Ninevoices Summer Competition




Last month a Times article highlighted the dwindling use of certain words associated with nature. Featured in a sidebar were eleven such words as follows:

Owl-light Twilight
Roarie-bummlers Fast-moving stormclouds
Shivelight Lances of light cast through a woodland canopy
Petrichor Smell of dry earth and rock that comes before and during a rainfall
Glashtroch Incessant rain
Gludder Fleeting sunshine between showers
Neptunes-uouue Sea mist
Smeuse Sussex dialect for a hole in a hedge left by the repeated passage of a small animal
Landskein Weave of horizon lines on a hazy day
Stravaig Scots and Irish for wandering aimlessly
Nurdle East Anglian dialect for wandering aimlessly

Ninevoices challenges our followers to write a story (not a poem or piece of descriptive prose) of between 99 and 199 words using one or more of these words in a manner organic to the story. For stories of equal quality, your chance of winning will rise if you’ve used more than one of these words or introduced another such word (defined in a footnote outside the word count. The title is also excluded from the word-count).

The deadline is 31st August 2017. The entry fee is £5 payable via PayPal. The prize is £100 for the best story. Entries should be sent to

Any profits above the prize amount will go to the charity PMRGCA-UK



Please send each entry separately to

Stories should be sent as Word documents or pdfs.
In the email, tell us:

  • Your name
  • Your phone number (including country code if not in the UK)
  • Your writing name (which is what will be shown if we publish the story)
  • The title of your story


Please pay us £5 per entry.

For multiple entries, please pay as separate transactions.  It would help us if you could mention the title of the story in the notes area.

Pay here:





Collaboration – one man’s trash


, , , , , ,

Writing may be a solitary occupation, but two Medway poets have just shown how collaboration can pay off.

Matt Chamberlain and Spreken came up with the idea of interpreting the other’s images. They each took photos of ordinary things, which the other then wrote about. The one stipulation was that the resulting poem contain something positive (for they had seen too much sadness in their work).

The result is one man’s trash, a collection of 14 poems. A kitchen sink full of not-yet-done washing-up; a house sprayed with racist graffiti; a sign in a car park telling you where to pay; a pair of muddy walking boots: these unpromising pictures inspire some imaginative work. My favourite is ‘Underneath’, the speculation of whatever lives under a bridge (a troll, as there’s something trip-trapping across the bridge – memories of Billy Goat Gruff?) as to who is walking over it and what their lives contain (or don’t). Another that specially appeals is ‘Grey infusion’, the thoughts of a pigeon splashing in a puddle.

The foreword explains that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Or hope. Or mirth.”

Spreken has had some of her work on the tube in the Poets on the Underground series, and she co-headlined Paint it Black, a poetry event focusing on mental health, part of Medway’s Paint The Town festival this spring ( Matt Chamberlain has published three collections of poems and performs at open mic nights, festivals etc, most recently at this month’s Vicar’s Picnic festival at Yalding in Kent (see, where he was Festival Laureate.  (I wrote about one of his collections last year (at

The collection is published by Wordsmithery (based in Chatham). For an interview with the two authors, speaking on how they write their poetry and how they collaborate, see .

So if writer’s block strikes, or you feel your writing needs new inspiration, or is getting you down, try some collaboration like this.

ISBN 978-0-9926853-6-2 RRP £8 (+ £2 P&P from Wordsmithery)

Mr Collins and Mr Elton – our favourite Jane Austen clergymen?


, , ,

John Henry Newman – before he left the Church of England to embrace Roman Catholicism – criticised Jane Austen for her failure to understand what being a priest meant. He was not alone. Both in her own time and since, Christians from both high and low church persuasions have found fault with Jane Austen for depicting the clergy in a less than flattering light and thereby bringing the church into disrepute.

A sense of humour failure or missing something? Jane Austen was a devout Anglican all her life. She was private about her faith, and not much given to talking about it or making her characters be any more expressive. But serious Christianity is there in her novels all the time, it’s the air the characters breathe, something understood. Wanting Jane Austen to be more explicit is wanting her to be a very different kind of author.

Her intentions and choices were essentially literary; she was not trying to make a point. The clergymen in her novels are never villains, nor are they based on anyone she knew. She merely invites us to laugh along with Elizabeth Bennet at ‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies’ in people of all sorts, clergymen included.

In half of Jane Austen’s six finished novels the hero is a clergyman (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park); in three the heroine is a daughter of a clergyman (Northanger Abbey and the two unfinished novels Sanditon and The Watsons).

Jane Austen certainly knew a vast number of clergymen. Her father was the rector of Stevenage in Hampshire; her brother James was a clergyman; in her letters there are references to over ninety of them. Clergymen were everywhere in society, and at a time of war they were particularly in demand.

But how the profession was viewed, who entered it, and why they did so, was very different to today. Some sixty per cent of graduates from Oxford and Cambridge went into the church, apparently accepting that being a clergyman was a job rather than a vocation. The scholarly range was wide; neither a degree in theology nor any training was required.

Young men of genteel birth but no income had only three available choices of profession: the military, the law, or the church. Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility ‘prefers the church’ but this doesn’t appear to be for especially religious reasons. When his snooty mother thinks this isn’t grand enough for him, idleness seems to be the only alternative.

The livings of almost half the parishes in England and Wales lay in the gift of landowners; this was therefore an ideal way of providing for younger sons – as Sir Thomas Bertram does for Edmund in Mansfield Park. Vicars paid the salaries of their often poverty-stricken curates, sometimes leaving a curate in charge while holding another living elsewhere. As we see with Charles Hayter in Persuasion, without a parish, marriage and a decent standard of living were impossible, and without a patron or connection with a bishop, it was difficult to obtain one. But while pluralism and patronage, together with the way the Church of England was structured, may have opened the way for abuse and worldliness among the clergy, Jane Austen doesn’t criticise the system; she was more interested in illustrating how human beings behave within it.

Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice is a caricature of the greedy clergyman greasing up to his patron, a stock figure of comedy recognisable to Jane Austen’s contemporaries. The clergy in her day were not necessarily expected to be above the ordinary material concerns and weaknesses of other human beings – and it’s in this way that she writes of them. They were food for wit and amusement alongside everyone else in society; as Jane Austen tells us in Northanger Abbey, the novelist must convey ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature’ and ‘the happiest delineation of its varieties.’

That other most repellent clergyman, Mr Elton, is less of a figure of fun than Mr Collins. Becoming a clergyman was a way of social climbing at that time, and Mr Elton’s background is trade. In Highbury he can enter the small circle of gentry and seek to better himself by marriage within it. This would have been seen as natural enough by Jane Austen, if not by Emma. According to Mr Knightley (with whom one cannot possibly disagree) he is ‘a very respectable vicar of Highbury’ and known to perform his clerical duties efficiently and to visit the poor. His only real crime is his cruel behaviour to Harriet.

The formal duties of a parish priest at that time were two services on Sundays, a communion once a month, and baptisms, weddings and funerals. Although there was the extra work of glebe land and the often troublesome business of tithe collecting, in most of the novels there is a sense that the clergy have plenty of time to indulge in pleasurable pursuits the same as other gentlemen. Henry Tilney, whilst clearly a young man of high principle and religious conviction, is able to abandon his parish for weeks on end to attend balls in Bath. Mr Elton takes himself off to secure the appalling Augusta without anyone thinking he is neglecting his calling.

It is not until Mansfield Park, the most overtly religious of her novels, that Jane Austen examines the role of the clergy in any depth. For all Sir Thomas Bertram’s deficiencies as a father, he can think rightly on other matters: ‘a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident … human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and their friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.’

The pleasure-seeking, wrong-thinking Mary Crawford considers that the clergy are a self-indulgent waste of space – not altogether surprising given that she is daily witnessing her brother-in-law Dr Grant’s obsession with the food on his plate. It is through the arguments between her and Edmund Bertram that a spiritual dimension enters into the writing and will eventually become essential to the plot. Edmund insists ‘I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally – which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.’

Edmund is presented as an almost perfect clergyman in spite of his occasional lapses of judgment, though we have to hope he is less obtuse with his parishioners than he was with Fanny at the height of his love for Mary. Jane Austen knew that good men are not always as perceptive as they ought to be. Edward Ferrars, too, will no doubt develop more gumption with the strong-minded Elinor beside him in the parish. The scintillating Henry Tilney, by standing up to his avaricious bully of a father, proves that he is not just extremely attractive and entertaining, but that Christian principles thoroughly govern his conduct.

Yet while we acknowledge the undoubted virtue and excellence of these three clergymen heroes, it has to be admitted that it’s Mr Collins and Mr Elton in whom we take the most enduring delight. It’s 200 years today since Jane Austen died: a good moment to feel endlessly thankful for such delicious and unforgettable characters. 


The History Boys and a Thomas Hardy poem

It is thirteen years since Alan Bennett’s The History Boys premiered at the National Theatre – and I’ve finally got around to seeing the film adaptation. I was bewitched and bedazzled for much of it.  Its depiction of a group of 1980s sixth-formers preparing to take their Oxbridge entrance exams was immensely watchable. But – and at the risk of sounding like ‘one of those picky-ass readers who apparently live to tell writers that they messed up’ (as Stephen King calls them) – there was a moment that stood out for me, and I don’t think it was intended to.

The students’ maverick English teacher Hector – who wants them to learn poetry for its own sake, not in order to pass exams – should surely be a master of his subject. Admittedly, he is described by his own creator as ‘not an ideal teacher … he is sloppy and quotes stuff almost at random.’  But even if Alan Bennett wants to show us that the boys ‘know more than any of the teachers’, Hector’s USP is that he believes that ‘All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest use,’ so why make him the mouthpiece for the wrong interpretation of a poem?  For, unless I’m missing something (and I haven’t studied this play so I might be), his opener on Hardy’s elegiac war poem Drummer Hodge is wrong.  He says that ‘the important thing is that he [Hodge] has a name’ because ‘… these were the first campaigns when soldiers … or common soldiers … were commemorated, the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials.’ The second half of the sentence may be true but ‘Hodge’ was not intended to be understood as the drummer boy’s real name. It is in fact society’s pejorative nickname for the peasant class to which he belongs. Which makes him indistinguishable from its other members – the reverse of Hector’s point.  The fact that Drummer Hodge’s bones will not, as in previous times, be ground up with those of his fellow lowly soldiers into fertiliser doesn’t change that.

When Hector says ‘So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer.  Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name,’ he is, in my view, missing some of the vital pathos of the poem.  Drummer Hodge has made the ultimate sacrifice for his country but in death, as in life, he is not treated with respect as an individual.  Victorian society is snobbish to the end.  It has always tended to lump such people together as ‘Hodges’.  And a Hodge is, as Hardy explains in Longman’s Magazine in 1883, ‘a degraded being of uncouth manner and aspect, stolid understanding, and snail-like movement.’ Hardy’s lifelong mission was to show that this is a deeply unhelpful caricature, and that individuality shone out among the labourers of his native Dorset just as much as among the so-called higher classes of London.

It’s interesting, too, that Alan Bennett gives the sport-loving son of a former Oxford college servant – a student who, in the Head’s disparaging words, ‘might get in at Loughborough in a bad year’ – the name Rudge. Maybe this is a nod to Dickens’ simple but goodhearted eponymous hero Barnaby.  But the name is inescapably similar to that of ‘Hodge’.  When Rudge is unexpectedly offered a place by his interviewers at Christ Church, Oxford – he doesn’t have to wait for a letter like his peers – it is a telling moment.  Rudge represents a type that they want – ‘college servant’s son, now an undergraduate, evidence of how far they had come, wheel come full circle and that’.  He is not therefore valued as an individual – and he knows it.  And although he trots out his party piece that Stalin was a ‘sweetie’ and Wilfred Owen a ‘wuss’, we know the dons are not deceived because they say, wittily if cynically, that he is ‘plainly someone who thought for himself and just what the college rugger team needed.’

It seems to me that the correct reading of Drummer Hodge earlier would have enhanced this moment.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!


The Guilty Reader


, , , ,

My mother said to me, “I’ve just realised that now I’m in my 80s, if I’m not enjoying a book I don’t have to finish it. No teacher or parent is going to tell me off.”

This came as a great release to me too. All my life I’d felt guilty if I haven’t finished a book I’d started. I think it was my parents who instilled that in me!

After my mother had this realisation, the mobile library would park outside her house in rural Herefordshire and on each visit would unload a large batch of novels. Some would just be tasted, and put aside. Others would be read in full. On my visits I would admire the size of those two piles.

This parental permission not to finish a book has coincided with the realisation that as I have, ahem, not so many decades left there are only so many more books I’ll get to read. So why waste that time persisting with something you’re not enjoying (especially if you don’t feel that it’s nevertheless doing you good in some way)?

There is one novel I’ve had on my conscience for not finishing, but I won’t say what it is as it’s one of those most esteemed by one of my writing group. Suffice it to say that I never got to see the final score when the gods had ended their sport …. Sorry, Sarah.

Do you feel guilty if you leave a book unfinished? What book did you never get to the end of?

The Grammar Conundrum


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

If you no longer think it’s wrong to split an infinitive, or stand a sentence with ‘And’, or end a sentence with a preposition, do you still hold back in your writing because some of your readers might think you’ve made a mistake?

Should you care that they’ll think the worse of you, and stop reading your book or, worse, not buy your next one?

These thoughts were prompted by my attendance at this year’s English Grammar Day at the British Library on 3 July. It has a focus towards teachers, but is an excellent annual occasion for anyone interested in grammar. A message in recent years has been that several of what we thought were rules of grammar simply aren’t – they’re either plain wrong or just preferences of usage.

I never believed in the ‘no preposition at the end of a sentence’ rule, because of Churchill’s famous demolition of that ‘rule’, and also having learned German at school and seeing how in that cousin language it is in fact mandatory to end many sentences with prepositions. But it has taken me till now to accept that it’s wholly acceptable to gaily split an infinitive.   And that starting a sentence with a conjunction is fine if it suits what you want to say.

The problem comes with your less enlightened readers. Will they mark you down?

I recommend the English Grammar Day – it costs only a few pounds, so look it up on the BL website ( To show you the range of subjects covered, this year the speakers were Devyani Sharma, of Queen Mary University of London, on the development of English across the world, eg in India and Singapore; Lucy Dipper, of City University in London, on ‘Grammar in the speech and language therapy clinic’; Marcello Giovanelli, of Aston University, on ‘Knowing about language: what, why and how?’; Eleanor Trafford, who teaches English at Bradford Grammar School, on ‘Getting your clause into grammar in the secondary classroom’; the splendidly argumentative Geoff Pullum, of Edinburgh University, whose talk was entitled’ ‘If doctors knew medical science like writing critics know grammar, you’d be dead’; and Oliver Kamm (pictured), who writes in the Times on grammar every Saturday , on ‘Grammar guidance in the media: the search for certainty’.

The day finished with an ‘Any Questions’ –style panel discussion chaired by the always entertaining expert on Jane Austen John Mullan.

One of Geoff Pullum’s themes was that many of the so-called rules of grammar are the inventions of ill-informed people. Oliver Kamm argued that the persistence of these rules is largely the fault of ill-informed pundits in the media.

This was all liberating. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether the writer should worry about those less liberated readers …

‘Catching the Wind’


, , , , ,

Delighted to have my copy of Catching the Wind, the latest novel by Melanie Dobson, the author who impressed me so much last year with her discipline of 2,000 words a day (see Much looking forward to reading it – it’s in split time: it’s partly in WW2, partly now, partly in between; there’s espionage, secrets deep in the past, betrayal, a man’s search for the Brigitte from whom he was separated over 70 years before – and locations round here where I live in Kent. Thanks, Melanie.

( described my enjoyment of another of her novels with a British setting. Catching the Wind looks as good …)

Competitions to Enter in July


There are a surprising number of competitions this month, with the holiday season upon us. But editing a draft, or tinkering with the idea for a new short story is a pretty constructive way of passing a flight if you don’t fancy the movies on offer. So, no excuses accepted.

The Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition closes on July 10. Word count: 1200. Fee: £5. Prizes: £200; £100; £50. Details:

H G Wells Short Story Competition. Deadline 16 July. Word count: 1500-5000, The theme is ‘LIGHT in its broadest interpretation’. Prizes: £250 for authors of 22 years of age or over with an entry fee £10. £1,000 for authors 21 years of age and under, with FREE entry. Details:

Cinnamon Press Debut Novel/Novella Competition. First 10,000 words. Fee: £12. Prize: year’s mentoring, publishing contract and 100 copies of the book. Details:

HISSAC Short Story And Flash Fictions Competitions. Story: 2000 words. Flash: 500 words. Fee: story £5: £12 for three, £18 for five. Flash: £5, or £12 for three. Prizes: £250; £50; £25. Details:

Norwich Writers Olga Sinclair Competition wants stories on the theme of ‘strangers’. The winner will receive £400, with a second prize of £250 and a third of £100. Ten runners-up will receive a signed copy of Strangers: A History of Norwich’s Incomers, by local historian Frank Meeres. The winner and runners-up will be published in an anthology. Entry fee: £8. Closing date 31 July. Details:

The Ledbury Poetry Festival is offering a first prize of £1,000 and a course at Ty Newyyd, with runners-up receiving £500 and £250, for unpublished poems up to forty lines in any style and on any subject. There is an entry fee of £5 for the first poem and £3.50 for any subsequent poems. Closing date 13 July. Details:

As usual, I urge you to check all details before entering.

Although the above features competitions happening this month, do please take a look at ninevoices’ own competition for a story using some delightful, but obscure, old English words. You don’t need to use them all! One would be sufficient, if it is used imaginatively. Our prize might be modest, but we are unlikely to get the mass entries that the bigger competitions receive – which gives you better odds… You have until the end of August.





Old Woman, Crazy to Write…



Recently, Elizabeth and I visited the Hokusai Exhibition at the British Museum.

Widely regarded as one of Japan’s most famous and influential artists, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) produced work of astonishing quality right up until his death at ninety. Indeed, he believed that the older he got, the greater his art would become, considering that he hadn’t painted ‘anything useful‘ until he was seventy. He even added his age as part of his signature: the self-styled Old Man Crazy to Paint: Gakyo Rojin.

The Exhibition displays his work from the iconic Great Wave, to the delicacy of a minuscule frog hiding among the leaves of a flower. And being accompanied by a lady who lived in Japan, speaks the language, and was able to give me her own insights as we walked round was an added delight.

I am enthused by Hokusai’s conviction that age can be an advantage in creative efforts. Writing has parallels with painting, surely? Which means that I have decades ahead in which to keep up my pursuit of that elusive agent…

Tickets to the Exhibition are selling out fast, but if you aren’t able to snaffle one BBC4 is showing a programme on Hokusai TONIGHT, at nine o’clock. Well worth watching, or recording.

The joy of words – en français


, , , ,

Seeing Kenneth Williams’ party piece Ma Crêpe Suzette on TV last week I thought it deserved another outing, for the sheer fun he has in putting the words together.

I’m old enough to remember Petula Clark and Sasha Distel’s greatest hits.

I’d love to hear the French/English version.