Today it’s an honour to contribute a story to Fictive Dream’s fifth birthday celebrations. My personal debt to Laura Black, Fictive Dream’s superb editor and a much-valued champion of the short story form, has grown each year. Laura allows, in fact encourages, contributors to write in their own voice: one reason why so many authors submit again and again, and why Fictive Dream has such an extensive and devoted readership. The result is an archive of high-quality stories as diverse in style, and wide-ranging in subject matter, as anything you could hope to find online. Thank you, Laura, congratulations, and happy birthday Fictive Dream!
Because it’s a special day, and because it’s my favourite of all my stories, I’d like to give a little background to my contribution, Satyagraha and Ernest Jones.
Sometimes a story arrives so naturally it feels like it’s always been there. In my twenties, living with an Indian family and studying yoga and meditation (before they became trendy and diluted), I began to read Louis Fischer’s ‘Life of Gandhi’. Total obsession followed. This was before the film came out and before YouTube, so the mental images I had of Gandhi were drawn from what I could read and a few black and white photos. At some point, as if it was no big deal, my father mentioned that one of his boyhood friends had gone to stay with Gandhi at his ashram.
My father being a reticent man who, like many of his generation, had lost friends in WW2, I didn’t ask too many questions. Gradually, however, a few tantalising details emerged. The said friend, Ernest Jones, lived locally to my parents in Brentford. As ardent young people they had all attended the Methodist Mission there (until my parents thought it prudent to convert to Catholicism, but that’s another story). Ernest, my father explained, was viewed as a singularly good person by everyone who knew him. In those days (circa 1930s), services at the Mission Hall always ended with the national anthem, Ernest alone, my father remembered, refused to stand. Apparently the gesture stemmed from his opposition to the division of nations. Sometime later, and decades before the advent of social services, he set up an establishment to help what would then have been called juvenile delinquents, somewhere outside London.
And that’s it. I never found out more. So imagination and guesswork have had to fill the gaps. I surmise that Ernest would likely have been a pacifist, and therefore a conscientious objector. His stance, or rather lack of it, towards the national anthem suggests this, and pacifism was not uncommon among Methodists during and between the world wars. Remarkably, in those conformist times and in that censorious company, no-one took offence. This, I feel, says much about his character. My father, pedantic about language and not given to hyperbole, more than once described him as a saint.
I was born in South Ealing, right on the border with Brentford. Into the 1960s and beyond it remained a parochial area, in mentality more like a village than a suburb of London. Attitudes tended to be fixed. I don’t remember a lot of individuality, let alone digressive behaviour. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like some thirty years previously. The fact of a young man, from that background, having the desire and initiative to travel alone to India would in itself be unusual. The fact that his reason was to spend time with a man being referred to as ‘Mahatma’ (great soul) in his own country but viewed as dissident in what was still colonial Britain is even more remarkable.
So I imagined what it would be like when they met, these two very singular men. I wondered if each saw something of himself in the other. I wondered what inspiration Ernest brought back with him to those quiet suburban streets in the wake of a second world war.
And that was where the story ended, but I’ll just mention a couple of other things. The person playing the harmonium – in the first paragraph – might well have been my mother (my maternal grandmother continued to attend The Mission until she died aged ninety-one). And one of my sisters once met Ernest’s sister, still living in Brentford some five decades after the year in which the story was set. My sister told me that when this ordinary-looking, rather elderly woman took her hand she felt a sensation of heat flowing up her arm. So I transferred this small memory to Ernest. Now you know as much as I do.
You can read Satyagraha and Ernest Jones via my Stories page here
Funerals can be strange occasions. Sad, by default, but when I think of some I’ve attended I’m struck by the sheer spectrum of emotions and behaviours on display. Not surprising I suppose. Humans are complex creatures, and perhaps the most natural thing to feel towards those we've known and lost is ambivalence. Especially when things hidden, often for decades, emerge to reveal or confuse. Today my story Death Duty appears in Confingo – surely the most beautifully produced of all literary journals. Thanks again to editor Tim Shearer for including another of my stories in this superb publication. To order Confingo 15 click here
Next week the fabulous Fictive Dream turns five, a landmark for so many of us who’ve had our stories published there, made friends with other Fictive Dream authors, and read so many high-class stories in its pages. I’ll say more soon, but for now I’m so pleased that, as part of the celebrations, my story Breath is being reissued. You can read it via my Stories page here
Delighted that my story Sitting with Mr Griffiths appears today in Nymphs Publications, a really excellent online journal of prose and poetry that I would recommend wholeheartedly.
Childhood – how it is viewed and what it entails – has changed almost out of recognition in my lifetime, and I’m not even that old. I remember, as a young teenager, going out alone at six-thirty on freezing winter mornings to deliver papers in dark streets, before cycling off to school. Most of my friends did it, no-one thought it strange. So this story was written after hearing a particular memory of someone who was also a child at around the same time. I sometimes wonder how we’ve got from that point to where we are today. It all seemed so normal then…
You can read Sitting with Mr Griffiths via my Stories page here
Male friendship is a theme I’ve returned to a lot, so it’s apposite today to be returning to a story first published a couple of years ago in the Nottingham Review, now alas no more. The rapport that comes so easily when we’re young can be hard to re-establish latterly, when lives have diverged. But so often tendrils, in the form of memories and assumptions, linger to confuse. On the Outside of Everything describes two friends who meet in reduced circumstances after a long gap. I’m very grateful to Bandit Fiction for giving this story another chance to be read.
It’s a joy to return to the pages of Lunate Fiction today with my first publication of the year, a tiny story called The Finding Gene. I never set out to write to any particular length, but in this instance seem to have come up with something that could reasonably be called flash fiction – not the shortest story I’ve written but close. For various reasons it’s a piece that’s dear to my heart – thanks as ever to Gary and Han for their support in giving it a fine home.
Perhaps there's no such distant time as the recent past. It's hard to imagine that a young teenager might be asked, as a matter of course, to wait alone in a cold church early on a winter's morning. Well within living memory, however, this was not unknown - I recently heard the experience described, not without humour, by a former altar boy on the radio. That's how my story Waiting for Mr Griffiths came about. I was delighted to learn today that Julia Kova, editor of Nymphs publications and surely one of the nicest people in the field of publishing. has accepted it. It should appear in a few weeks time, at which point I'll say more. Thank you, Julia!
In what has been a fallow time for writing I was heartened to learn this week that my story A Retrospective Diary has been accepted for publication in Fictive Dream, probably in June or July. The story returns to the themes that interested me when I first returned to fiction: memory, it's arbitrary and often confusing nature, and the contrasting perspectives of an older and younger self. In the story the narrator looks back to a brief, formative time fifty years ago. He has changed, his perspective has changed, the culture he tries to remember has changed, and even the events he is driven to revisit are no longer intact in his memory. Nevertheless, he is impelled to make the attempt. In writing this story I drew to some degree on some training I once did on false memory syndrome - the belief that something has happened when circumstance suggests it has not. But also the sense of a lost voice, a lost time, and events that, however much we might try, can never quite be recaptured.
I've just completed the editing process for a story called Ernest Jones and Satyagraha, set between 1930s Brentford and India. It's based on a few snippets I was told by my father about one of his boyhood friends, and a personal hero who died before I was born. The clue is in the title. It's due for a very special publication in May which has yet to be announced, so I'll explain more then, except to say for now that it's a story that means a great deal to me, for a number of reasons.
Delighted to be returning to the fantastic Lunate Fiction in March with a tiny story called The Finding Gene. I never intentionally write to a particular word count, but this one came out at just under 1K words and so, as is the way of the world, counts as flash. More thoughts when it comes out.
I learned yesterday that Bandit Fiction have kindly agreed to publish my story On the Outside of Everything, which first appeared in the late and much lamented Nottingham Review. It's one of my favourite stories, about loss and the ambiguities of male friendship. I'm very glad to be able to make it available again. I'll say more when it comes out.
I watched The Dig last night. Really wonderful to see such well-observed, understated cinematography in an English pastoral setting. If anyone enjoyed it, please consider reading my story The Chapel, which shares many of the themes. It remains the longest story I've written, and perhaps because of that didn't seem to attract as many readers as some of my other stories. You can read The Chapel by clicking here
Made my first submissions of the year last week, a slower start than usual for me. I was hoping to take some time for reflection as to what comes next in writing terms. Taking stock I realise I've now written nearly 120 stories, with perhaps another ten in vestigial form and 17K words of a novella I'm unlikely to complete. There are a couple of exciting publications to look forward to later in the year, but I wonder if now would be a good moment to step back and consider how or even whether to continue. What would happen in the space where once there was a writing schedule?
Very pleased to return to Eunoia Review today with a rather experimental story called Anima Mundi. In his book, The Thought of the Heart and Soul of the World, the post-Jungian author James Hillman makes a case that we as individuals can be offended by the pathology of the world itself. After the year we’ve just had who could argue? Thanks so much to everyone who has visited my website over the last twelve months, may 2021 prove much better for us all. You can read Anima Mundi via my Stories page here
One of my very early stories, A Meeting in Fitzrovia, appears today in my favourite online journal Fictive Dream. It’s a piece I’ve struggled with, but which has kept pulling me back. It has probably gone through a hundred drafts since I first wrote it in 2012. Now, with the benefit of Laura Black’s sensitive editing I’m hopeful that at last it reads as it should. If I could go anywhere in time, high on my list would be a post-war Soho pub where Dylan Thomas was holding court. As I can’t do that the narrator of my story has done it for me. It’s a great joy that my old friend and brilliant artist Simon Wisdom has provided the drawing that accompanies the text. You can read it via my Stories page here
I was delighted to receive an invitation this week for The Lonely Crowd editor, John Lavin, to submit a review of a book I'd enjoyed reading in the past year. There have been quite a few, but my choice in the end was The Redemption of Galen Pike, by Carys Davies, a writer who in my view demonstrates supreme command of her material. Throughout this collection there’s a lightness of touch that belies dark undertones, also some truly virtuosic double-twists that would be hard to foresee, but which work beautifully. I enjoyed the stories immensely, and will certainly be reading more of her work in the near future.
Sorry to be a day slow with this. Yesterday, Outliving the Muse, the story that was chosen to celebrate Fictive Dream's 500th publication, was also nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. This is the third year in a row that one of my stories has been nominated, so special cause for celebration. Thanks once again to Fictive Dream's brilliant editor Laura Black for all her staunch support and congratulations to the other four nominees. If you missed it first time round, or if you think you might enjoy the reminiscences of a lugubrious old poet, you can read it via my stories page here
Today the 5th Anniversary edition of The Lonely Crowd is launched, containing as it does my story Where the Dawn Takes Us. When I wrote it I drew from a very telling radio series about the Barry Line in south Wales, and took the narrator’s voice from a wonderful train conductor who had made her job into something special. It's no small thing to place a story in such a widely respected magazine and I'm very grateful to the editor, John Lavin, for kindly accepting it.
Overjoyed to be returning to Lunate Fiction today with a tiny story called Insight. I’ve been a regular swimmer for a long time now. Over years the activity itself and the rituals surrounding it have come to feel like a significant aspect of the person I consider myself to be, a feeling I’m confident many swimmers share. There’s something both private and public about it, being alone in a cocoon of water but gaining glimpses of other lives over a sustained period of time. I hope to do it for as long as I can. You can read Insight via my Stories page here
An emotional morning as my story The Sky appears in issue 4 of the beautifully produced Postbox Magazine, an imprint of Red Squirrel Press. This is my first story to appear in a Scottish Journal and so I dedicate it to my Scottish nan, who taught me to read. The story arose in my mind after I went to the Van Gogh exhibition at Tate Britain last year (distant times!). I was struck by the vast skies looming over endlessly flat landscapes, and dwarfing the tiny human figures beneath. I tried to convey a sense of that in this story. You can order Issue 4 of Postbox Magazine via the link on my Stories page here
Today my story Inhabiting the Present appears in one of my favourite online journals, Fragmented Voices. The story is something of an experiment for me in terms of varying the tense and moving away from a linear narrative to a more impressionistic form. Once again I’m grateful to editors Natalie Nera and Natalie Crick for their support in featuring a piece such as this. You can read it via my Stories page here
I’m really happy to be returning to Eunoia Review today with The Subtext of Skin, a story about tattoos, artistic inspiration, and how such things might coalesce with the need to get by in life. I’ve never had a tattoo, but the act of tattooing strikes me as a curiously intimate process, potentially life-changing, and one that must surely open a particular window into human nature. You can read The Subtext of Skin via my Stories page here
I'm pretty much euphoric to be able to say that, A Meeting in Fitzrovia, an old story that might well have gone through a hundred drafts, has just found a perfect home in Fictive Dream (I've run out of superlatives to describe Fictive Dream). It's a piece that has particular meaning for me and I'll say more when it comes out. It's news like this that can keep a writer going in dark times.
I was taken completely by surprise today to learn that my story Voices has been nominated for Best of the Net by the excellent Ayaskala Literary Magazine. Ayaskala specialises in stories and art forms that focus on mental health, and the story draws from a time when I worked in a psychiatric hospital and had the opportunity to talk to many people who heard voices and for whom a dialogue with their voices had become a natural part of their day to day existence. To some people the events the story describes might seem far fetched but, one way or another, they mostly happened. You can read Voices via my Stories page here
I’m tremendously honoured to be invited to submit a story to mark the 500th publication of the state-of-the-art online journal Fictive Dream. The story chosen is called Outliving the Muse. I love poetry and have always been fascinated by the people who write it well. The biographies and letters of well-known poets suggest that a life devoted to the poetic muse is by no means an easy option. In this story an elderly poet finds himself looking back on his life. You can read Outliving the Muse via my Stories page here Enormous thanks to Fictive Dream editor Laura Black for all the support she has given me personally and all the superb work she has done to promote the contemporary short story.
Following on from yesterday, and as a further prelude to Fictive Dream’s 500th publication tomorrow, I’m delighted that Laura has reissued my story Works in Progress, first published in July 2019, today. You can read it via my Stories page here
Today marks the beginning of a very special weekend. I’ve been reading the superb online journal Fictive Dream and submitting stories to its brilliant editor, Laura Black, since August 2017. Fictive Dream has become such a big part of my writing life that it seems much longer. I’m deeply honoured to have been invited to contribute a story to mark its 500th publication. To begin the process Laura has reissued my story Sharing Space, first published in December 2019, today. You can read it via my Stories page here Another reissue will follow tomorrow, and then the 500th story on Sunday.
I heard today that my story Inhabiting the Present has found a perfect home in the innovative and fast developing online magazine Fragmented Voices. This story is something of an experiment in that it fluctuates between tenses and also is impressionistic, rather than relying on a linear narrative. This is something I've been working on for a while, a story called How Things End published by Eunoia Review would be an earlier example. Fragmented Voices have published several of my stories now, and I'm very grateful to editors Natalie Nera and Natalie Crick for their ongoing support. Inhabiting the Present will come out on October 23rd, and when it does I'll make it available via my Stories page.
Just a little word of forewarning. Next Friday 18th, Saturday19th, and (particularly) Sunday 20th, wonderful things will be happening leading up to a very special event which I'm honoured and proud to be involved in. Watch this space!
Wonderful surprise! I've just learned that my story The Fun Police, published in the marvellous Fictive Dream, has been chosen for the Best British and Irish Flash Fiction list 2019-20 (BIFFY50). Grateful thanks once again to Laura Black, who nominated it as the editor of Fictive Dream, also to Cath Barton, who made an author's nomination. Congratulations to all of the other authors whose stories were listed. You can read The Fun Police and all listed stories via the links on this page
Three years two months and four days after I submitted it my story A Lighterman’s Tale, set circa 1900, finally appears today in the American historical journal, Footnote. The Thames lightermen worked in extraordinary conditions, often singly piloting a barge and cargo of up to sixty tons, using only an oar and the flow of the tide. I spent many hours online and in the British Library researching how they did this and then somehow ended up writing a love story. It’s available to read in my own PDF or to order in hard copy via my Stories page here
I was delighted to learn today that my story, The Subtext of Skin, has been accepted by Eunoia Review for publication in August. I was once a craftsman, and every now and again a story emerges drawn from that time in my life. This is one such. I'll say more when it comes out.... I also forgot to mention that a tiny story called The Sky, has been accepted for publication in Issue 4 of Postbox Magazine. It was written after a visit to last year's Van Gogh exhibition at Tate Britain - so many vast, dominant skies in his landscapes. As someone who was taught to read by a Scots granny, I'm particularly delighted as this is my first story to appear in a Scottish publication.
Exciting news (for me anyway!). One of my very favourite stories, Anchoress, appears today in the excellent online journal, Nymphs Publications. It's set circa 1200AD, and seeks to imagine a day in the life of a medieval anchoress. Anchoresses were women, often but not always high-born, who opted for a reclusive life of prayer, reflection and sometimes counsel to their local community. What separated them from nuns and monks was the formal process through which they were delivered into solitude - anchoresses might often be bricked into a single cell, within which they would then be expected to exist for the rest of their lives. The medieval mind is in some ways unfathomable to this day and age, but surely they must have possessed extraordinary physical and psychological resources to thrive in such an existence. You can read Anchoress via my Stories page here
It's been a busy week. I'm delighted to have been invited to talk about writers and writing for Fiction Friday in the wonderful Glasgow-based journal The Common Breath. Thanks so much to editors Brian, Kirsten and Rachael for thinking to invite me. You can read the interview here
Delighted that my story Avie appears today in Issue 10 of the elegant and beautifully produced Irish journal Crossways Magazine. The story is set in the 1960s and concerns a free-spirited and intuitive young woman who might bear a passing resemblance to the great traditional singer Anne Briggs. This story first appeared in Literati Magazine, and I'm very grateful to both David Jordan of Crossways and Renée at Literati for their kindness and support in creating another opening for this story. You can read it via my Stories page here
Apologies for being slightly late in announcing that Tics, a tiny story about obsession and diverging lives, came out in Eunoia Review on Sunday. It's another story in which I've used a mental map of the streets of my childhood in West London. This is the fourth story of mine to appear in Eunoia Review, and once again I'm very grateful to Ian Chung for presenting it so carefully, also for carrying on regardless in these difficult times. You can read it via my Stories page here
There are quite a few things coming up soon, though mostly I don't have dates. Amongst these is a very short story called Anchoress, set circa 1200AD, which I'm delighted to say has been accepted by Nymphs Publications. Also a longer story, A Retrospective Diary, will appear in Literati Magazine at some point, which I'm delighted about too. This one returns to my long-standing interest in memory and the way it can influence narrative. There's some other big news, but it's a little to early to reveal, even though I'd love to....
I'm delighted to express further gratitude to Laura Black, mentioned just below, who today nominated my story The Fun Police for the Best British and Irish Flash Fiction award in her capacity as editor of Fictive Dream. This story previously received a writer nomination from Cath Barton, for which I continue to be grateful. It's still available to read via my Stories page here
I’m very grateful to Laura Black, wonderful editor of Fictive Dream, for publishing my story John’s Oak today. I recently read Jonathan Bate’s vast and very enlightening biography of John Clare. It’s well known that Clare developed an intimate affinity with the natural world of his local community, and Bate recounts how he experienced fully-fledged grief when he learnt that his favourite tree had been felled. This led me to wonder how someone like Clare might exist in a more modern setting, hence John’s Oak. You can read it via my Stories page here
Grateful thanks to Literati Magazine for publishing my story Coming Back today. A while ago I worked at a major London hospital and in my role as therapist had long conversations with people who'd come through the intensive care unit and wanted to untangle what they'd experienced. The combination of critical illness, high levels of medication and in some cases sensory deprivation could be immensely disorientating, and often left a huge impact. I've tried to give a flavour of that in this story. You can read it via my Stories page here