home to croft from city,
Duncan Mathieson being distant cousin on my grandpa’s father’s side
this delicate web of sloinneadh they trace

through every ceilidh as we sit in their tiny dwelling
set into mountain face of a cleared valley of
broken and uninhabited homes and
listen to the last of our tradition-bearers spitball stories that

mix with tinkling laughter,
peat and cigarette smoke and reverberate round the room.
We drive away. A sad echo
follows us through the Glen.

Now, back on the Cnocaire we survey our Kingdom,
mo sheanair and I, the sea on three sides.
Nothing between here and Canada, a Shinéad, dìreach ocean.
I imagine I am falling off the edge of the world right into its centre.

Gusts of wind blow my hair across my face
grandpa hums the Addams Family theme tune,
we giggle. He squeezes me tighter against the breeze, points,
seall air an sùlaire. Dreamily we watch gannets dive for fish that way they do,

high up at our hilltop-eye-level, they circle,
we watch in wait – and then
– a sudden plunge! Turning like a whisk as they plummet down
into quiet splash, we yelp in delight spotting squirming fat fish in its beak

I ask, small chin tilting up to his,
how can they see under the water from all the way up here?
Survival, he replies.
With a slight shake of his head.

Trì.
Three..

I have never seen anything more unpropitious
– said Sir Walter Scott of the Harris skyline (from his boat)

Beàrnaraigh na Hearadh – cò às a thàinig mo sheanmhair            

              Berneray, Harris –
              where my granny
              came from

They made maps with no place names
numbers instead, to demolish
our townships, already poor in soil
now drifting nameless through their cache

In this desolate land

Eyes flash cash, hand grips stick, miss what sits
in front of them/hold on to your breaches boys and away we go!
Screech into hearth holding hearts encased in stone
bleed out into rich purple heather staining it brown

Sinéad, come on, time to move on – I – flinch/gut/choke on my own knowing/freeze in disappearing/shout or run/shout or run/shout or run/I –

swallow. Hundreds of years stick fast in a throat taught to sever our speaking,
to dance carefully round drunken hopelessness. All in the past.
Sit quiet/feel the weight on my chest/moors burn/flames lick hot on our backs
And you do not exist.

Ceithir.
Four.

O Dhia/Ar n-Athair a tha air nèamh

              Oh God/Our Father
              who art in Heaven

Cataibh
Sutherland

where great grandfather, the minister,
and great grandmother, the healer, are buried,
far from home, dead amongst the ghosts
of 7,000, never to return.

Run over our bones until they turn to dust and you can say – See?
It’s empty here.

Hear the psalms swell we call and we respond
wrapped in shrouds of bitter judgement
pray our resistance away/arrive starving from Barra
shock the city/draped in the famine they made.
 

Coig.
Five.

Cò as a tha thu?

Where are you from?

Literal translation
who are you from?
The land springs forth the people
not the other way round

so remote, how wild,
so rugged, how free

freedom is in the eye of the beholder when
they proclaim the people of a place are pretend.

Sia.
              Six.

My mamaidh, mo mhathair, text me yesterday,
Six eagles circling over Bagh a Chaise this morning with a golden moon
going down in the shell pink Western sky
Eagle emoji eagle emoji
Shell emoji
Love heart

Tha gaol agam ort
              I love you
Literal translation/I have love at me on you
sits between us/as eternal offering.

all the men in my story are dead now.

land was never meant to be a possession
and I have nothing new to say

nothing I could translate into this tongue, anyway.

**
For all erased and dispossessed people and lands.

Many thanks to Catrìona MacInnes for the photos and to Fiona MacIsaac and Yvonne Irving for checking over the Gaelic

Sinead MacInnes is a writer, facilitator, actor and performance poet based at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is studying for an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. Her work straddles the creative-critical seam, exploring shame, trans generational trauma, colonial legacy and the Gaelic world

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