Short Stories Can Lead to Greater Things

Many best-selling authors started their careers by writing short stories.

I don’t believe this particular young man succeeded with ‘O Henry’s Corner’ on this occasion, but I suspect his liking for obituary columns proved inspirational for his later books.

So – write a short story. There are plenty of competitions around. Hint, hint…



‘The Glass Room’ (re)visited


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My wife and I were both so taken with The Glass Room by Simon Mawer that on our visit to the Czech Republic this month we made a point of visiting the Villa Tugendhat, the location (and indeed the centrepiece) of that fine novel. (See

The Villa Tugendhat was a ground-breaking design in its time, the work of Mies van der Rohe in 1929–1930, and it’s a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. It’s in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Mies van der Rohe was given an unlimited budget! Of which he took full advantage …

The description of the Villa Landauer – and of its creation – in the novel seem to be exactly those of the Villa Tugendhat. We marvelled at the onyx wall, the wall of glass and its mechanism for being moved up and down, and the wonderful views through it of Brno’s Castle – all of which feature prominently in the novel. Mies van der Rohe forbade the house’s first occupants from putting anything on the walls, as does the novel’s architect, Rainer von Abt, as ornament was a crime: our guide gleefully showed us the room where the Tugendhats hid their pictures when Mies van der Rohe came to visit.

Simon Mawer has thus written his novel about the real house: it’s even set on the Villa’s actual street, Černopolní. The stories of the occupants are rather more fictionalised, though not always drastically so. So, writers, this is what you can do with location!

Our guide told us that in real life the house has played its own part in the recent history of Central Europe. She told us that it was under a tree in the garden that in 1992 the Czech Premier Václav Klaus and the Slovak Premier Vladimír Mečiar met to discuss their opposing views on the way forward for newly free Czechoslovakia, and ended by deciding to split the country into two! That tree, apparently, died not long after …

My wife and I were thrilled by our visit to the Villa. The novel had inspired us to go, and our visit made the novel even more memorable for us. You can visit the Villa but you are advised to book at least two months in advance (see Guided tours in English are available, and well worth it. The young lady who took us round was clearly in love with the building herself!

Thanks, Simon.



BIFFIELD:           Don’t let them get me!


THERAPIST:         You’re perfectly safe, Mr Biffield. Lie back on my couch and                            relax.


BIFFIELD:           I’m NOT safe.


THERAPIST:         My receptionist will bring you a cup of green tea.


BIFFIELD:          Keep that woman away. She’ll be one of them!



THERAPIST:         Okay. Just the two of us, then.


BIFFIELD:          Lock the door. Please!


THERAPIST:        That really isn’t necessary. You’re suffering from some kind                           of persecution complex. Why don’t we talk it through quietly?


BIFFIELD:          There’s no escaping them. Dark glasses don’t help. A beanie                          hat fools nobody.  Maybe I should try a false beard.


THERAPIST:        WHO do you imagine is after you, Mr Biffield? The Russians?                          MI6? Aliens?


BIFFIELD:          The bastards look SO innocent. Bin men.   Double glazing                                 salesmen. Pizza delivery guys. Yummy Mummies. It’s a                                     massive conspiracy.


THERAPIST:       But why on earth would these people be after you?


BIFFIELD:         Because…  Oh, God. I can’t take any more. Even my wife…


THERAPIST:        Your wife?


BIFFIELD:          My EX-WIFE. The evidence was on her computer. She’d been                           plotting in secret. I never even suspected. NEVER!


THERAPIST:         You’re having a panic attack. Try deep breaths…


BIFFIELD:          Discovering she was like all the rest. (SOBS) That was what                            finally broke me.


THERAPIST:         But who ARE these people?


BIFFIELD:          WRITERS, man! Aspiring bloody WRITERS! They HOUND me.                                      Night and day.


THERAPIST:         Writers HOUND you… You don’t mean you’re…


BIFFIELD:           A literary agent? YES!


THERAPIST:         Wow. Now I understand.


BIFFIELD:             At the beginning of my career I enjoyed work. Didn’t mind                            envelopes rammed through my letterbox at midnight,                            exploding reams of paper on the doormat. Unpaginated,                            of course. Manuscripts, handwritten in purple ink and secured                            with knicker elastic, delivered to my office by the sackful.                            Book proposals thrust at my poor cleaning lady. But now…


THERAPIST:         I feel your pain Mr Biffield. The quest for another                           Harry Potter must be hard.


BIFFIELD:             …NOW switching on my computer unleashes a TSUNAMI.                            Synopses that are GIBBERISH! Chapters HEAVING with                            ADVERBS and SPLIT INFINITIVES! Letters insisting                            ABSOLUTE DRIVEL will make millions!


THERAPIST:         You must have suffered terribly. Fortunately, I have your cure                            in my desk drawer.


BIFFIELD:          Happy pills? I’ve tried them. Useless.


THERAPIST:         Better than that. A 950,000-word trilogy about a voluptuous                            female vampire, desperately in love with her handsome                            psychiatrist. My mother swears it’s a masterpiece…


Competitions to Enter in August

I was nurdling my way through the streets of Bergen recently, after a rather fine seafood meal and a walk across the damp earth of one of the city’s many green spaces, when I saw this displayed in a shop window. Petrichor is apparently a Norwegian manufacturer of men’s raincoats. How appropriate, when the old English word refers to the smell of damp earth before or after rain…

This is an admittedly clumsy way of reminding everyone of ninevoices’ own flash fiction competition, which closes at the end of this month. Details are pinned above, but require a story of between 99 and 199 words using as many as possible of those evocative listed words that are at risk of vanishing for ever. The entry fee is £5 (with all profits going to charity) and the prize is £100 for the one we like best. Plenty of time to create something, as long as we receive it by owl-light on the 31st August.

We have some entries already, but we’re greedy: WE WANT MORE.

Ilkley Literature Festival Competition.  Deadline August 1st. (SOON) Story: 3,000 words. Poem: 30 lines. Fee: £5. Prizes: story £200; poem £200; £100; £75. Details:

Costa Short Story Award. Stories up to 4,000 words. Prizes: £3,500; £1,000; £500. FREE ENTRY.  Closing date August 5th. Details:

Hysteria Writing Competition. For a poem of 20 lines; short story of 2,000 words; flash fiction of 250 words. Fees are £3 for a poem; £5 for a short story; £3 for Flash fiction. Prizes: poem £75; story £150; flash £75. Open to women only. Deadline: 31 August. Details:

Earlyworks Press Flash Fiction Competition. For 100 words on an open theme. Fee: £3.50, or £15 for up to six entries. Prize: £100. Deadline August 31st. Details.

Exeter Flash Fiction Competition. Up to 250 words. Entry fee: £4. Prizes: £150; £100; £50. Deadline August 31st. Details:

Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. Short fiction entries should be no more than 2,000 words. Poetry should be no more than 40 lines. Works previously published are accepted. Prizes: £1,000 poetry; £1,000 short fiction. Sixty finalists, including a winner from each category, will be selected for publication in Aesthetica Magazine. Entry fees: Poetry £12. Short fiction £18. Deadline August 31st. Check details at:

Come on guys – remember all those resolutions about entering lots of competitions this year… ?

(But PLEASE check all rules and entry details first)

EasyJet’s FLYBRARIES Children’s Book Initiative


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Apparently EasyJet is placing thousands of children’s classics – selected for them by bestselling author Dame Jacqueline Wilson – on its planes throughout the summer holidays.

Their ‘flybraries’ initiative, in a deal with Penguin Puffin, includes Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and The Railway Children. ‘On selected flights we have put a Puffin Classic in the middle seatback pocket of every row’. The idea is that children can start reading the books on the flight and, after they land, download free samples of other classics to sample. Wilson’s own latest bestseller, Wave Me Goodbye, will also be available to download.

What a great idea. Well done EasyJet!

Collaboration – one man’s trash


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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?


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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?  He says of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac war poem Drummer Hodge that ‘the important thing is that he [Hodge] has a name’ because ‘… these were the first campaigns when … common soldiers … were commemorated, the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials.’ But Hardy did not intend the reader to understand ‘Hodge’ as the 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 treated neither with respect nor 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


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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?