Here’s to Bath Spa University 2017’s new masters of the art of writing! Here’s to the exciting poets, storytellers, novelists, memoirists about to add their work to the world.
Reading a series of extracts, as I just have, is always a surreally exhilarating experience.
I have lived through a succession of cliffhangers; dozens of characters are now hanging on to my brain by their fingertips. I’m desperate to find out what happens in the books that will follow.
I know they will be original, disturbing, surprising and moving, but I can’t draw conclusions about their content, and not just because I haven’t read them all. Bath Spa’s Creative Writing has a reputation for diversity, built upon the multifarious practice of the writers teaching it, who represent just about every form, style and medium – so of course we encourage our students to be themselves. Pity the poor preface writer, though, trying to draw forth a coherent line from this gallimaufry of talent.
So I won’t try. ‘Gallimaufry’, according to Collins, was originally a meat stew, its name derived from the words for enjoyable gorging. I shall pull out some tasty gobbets and otherwise just assure you that all human life is here: love and sex, family, adolescence, war, the damage we do, the big world we tread on, history and the future, the universe, God. Oh, and jokes. Claire Kendall Muniesa shows how we remember old family jokes for comfort. ‘What do you call a deer with no eyes?’ ‘No eye-dea.’
And so to love, which in these pages often leads to comedy of misunderstanding, and infidelity. Jay Millington’s professor has noticed nothing about his unfaithful wife – (‘I thought you liked the farmhouse.’ ‘You liked the farmhouse’) – including the fact that this morning she is leaving him. Eleanor St Clair takes her reader along on an internet hookup in a pub, which is soon a brilliant exercise in fibbing: plying the heroine with cocktails, her Tinder date ‘moved his hand to her hip. Suddenly her hip started to vibrate. Erica looked at him in surprise before realising it was her phone … .’ When Charlotte Packer’s fictional wife starts writing to her husband’s mistress, her tone is reasonable, but not for long: ‘What are you like to kiss, Bel? What are you like to fuck?’
Family is primal, and the fear of losing it. Andrina Hayden’s novel The Bamboo Sisters begins ‘They say the Filipino people are like bamboo, they bend in the wind but do not break … I never told you that I had a sister? That she disappeared and I did not know where to find her?’
Clare Gallagher’s comic tone leads the reader unsuspecting towards a memorable sadness, ‘the silent taunt of a childless house.’ Fathers and grandfathers go missing too: Colin Cady tells how ‘this was the last time we sat there together like this, his ninety-five years to my twenty-four, watching the shadows lengthen while the earth tilted us a little closer to winter.’ Val Ormrod’s memoir saves her own father, an amusing and lovable character, from oblivion, though she has to trace ‘the lights … being extinguished, one by one’ by dementia. He has insight into his situation – ‘I’m losing all my signposts’ – and yet ‘“This is a nice orange,” he says, biting into an apple.’ Rebecca Tantony records her father’s haunting dream about abandonment:
“My father has a memory.
Swimming in the ocean,
floating on his dad’s
stomach, the milky sky
a storybook above them both.
‘I have to go to the
pub now,’ his father spoke,
and left his son treading
the surface, keeping his head
above all that water, trying
desperately not to drown.”
Deb McCormick’s fictional father is a different creature: violent, amoral, attractive, unpredictable – a man with a terrible secret whose presence is the problem. Back from the army, he ‘swings through the gate, looking like Elvis Presley … cap on at a rakish angle, blue-grey uniform, kitbag … Mum and Celia run into his arms like starlets but I hold back.’ All too soon the child narrator is in her bedroom, ‘lights off, under the covers’, hearing the ‘banging and shouting’ despite the pillow pulled over her head.
War still marks the writers of this generation. Peter Deacon gives a heart-stopping account of a plane losing height and nearly crashing as it flies blind in a thunderstorm in 1942. Lara-Ashley Monroe writes through the eyes of a Vietnam soldier who ‘wasn’t ready to leave … Nam made a type of sense: see something – shoot it.’
Vivid damage is everywhere in these pages. Ariel Dantona’s adolescent, Oya, ‘took the lid of an empty tomato tin and drew it carefully down her thumb, biting against the sting and watching as a faint red line widened, grew branches, bore fruit.’ Alexandra Jellicoe, who has worked with an aid agency in Turkana, Kenya, tells how an old woman hooks a thorn into a teenage girl’s eyebrow and then turns it and slices, following up with so many cuts with a knife that the girl’s eyes blur with blood: all this for the Turkana concept of beauty. In Keith Lennox’s Strands, a man vomits maggots and a woman hears her own neck snap. Glenn Carmichael’s Argentine thriller shows a gunshot victim who ‘looks like she’s grinning. The bullet has removed flesh from her cheek, and the jawbone is protruding; a row of bloodied teeth.’
Bodily damage hides in civilised urban life too. Melanie Golding makes the reader feel the savage pains of childbirth and the sudden ecstasy of anaesthesia. Kate Venables’s novel about four middle-aged lovers describes a doctor’s training in anatomy: she arrives with ‘a skull and bones donated by her family GP. Hers were grey and dried with chipped ends showing the trabeculae … larger and heavier than the usual set of bones.’ And Emily Kay Goodman looks at the floor of a dance studio and sees ‘skin dust, mud from outdoor shoes, ripped toenails, blood, spit, sweat … Some dancers urinate on their feet to harden them up.’
But the non-urban world dances too, and there we can breathe and enjoy. Jessica Walden writes about a giraffe lowering itself to drink on the pale yellow, dark-striped banks of the Rufiji river, ‘kick[ing] each front leg out in turn, spreading them like a gawky ballerina about to do the splits.’ Morag Shuaib, whose feeling for nature was crystallised by the environmetally devastating Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, gives an unforgettable picture of the desert plain in March, that ‘shimmers with a purple-grey haze’, ‘awash with desert iris, whose Arabic name, Sosen, is the same as mine … ’.
The bigger world gives perspective and offers both comedy and wisdom; Jehan Nizar’s short fiction catches ‘the mindset of a new breed of global Indians’ who feel self-conscious on a sentimental trip back to the India of childhood memory, sitting uncomfortably cross-legged in a traditional dance centre in Kerala. Tam Purkess’s highly original novel looks beneath the feet of her characters to make the stones her narrators: ‘We are mineral; the stone beneath your feet, the stone that is your home and your memorial stone. We are earth and clay, mica, silica, sand and silt … and many more.’
God appears rarely after Adam Ley-Lange’s salty, earthy rewriting of the birth of Jesus at the beginning of this anthology. Steve Leckie struggles to understand bad luck ‘as part of God’s Plan For Me … Problem is, if you think it through, you come to one of two conclusions: either you deserved it, or you didn’t. Meaning, either I was a shit, or God was.’ But there are other concepts of heaven. Lucy Calder has an MSc in Astrophysics, and her poem takes us with an orbiting astronaut crossing the dark side of the moon:
I don’t believe in anything but I know
I’ll see the Earth again,
that not-to-be-denied reality
blundering into view like a reckless
vision of hope. Magic never came into it.
I shut my eyes and fall
over the horizon towards it like the future.
And Mulenga Musonda shows us two humans falling in love at an astronomy exhibition, against the backdrop of Hubble images of stars: ‘This is what is known as a deep-field picture. It is blackness littered with dashes of multi-coloured light … The moving blue light pools at the top of her head before trickling down her forehead like a halo … Something bright and hidden. That’s what it feels like when she says yes.’
Lovely lines. But what have I left out? So much! There are Susie Barnes’s colourful women sword fighters, wondering just what the rules are as they clash; there are fit men like Molly Aitken’s Pat, ‘beautiful with the sunlight glossing his hair to the sheen of a conker and that sure stride of his’; there’s Rosie Sharratt’s Freudian nightmare of seething purple ribbons and giant scissors, and Sean Magnus Martin’s powerful elegiac poem, ‘Flood-Junk’, which describes ‘a place where everything washes up’ –
a patch of coastline, unscoured, sealed-off
by black clouds and lightning. Amid that haze,
intricate sand dunes wind like the dried veins
of a corpse, and rusted shells of trucks and cars
are mastodon bones in ancestral graveyards –
the wreckage of a failed migration …
Oh, and please don’t miss Daisy McNally’s tense, unsettling tale of a woman stalking her former lover’s parents, or James Glaholm’s sparring mother and daughter. Do bear in mind, above all, that I haven’t been able to read everyone’s work, so you will make many surprise finds yourself.
What is good writing about? It’s about the right combination of passion and observation. When Julia Grigg writes through the fictionalised eyes of sixteenth-century painter Francesco Bassano, I can’t help thinking that the love of art is hers, and that it’s shared by many of these contributors: ‘Last night, my first in Venice, I dreamed of Titian’s reds, a river of them, rushing headlong foam-flecked between rocks, splashing up over my shoes, staining my stockings while I stood there on the bank, transfixed.’ Good writing is also about specific words and phrases – thanks Esther Valmadre for ‘blotto besties’ and ‘Aussie larrikins’. It’s about detail: Deirdre Huston makes us believe in the rural underworld of eighteenth-century Sussex by pointing out a dark patch on a horse’s nose and a cherry on a stick. Her extract ends with a young girl looking into the unknown, and I think of you, the reader opening this book:
‘My breathing speeds up and my heart wants to leap from my body. Here I am, middle of nowhere, about to meet Ma’s family. Wits sharp, I step forward.’
Enjoy the adventure.
Maggie Gee (@maggiegeewriter) has been Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa since 2012. She has published fourteen books, most recently a novel, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, and been translated into fourteen languages. She has an OBE for ‘services to literature’.