It’s a lovely sunny spring morning. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, there is blossom on the trees and close by a blackbird sings. You are about to go out of your front door. You can’t wait to greet the day. To breathe the fresh air, to feel human and free. You are clasping the door handle when the phone rings. You reach for the receiver. There’s a voice on the other end. He says he’s your friend. He’s ringing you to tell you there is man stood outside your door. He holds a gun and is pointing it at where you’re about to walk.

You put the phone down, but not before saying thanks. You’re not going out of your house now. You’re not going to enjoy your afternoon. You’re not going to breathe that refreshing air or feel that invigorating breeze against your cheek, but you don’t resent this. In fact, you feel lucky to be alive. And you feel nothing but gratitude to that telephonic Samaritan.
As Freud observed in his essay, Civilization and its Discontents, there is and always has been a complicated symbiosis between personal licence and public prohibition, and the more discontented there are then the more civilization and its prohibitions are validated, and as these prohibitions grow, the more discontent arises. And so on.

There are a lot of social forces at the moment calling for infringements on our civil liberties in order for our safety and general good. Civilization is constantly on the brink of collapse. We are told, in order to be safe, we must surrender our DNA, mobile phone numbers, bank details and other personal information, to the state. In the wake of so many terrorist attacks, child abductions, raping and murdering, it is surely counter to common sense to argue against the logic of this. And yet, that is exactly what I would like to do here.

Have there in fact been so many threats to our safety that we must give up our liberty? In a population of 60 million and growing, I feel we need a sense of perspective here. In fact, we are as safe as we have ever been in our history. Safe from disease, early mortality, conscription, workhouses and forced labour. We are safer than our parents were and safer still than our grandparents. So why are we so afraid? The answer is of course to be found in this newspaper, any newspaper, radio station or television programme.

You’re afraid because they have told you there is a man outside your door? Does he exist or not? You’re not willing to take the chance. You will stay inside and bolt your locks. Today is a very special day: the launch of a brand new TV show called Reality 24:7. It’s a brand new concept and runs round the clock seven days a week. It’s on every one of your 856 channels. The whole world is watching, and this time it is really really real. I kid you not.

originally published in the Telegraph and Argus, Friday March 7th 2008

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The Unstanched Shakespeare


I was in the bottom group for English at school (I know) so I wasn’t allowed anywhere near Shakespeare.  Instead of Julius Caesar, we read My Darling, My Hamburger.  It was trash.  A dumb story about school life calculated to appeal to the lowest common denominator and therefore appealing to no one.  Next door, we would hear through the plasterboard walls, our friends in the top class, reciting passages from Julius Caesar, but we couldn’t make out the words, just the rhythm.  It sounded more fun than what we were reading.  But when we spoke to our friends in the top group, they hated Shakespeare as much as we hated My Darling, My Hamburger.  Still, I felt like I was losing out.


I left school at sixteen and went to work in a factory.  I hadn’t enjoyed school and the thought of continuing my education filled me with horror.  But by the age of nineteen, I was hungry for literature.  Not My Darling, My Hamburger, but the stuff we weren’t allowed anywhere near.  I enrolled in a night class in A-level English Literature.  There were two Shakespeare plays on the reading list: The Tempest and King Lear.


The Tempest


The very first class I went to we read the first scene of The Tempest.  It’s the famous storm scene and I remember coming across the line describing the ship as being ‘as leaky as an unstanched wench’.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  We discussed its meaning.  Could it mean, as leaky as a woman who was menstruating, or could it mean as leaky as a prostitute who had been with many men?  My mind boggled.  I was knocked sideways.  I had thought Shakespeare was ‘posh’; full of ornate, decorous language.  I had no idea he could be so bawdy and coarse.  Later in the play, I fell in love with Caliban.  Here was a reviled monster, who could utter such exquisite language as this:

When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle. (1.2.3)


Or even better: 

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, 
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again (3.2.18)


I was practically in tears (my eyes are welling now as I read it again).  We argued a lot in that class.  Some of the students accused him of being a rapist and were on Prospero’s side.  But I was firmly on Caliban’s side and I could not see the fairness in the counter-argument.  It was a valuable lesson.


King Lear


Later we read King Lear.  If anything, this impressed me even more.  I fell in love again.  This time with Edmund:

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!


Every word rang true.


After that I was hooked.  I don’t know if I’d be so crackers about Shakespeare if I had been made to read him at the age of twelve or thirteen.  I think being in the bottom class may have just done me a favour.

This blog was originally written for The University of Huddersfield here.

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nick royle2nick royle

either…                                                              or

First Novel is not the first novel by Nicholas Royle. First Novel is the seventh novel by Nicholas Royle. The protagonist is a novelist called Paul Kinder who teaches Creative Writing in Manchester. Nicholas Royle is a novelist who teaches Creative Writing in Manchester. Paul Kinder is fascinated by first novels. Nicholas Royle is fascinated by first novels. Paul Kinder is friends with novelist and short story writer, Elizabeth Baines. Nicholas Royle is friends with novelist and short story writer, Elizabeth Baines. Paul Kinder has a fascination with the uncanny. Nicholas Royle has a fascination with the uncanny. In other words, First Novel is very much in danger of disappearing up its own arsehole. It is in danger of being branded a ‘post-modernist novel’. It is in danger of being labelled ‘metafictional’. To its very great credit, it transcends all of these things. It is a gripping thriller, beautifully crafted, full of flair and originality. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

The book deliberately invites comparisons. To what extent are you Paul Kinder?

• Ever since I started writing fiction, 30 years ago, my practice has been, in many cases, to write from personal experience and at some point in the narrative to apply a subtle twist that takes the storyline beyond my own experience. It entertains me – as it can sometimes alarm friends and family – that I do not make it obvious at what point this twist occurs. While the details of Paul Kinder’s narrative – and the circumstances of his life – differ from mine in various respects, I feel, nevertheless, a certain closeness to him. In many ways his story is my story.

The book starts with Paul meticulously taking apart a Kindle device and then putting it in the bin. What is your opinion of electronic books?

• I think my opinion of them is quite clearly expressed in the opening scene of the novel. They’re kind of handy if you’re going on holiday or reading a thousand stories entered for a competition you might be judging, but they don’t look great on bookshelves, you can’t lend them out or smell them or idly stroke their covers.

We have both done something in our writing, that some may feel blurs the line between fact and fiction. We have both put people we know into our stories. Why did you decide to include Elizabeth Baines and what does she think about the inclusion?

• I like to use real places in my fiction. The streets and footpaths and architectural landmarks of south Manchester play an important part in First Novel. Why draw the line there? Why not use real people as well? Well, because people are not buildings, you might say. They have their own private lives. But then so do buildings. OK, but surely only a psychopath would fail to distinguish between people and buildings? Really? If I’m writing a novel about a writer who lives in a suburb of south Manchester, it would seem perverse to me not to include one or two real writers who live in or around that same suburb. For me it adds authenticity. Far from jolting the reader out of the story, I believe it helps with regard to verisimilitude. Plus, it adds spice and fun and mischief. I would love to appear in somebody else’s fiction. I included the Belgian film director Harry Kümel in my novel Antwerp. Since he would briefly be a murder suspect I thought it would be best to seek his approval, which he was happy to give (he liked the end product, too, he said). I admit I didn’t ask Elizabeth Baines to approve her walk-on part (in just two scenes, I think), but then seeing as her real name isn’t actually Elizabeth Baines, I didn’t see why I needed to. Some of her friends, however, thought it outrageous.

When writers write about writing, they are sometimes accused of running out of ideas. What is your response to this?

• Bollocks. Did anyone complain that Billy Wilder had run out of ideas when he made Sunset Boulevard? David Lynch/Mulholland Drive. Man Bites Dog. Blow Out. Barton Fink. Adaptation. Etc.

In fact, the book isn’t really about writing, the plot is a rather dark and the tone, clinical, slightly sinister. It soon turns into a page turning thriller. What made you want to write the story?

• I tend to write about what’s going on in my life, not always in the most obvious way, often very obliquely. I’d moved from London to Manchester, was teaching creative writing and feeling somewhat alienated. I found myself walking by the river, thinking about life and death. There was the Stockport Pyramid, rising up from the most mundane surroundings. I had a student whose name I could never remember because both parts of it could be either a first name or a second name, which tied in with a problem I’d had for years about confusing east and west and not knowing whether certain famous people were alive or dead. A working title came to me – Either Or. It remained the title until my agent read the novel and said he thought I should change the title to First Novel, a suggestion I enthusiastically followed.

What do you want your reader to go away thinking about?

• That is a very difficult question. If I say I want them to go away thinking it was a brilliant novel and I must be a really clever guy, it makes me seem rather vain. If I say I don’t really care what they think, it makes me appear aloof and superior. I think the honest answer is, it had never occurred to me that they should go away thinking anything in particular. Which is not to say I never think about readers, or care about them. I do, a lot and enormously, respectively. Obviously I want people to like it, and not only for selfish reasons. I know what it’s like to read a 300-page novel and feel you’ve been wasting your time. I’ve done it often. You want that time back and you know you’re not going to get it back. So I hope not too many readers go away thinking that.

Are you worried your students will read it and get ideas?

• I hope my students will read it. I know some of them have. They’re not short of ideas – or talent, a lot of them. I have found working with MA students an exhilarating and inspiring experience.

There is a long and exhilarating passage (about thirteen pages) towards the end of the book in future tense (is it simple future of future continuous?). Why did you decide to write the passage in this tense?

• No spoilers! I don’t know if it’s simple future or future continuous. I hadn’t planned that section before I got to it. I don’t plan very far ahead, as a rule. I like it to be organic.

Last question, Nick. Do you have a Herman Millar Aeron chair?

• No, dammit! I don’t have 900 quid for a swivel chair. My writing chair came out of a skip. I wrote to Herman Miller when the hardback came out, suggesting they might want to give me a chair, kind of after-the-fact product placement. They didn’t even acknowledge my email.

And that folks, is as valiant an attempt to acquire a Herman Miller chair as you are likely to see this week.

First Novel is available from all good bookshops now.

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My Desert Island Discs – with notes


‘Smile’ by The Fall

It was 1988 and I was seventeen. All my friends were Smiths fans, and I secretly liked The Smiths, but I wanted my own band. A band that would act as a replacement religion. It was a Friday night and we were queuing to get into The Hacienda as usual. And I was sick of the queue, sick of the rain, sick of the poser knobheads in baggy clothes. And so I suggested we tried somewhere else. We didn’t have to walk far. Next door was a club called The Venue. It was an underground club and as we descended the dark stairs from the street into the belly of the club, I could hear a demonic bassline throb through the floor accompanied by a tribal drumbeat. Over the top of this glorious noise was mad ranting man singing some of the weirdest lyrics I’d ever come across. I was in love. I screwed up my Harrington jacket and flung it into the middle of the dance floor. I had discovered the thing that would be a constant in my life from that moment on. I could have picked so many different Fall tracks, but I suppose this one is the one I play the most. It’s the song I play before I go out at night to pep me up. If anything can give me the energy to get off the desert island, this is it.

‘I Loves You Porgy’ by Nina Simone

Music was always playing in my house. My mum loved music. My dad loved music. They played blues, rock and roll, folk and jazz. Christmas Day evening. We have all eaten too much. The grown-ups have drank too much. My dad’s best mate, David, is cadging a fag off my mum. He asks my dad to play it. My dad doesn’t need to ask what. He always asks my dad to play it. Dad reaches into the record cabinet and pulls it out. He slips it out of its cover and places it on the turntable. He lifts the armature and the disc begins to spin. He gently lowers the needle onto the record. The piano starts, a little meander, before Nina Simone starts to sing, ‘I loves you Porgy, don’t let him take me, don’t let him handle me and drive me mad. If you can keep me, I want to stay here with you forever and I’ll be glad.’ No one says a word. We are overcome with the sort of emotion that no one can describe.

‘The Message’ by Grand Master Flash

I didn’t have a record player. I had a tape recorder. When this song came out, a friend of mine had the single. I would go round to his house and go into his bedroom. We’d listen to it over and over again. We would enter the song. It was like a film. I begged him to let me borrow it. I think an exchange of money took place. A bribe. I played it on the family record player when everyone was out, a piece of paper on the table, a pencil in one hand. I’d listen to each line, lift the needle and right it down, then repeat it, until I had the whole thing down. Every word. Then I memorised it, until I knew it off-by-heart.

‘Mister Garvey’ by Burning Spear (not to be confused with Marcus Garvey)

I didn’t get reggae until I discovered the bong. I was in my late teens. I was stoned. I was in a friend’s house and he was playing reggae. But instead of my usual response, ‘put something else on’. I could feel the bass reverberate through my body, up my spine, right through to my fingers. I got hooked on reggae. Roots reggae and dub reggae. Social Living by Burning Spear was and still is my favourite reggae album. I could have picked any track on this album. Mister Garvey has an hypnotic groove. So smooth, so cool, no fool.

‘I Hate You’ by The Monks

I got into The Monks, like so many things, through Mark E Smith. The Fall did a couple of Monks covers on their 1990 album Extricate (including ‘I Hate You’ – although perversely Mark called it ‘Black Monk Theme’). They were an American garage rock band who wore nooses for neck ties and all had tonsures. It was a toss up between this and ‘Shut Up’ (also covered by The Fall on the album ‘Middle Class Revolt’). They were well ahead of their time. Their only album Black Monk Time is one of my favourite albums.

I Wanna Be Your Dog by The Stooges

We are back in The Venue on that Friday night some time during 1988. I’ve stopped dancing like a maniac to The Fall and now I’m dancing like a maniac to The Stooges. The Stooges were another band The Venue introduced me to. I love The Stooges, particularly their self-titled first album, which this song is taken from. As soon as that distorted guitar starts and that strange pounding single note piano riff (played by John Cale) you know you are in for the ride of your life. Then Iggy sings, ‘I’m so messed up, I want you here.’ AND he means every word.

‘Simpering Blonde Bombshell’ by King of the Slums

‘Oh bugger this for a lark, a night doing moonies with the lads. All my gifts they lie unexpended and the lights in the little houses remind me I’m cold.’ We are back in The Venue again. It wasn’t this song it was a track called ‘Fanciable Headcase’: ‘Little things please little minds, come on then, please mine. You’re not much to look at but look who’s talking… I’m easily led when I’m going nowhere.’ I think it was the screeching violin that first got my attention, the desperation in the lyrics came next. I bought the compilation album Barbarous English Fayre. It is still one of my favourite albums. I was working  in a factory in Newton Heath. I was seventeen. I saw my life stretched out in front of me: it was one of cold, hard industry, grey skies and drizzle. It was bus journeys and chip butties. It was blue overalls and steel toe capped boots. One of the lyrics on the album is ‘I’m stood on the doorstep, the moon’s full on, the roofs are wet. I shin up the drainpipe, the Pennines are in range. I slip back down to my life in this town. My God, I’ll end up breeding whippets.’ My dad used to breed whippets, as did my granddad. I could see Winter Hill from my bedroom window. All I could think of was escape.

‘Kill Your Sons’ by Lydia Lunch

It is wrong to call this a cover of the Lou Reed song. What Lydia does to Lou’s song is steal it from him in front of his face, tear it to pieces, re-make it in her own image and fling it back at him, screaming ‘FUCK YOU!’.

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An interview with Clare Druce, author of Chicken’s Lib (published by Bluemoose Books)


Chickens’ Lib was started by two women, Clare Druce and her mother Violet Spalding, in the late 1960s. Over the decades they have fought tirelessly to improve conditions for animals on Britain’s factory farms. The work of Chickens’ Lib has been an inspiration to me, so I was very excited about the publication of a new book by Clare which gives a full overview of their work. I’ve now read the book. It is not just a good read, although some of the descriptions of caged animals are necessarily harrowing, it is also an important book. I know quite a few people who have read it and said it has changed their lives. It has certainly changed mine and made me think more carefully about the issues of farming and rearing animals for human consumption. Below is an email conversation between me and Clare Druce.

Much of the book is describing an ongoing battle with MAFF (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – changed to DEFRA in 2002). You call them ‘The Department of Obfuscation’ – has anything changed?

There’s certainly a greater awareness of the fact that “ordinary” people know a great deal more than they used to, thanks to all the campaigning by animal rights/welfare organisations. Eventually, even Chickens’ Lib was regularly invited to meetings, where we could air our views, though seldom were they acted upon. As I’ve made clear in my book, there have been improvements in some systems, and legislation is clear and on the whole very useful, in terms of welfare. But examples of government appearing to protect big business, even when the animal suffering is glaringly obvious, continue. To take two recent examples: In 2011 Animal Aid placed hidden cameras in Cheale Meats slaughterhouse, and the footage obtained was of appalling and deliberate cruelty to animals awaiting slaughter. DEFRA was alerted, yet refused point blank to take action, its excuse being that the evidence was obtained via unlawful means. It was only thanks to Animal Aid’s refusal to accept this ruling that eventually the Crown Prosecution Service over-ruled DEFRA (and the Food Standards Agency, which had automatically accepted DEFRA’s stance) that justice was done, resulting in prison sentences for two offenders. Imagine the degree of obfuscation indulged in, in DEFRA’s attempt to wreck this case! (pages 300-302 in “Chickens’ Lib”)

In 2010, the soon-to-be outvoted Labour government had issued a new Code of Practice for game birds, which, though not law, would have helped to phase out the incredibly cruel cage system for housing breeding pheasants. But after the 2010 election, Defra’s new Minister of State for agriculture instantly overturned this, with a hugely watered down code, so scarcely ruffling the feathers of the shooting fraternity (pages 231-2 in “Chickens Lib”).

The book makes it very clear that the way chickens are kept (and other animals reared for slaughter and consumption) is not only immoral but also, crucially, illegal. Can you please explain to those who haven’t read the book, how exactly these practices are illegal?

Legislation has existed for many years, some of it general, some specific to factory farming (e.g. The Welfare of Livestock (Intensive units) Regulations 1978 insisted on proper inspection of animals kept under any system where animals were confined, and reliant on automation, for example battery and broiler sheds for poultry). Chickens’ Lib took advantage of this legislation, which was flagrantly broken day in, day out, on all intensive poultry units, by alerting the RSPCA to the significance of this demand for thorough daily inspections. The 1978 Regs, and later, similar, legislation has been used and resulted in convictions, but on a ludicrously small scale.

Later legislation, especially the 2006 Animal Welfare Act (page 302 in “Chickens’ Lib”) took a big stride forward, in that it states that an animal’s needs must be provided for, and that legal action may now be taken even before the worst consequences of neglect are manifested. It doesn’t take an expert, merely an averagely observant person, to conclude that hens kept in “enriched” cages are totally frustrated, while virtually none of their needs are met. Similar conclusions can be made when animals are slaughtered: take chickens: being hung in shackles is known to be very painful, and we must assume it’s terrifying too, and yet it is the norm.

Many people think that the system of battery farming for the production of chicken eggs has been banned, but are the so-called ‘enriched’ cages any better?

The so-called ‘enriched’, ‘modified’ or ‘colony’ cage has little or nothing to commend it. In these cages it’s legal to keep 4 or 5 hens to a cage, or indeed any number, so long as each hen has floor space about the size of a sheet of A4 paper. So if you want to keep 60 hens per cage it’ll be 60 sheets of A4-worth of floor space. Then there are provisions for ‘furniture’, i.e. perches and nesting areas. This makes for congestion in the cage. So-called enriched cages ensure that hens lead meaningless lives, full of frustration and suffering, yet are legal throughout the EU for the foreseeable future.

The RSPCA’s Farm Animal Department uses the label ‘Freedom Foods’ to endorse or approve of certain practices in the food industry that are clearly cruel and unnecessary. How do you feel about that?

The RSPCA’s Freedom Food system was the idea of the late Alastair Mews, who for some years was the Chief Veterinary Officer for the Society. Sickened and frustrated by the lack of progress towards better conditions for the millions of sentient “food animals”, he decided that  by giving financial incentives to farmers in return for agreements to afford specified and of course  higher welfare standards, there would at last be real progress.

To some extent the scheme has been successful – for example, some broiler chickens now have a degree of environmental enrichment (eg straw bales in the sheds, so they can exercise and have relief from the barren shed floor). The downside is that vast numbers of animals are now included in the FF scheme, without, in my opinion, sufficient checks being in place. Investigators from animal rights organisations, often acting with no prior knowledge that a particular farm is Freedom Food accredited, have revealed shocking conditions. The same applied to one (now especially notorious) FF-approved slaughter house.

Any such scheme should, as a priority, ensure a sufficient number of inspectors. These (appropriately qualified) inspectors should operate on an ­unannounced basis, to ensure that the farmers are fulfilling their obligations, and not taking part simply for prestige and the financial incentives. I don’t believe there are either enough inspectors or anything like enough spot checks to safeguard the animals.

Since Alastair’s untimely death, many more examples of intensive, or factory, farming have come under the FF umbrella. One example is duck farming, where flocks often number around eight thousand birds per shed. And in addition to grim, albeit slightly improved, living conditions endured by millions of Freedom Food accredited  animals there is the inevitable suffering caused during the processes of catching the birds, and slaughter itself. In my opinion the emotive word freedom, coupled with the respected name of the  RSPCA represented a bad choice. The combination is far too likely to lull hopeful consumers into buying meat and eggs which in fact come from intensively reared animals. I also believe that it’s a mistake, however well meant, for the Society to involve itself with ‘food animal’ production. Animals bred for commerce and profit are always likely to be exploited – far better I think if the RSPCA turned its attention more often to exposing the illegality involved when animals are crammed together in totally unnatural numbers, and where suffering is inevitable. If cats or dogs were treated similarly, there would be an outcry; other animals are just as sensitive and deserving of a life worth living.

Tesco, and other big chains, claim to only stock free-range eggs, but stock battery eggs through hidden means, can you explain how this works?

To get myself absolutely up to date on this changing scene I contacted Compassion in World Farming, the organisation involved in trying to persuade supermarkets to pledge free range eggs only in their stores.

This is what they told me, in November 2013:

Out of the “big 7” it’s only M&S, Waitrose and the Co-op who stock only free range eggs. Sainsbury’s stock only two kinds of eggs – FR and barn eggs. The four mentioned above use only cage-free eggs in their own brand products. Tesco and other brands may specify cage-free eggs in some of their premium ranges. It’s only when ‘shell eggs’ are involved that there’s a legal obligation to specify the type of housing for the hens. Many products (biscuits, cakes, pastas, mayonnaises etc) contain eggs from caged hens. Labels are likely to state when FR eggs are included, but few if any list ‘eggs from caged hens’. (It’s only when ‘shell eggs’ are involved that there’s a legal obligation to specify the type of housing for the hens.)

One of the most shocking chapters in the book is about the routine use of antibiotics in modern farming – many of which are the same antibiotics prescribed to humans. 40% of antibiotics are now sold for food producing animals. Are we sitting on a time bomb?

I think the time bomb is reaching explosion point. In America, an estimated 80%, as compared to the UK’s 40%, is the figure given! And resistant bugs know no boundaries. With the huge amount of foreign travel that’s now the norm, antibiotic-resistant strains of infections can and do spread like wildfire, and some strains of highly dangerous infections are now resistant to antibiotic treatment. Already, many people die, despite hospitalisation, when drug after drug proves useless. The dangers of a post-antibiotic era have been known to physicians for decades, and many have warned against the reckless use of antibiotics. Yet, rather than protecting the safety of their populations, governments have bowed to the “needs” of drug companies and the food industry. It’s no exaggeration to say that without antibiotics there could have been no factory farming. It’s only the squandering of drugs vital to human health that has made factory farming an economic possibility.

Many people who disagree with intense rearing and incarceration of farm animals view the shooting of game birds to be a much fairer system. But it’s not true to say pheasants and other game bred for shooting are truly wild, is it?

Chickens’ Lib strayed beyond its remit of farmed animals once we realized the abuses being meted out to game birds. Because pheasants represented the greatest numbers of birds shot, we concentrated on them. It was hard to believe what pain and suffering these birds endured and continue to endure in their brief lives, and the extent to which shoots have become a huge and lucrative industry. Of all factory farmed animals (which millions of game birds are) I think it could be claimed that pheasants are the most cruelly-treated, in the sense of the lengths to which those rearing the birds go, to prevent the birds from killing each other, as a result of being forced to live in unnatural and painful conditions. Virtually every bit of our information was gleaned from books produced by the Game Conservancy itself, and from the pages of Veterinary Record. Also, we bought samples of the cruel devices forced upon these defenceless birds, so were able to build up a realistic picture of this shameful industry.

Sadly, even well-known food writers seem unaware that there’s nothing wild or natural about pheasant meat.

Birds reared for sport fall out of the RSPB’s remit. How do you feel about this, and why do you think this is?

I can understand that the RSPB must draw boundaries as to which birds they can attempt to protect – by which I mean that those reared for shoots are unlikely to fall within the RSPB’s remit. But Chickens’ Lib was disappointed when the Society felt unable to take action over birds ‘caught up from the wild’. This practice involves obtaining wild birds to introduce fresh blood into existing breeding stock. It’s really a process of stealing wild birds, and forcing them into unnatural and often painful lives, to further the profit of an industry that appears to care nothing for the protection of birds. And we believe the practice could be proved to be illegal, in a court of law.

The book is an exemplum of the power of direct action. A good example being the McLibel case. Is it true to say, voting for change does not bring about change as readily as direct action?

All sorts of approaches are necessary, to bring about change! It’s important to let MPs know our views, as they are in a position to make a difference. But progress can be, and frequently is, painfully slow, so we must not rely on any one approach. I think any actions that don’t involve any kind of violence are highly valuable. The possibilities are there, in the arts, in education, in talking to people, supporting organisations, writing letters, getting more informed… One kind of direct action that’s available to everyone is what not to eat or wear. At least those everyday choices are within our powers.

The book makes it clear that the current global consumption of meat is not sustainable. Why isn’t the scientific community more vocal about this issue?

Many voices are now being raised, as I’ve made clear in the book, though they perhaps lack  force,  from a failure to unite. What does amaze me is how near the brink of the precipice the human race seems to need to get before rational action is taken, and I think many clever people think that technology will somehow save us. But I don’t share this blind optimism.  In my earlier book,  Chicken and Egg; who pays the price?  I quoted Fritz Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, who wrote:  “ Modern civilization can survive only if it begins again to educate the heart, which is the source of wisdom; for man is now far too clever to  survive without wisdom.” I believe this to be true.

Only 4% of all British eggs were free range in the 1980s but now it is over 50% – you must be very pleased about the pivotal role you have played in this?

I do think our mode of campaigning was successful. With our demonstrations, we appealed to the media, while at the same time our gathering of facts led to us being taken seriously by officialdom. I’m of course very glad that we did thereby help to improve the lot of laying hens.

But it’s deeply disappointing that the caging of hens, as in ‘enriched’ cages, is still legal. It’s important that the cruelty of these cages is kept before the public, the supermarkets and MPs, worldwide. In my book I’ve mentioned much scientific information to back up this claim of cruelty. Cages of any kind lead to diseased states and inevitable physical and mental suffering.

For those wanting to shop ethically, which supermarkets would you avoid and which would you endorse?

CIWF’s list of supermarkets that responded to public pressure about stocking ethically-produced eggs is a guide. In our early campaigning days, M&S swore it could “never return to a peasant economy”, to quote its egg marketing chief exactly! Yet, following sustained campaigning, M&S was to become one of the best, as far as free range eggs go. Often, products bearing the Soil Association’s name represent the highest standards for animal products, so consumers should look out for their logo.

I think all supermarkets need constant pressure put on them to remember that consumers want change. Recent horse meat scandals have shown that we shouldn’t be too trusting. There are many ways in which to con the consumer…

Finally, what do you say to people who think that your book is a biased account?

We in Chickens’ Lib often commented that there was no need to exaggerate the horrors of factory farming – indeed conditions for the animals generally proved to be far worse than we’d feared, when looked into closely. We were never given to exaggeration of any kind – exaggeration can weaken a cause.

I’ve now been a vegan for many years, but I don’t think this devalues what I have written. In my book I’ve merely hoped to paint a picture of the miserable and often painful lives forced upon “food animals”, while at the same time pointing to the associated, global threats to human health and happiness involved in present-day animal-based food production.

CHICKENS’ LIB can be purchased from all the usual places, or direct from the publisher here:

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A few years ago, Ilkley Literature Festival commissioned the poet Simon Armitage to write six poems, that were to be placed or carved in situ along a 47 mile trail from Marsden to Ilkley called The Stanza Stones Poetry Trail.

The poems are all about water: Snow, Rain, Mist, Dew, Puddle and Beck. I’d read the poems and been very impressed by them, but realised to truly ‘get’ them, I would need to visit them in the landscape they were intended for. I also wanted to celebrate the one year anniversary of the stones, and so, with this idea in mind, I sought out three other writers to join me on my travels. There were four criteria: they had to be published poets, they had to be good poets, they had to be good performers of their work, and most importantly, they had to be ‘not a twat’.

The writers I chose: Gaia Holmes, Julia Deakin and William Thirsk-Gaskill. Joining our group, was one of Simon Armitage’s socks, a brown bobbled thing, which he’d kindly donated for us to collect money for a charity called The Reader Organisation. I’d visited Low Newton Prison in Durham as part of their RISE (Reading In Secure Environments) scheme, and been deeply affected by the experience. (You can read more about them here:

We launched the event in the Riverhead Tavern in Marsden on Thursday 17th of October, at 7.30pm. In attendance was a small but appreciative audience, that included a 67 year old wild camper from Stockton-on-Tees who is originally from Scotland, called Freddie Phillips. He had brought his tent, sleeping bag and stove on his back, and was going to walk the entire 47 miles with us over the three days, wild camping along the way. I’ve got to know Freddie along the journey, and he is an amiable chap and an inspiration to us all. Also joining us, the tattooed poet from Wigan and fellow Grist writer, Matt O’Brien; and Angela Varley (another Grist poet), who brought homemade flapjack and a bottle of brandy, to sustain us on our journey. We collected £27.20 in Simon’s sock.

The next morning, we set off from the New Inn, meeting up with Winston Plowes, another writer, but also a children’s entertainer and narrow boat resident. We walked along the canal towpath a short distance, then began the ascent of Pule Hill, passing the memorial cross on the way. There were no views of Marsden, as promised, only a thick blanket of fog. In the quarry, we found the first stone: SNOW. We read the poem out-loud, then chatted about it. I said I thought the line about the ‘unnatural pheasant’ was a political line, and we discussed the effect of grouse shooting and how much the landed gentry paid for the privilege of shooting these birds and other game birds. We talked about the illegal practice of shooting raptors and corvids.

Later, we joined the Pennine Way and walked across the scarily high bridge over the M62. All these years of travelling along the motorway by car had given me one perspective of the landscape, now I was having to re-adjust, as I took in a completely different one. We trekked across Blackstone Edge, where in 1846 there had been a gathering of 30,000 thousand, who had come to listen to the Chartist, Ernest Jones. We dropped down and stopped at the White House pub.

There we were joined by Andrew Moorhouse, publisher of the beautiful limited edition book, In Memory Of Water. The book features the stanza stones poems, together with specially commissioned wood engravings by Hilary Paynter (for more information about the book, see here: We were also joined by an Otley Morris dancer and her family.

We had a bite to eat, then set off on our way again. Not far from the pub, we encountered the second stone: RAIN. This is the most prominent off all the poems, carved directly into the rock face. On sunny days, the letters shine and twinkle, with the quartz crystals embedded in the coarse gritstone. This was not a sunny day. The iron in the stone has oxidised, giving the letters a lovely orange glow. We talked about the military language in the poem, ‘sea-bullet’, ‘air-lifted’, ‘strafes’, and how this was a theme throughout the collection. Almost as though Simon was turning these reflections on nature, into war poems: man against the elements.

We arrived in Hebden 18.6 miles later, a bit bedraggled but elated. That night we read in front of a packed audience at Hebden Bridge Library. The library had done a brilliant job of publicising the event, and we were very grateful to receive such warm hospitality. We collected £71 in Simon’s sock. We celebrated by downing a few real ales in the White Lion pub. Then, at midnight, we left Freddie in a torrent of rain, as he went to hunt for a wild space to camp for the night.

The next morning we met six new walkers outside the Nutclough Tavern and walked through Nutclough Wood. We began a steep climb up the hill. Here, disaster struck, as Gaia sustained a serious back injury which left her in absolute agony, and with great regret, had to be escorted back down the hill. We carried on, joining the Calderdale Way. We traipsed across the moor, disturbing some irritated-sounding grouse, until we dropped down into Lowe Farm, with its turreted tower.

We walked across a lovely old bridge over Luddenden Brook. I’d been speaking to Andrew Moorhouse the day before about the secret stanza stone, that no one had found. He told me it had been set in the side of Luddenden Brook, but almost immediately, there had been a flood, and the stone had been washed away, making it now hidden from all. I learned that the stone was carved with the apposite phrase, ‘in memory of water’.

A few miles later, past Warley Moor Reservoir, we came across the third stone: MIST. This is perhaps, with the exception of the secret stone, the hardest to find. It is concealed beneath a sandstone quarry. The stone the poem has been carved into had started out in one piece but split down the middle during the carving. Adding further poignancy to the mutability of the landscape and the fraught task of carving the stones themselves. We greatly admired Pip Hall’s work. The work of a stone carver is perhaps one of the few, where not a single mistake is permitted.

We carried on past Thornton Moor Reservoir and then down for lunch in the Dog and Gun pub. Here we were joined by another group which included the writer Leonora Rustamova, author of the brilliant book Stop! Don’t Read This! That night we read in the Brown Cow pub in Bingley. The audience was a very select one, and we competed with the rock band playing covers downstairs. In the audience was writer Char March, who read some of her own work, after we had finished, and really made the event memorable. We collected £10 in Simon’s sock.

The next day, we set off from Bingley station, joining a group of over a dozen walkers and writers, including the novelist and short story writer, Simon Crump, who was dressed in a vintage tweed suit, a tweed flat cap and was carrying two pints of milk and a bottle of rum. We walked along the canal, past the impressive construction of the Bingley Five Rise Locks. We passed some clay pigeon shooters who tried to kidnap Simon for their mascot, and into the rather spooky entrance of Rivock Forest. The forest is very atmospheric and put me in mind of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. I half expected to come across a gingerbread house, but instead, we encountered the next stone: DEW. In fact, DEW is carved into two stones. We discussed again, the use of military imagery in the poem, ‘fuse-wire’, ‘tapers’, ‘primed mortar’, ‘tinder’, ‘trigger’, ‘march’, ‘ranks’, ‘barbed-wire fence’, ‘flags’, ‘surrender’. And argued about whether we wanted to replace the ‘stoat’ with a ‘rat’ instead. We concluded that ‘stoat’ was the right choice after all.

We traipsed across Rombalds Moor to the PUDDLE stone. Or rather, two stones. These stones were reclaimed from an industrial site near Bolton. They had been part of a mill floor but now set free from industry to enjoy the freedom of the heath. There are still marks on the stone, from where iron machinery was fixed to them. The conflict in this poem is of a different type. Instead of man versus the elements, here we have two natural forces competing with each other: the Atlantic sea and the Yorkshire landscape.

At the Twelve Apostles stone circle we were met by another dozen or so walkers, making our party now a merry band of 35 people. We walked with them over Ilkley Moor, to the final stone: BECK ‘Where the water unbinds and hangs over the waterfall’s face, and just for that one stretched white moment becomes lace.’

Later on, we did our final reading at Ilkley Literature Festival’s last night in St Margaret’s Hall. We collected £11.16 in Simon’s sock. Making a grand total of £119.36.

We’d done it. We had survived the experience and arrived at our final destination a little damp and dishevelled, but triumphant. We parted company with hugs and handshakes. It had been emotional.

Thanks goes to all those writers and walkers that joined us on our way and the audiences at each event. Thanks also to the ‘sherpas’ who ferried our books and chattels to the various venues. These were: Stephen Weeks, Lisa Singleton, Sean Bamforth, David Gill and Paul Bose. A special thanks to Freddie Phillips, for joining us the whole distance, and going one further with his wild camping. You put us to shame – here’s tae ye!

This event would not have been possible without the support of The University of Huddersfield, The Arts Council and The Ilkley Literature Festival – and we remain forever indebted to you all.

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The tattooed man was standing on platform three, waiting for the train. The station was full of commuters, coming and going. The tattooed man had shaved his head so that he was completely bald. His face was tattooed all over. His head was tattooed all over, and his ears and neck. The only bit of his face that wasn’t tattooed was the crescent of skin immediately under his eyes.

We didn’t want to look at the tattooed man, but we couldn’t stop ourselves. We looked at him for a second, then we looked away. We hoped that he wouldn’t see us looking. The tattoos were indistinct, a blue-green blur of lines and symbols. It looked like they had been tattooed over other tattoos, so that whatever they were supposed to represent was obscured, a living palimpsest.

We watched as the other people tried not to look, while at the same time, having a look. We were afraid of the tattooed man. We were afraid that if he saw us he would be upset. But he had his entire face, possibly his entire body, tattooed, so surely he wanted us to look at him? We were concerned about his mental state. What was this display if not his hatred of the world and his own self-hate writ large across his body? It felt like a great big ‘fuck off’ to the world.

He stood and waited for his train. He did not look at us but at some invisible zone straight in front of him. He didn’t look around, he didn’t seem to have any curiosity for those surrounding him. It must have taken great discipline, this act of staring at nothing, and it made us think of the holy men of old. The ascetics who denied themselves of basic needs such as food and warmth, in order to achieve an enlightened state. He was denying himself also. He was denying himself of the basic need for human contact. Was that the point? Was he trying to achieve enlightenment? Had he already achieved it?

We wondered if he had any friends. We wondered whether he had a girlfriend or boyfriend. Was their face tattooed? Did he have family? Was he still in touch with his parents? To us he seemed like the most alone person we had ever seen, and it chilled us to think like that. We wanted to approach him. We wanted to ask him, why he had done such a thing, but we thought that if we did, it would hurt his feelings, but maybe he wanted questions. Perhaps he was yearning for some company. Perhaps we could just go up to him and tell him, we weren’t judging him, and if he wanted to talk to us, that was okay, he could do. But we were worried that it might disturb him.

We couldn’t understand him, and we couldn’t get close to him. There was an invisible barrier around him. The train pulled up at the station and the tattooed man got on the train. But long after the train had gone, we were still thinking about the tattooed man. We felt sick inside by what we had seen. We dreamt about him many times. He entered our nightmares. In one dream he was sitting on his bed, there was no one around, he was completely alone, and he was crying. In another dream, we saw his limp body hanging from the rafters, a noose around his neck.

But the dream that really got to us was this:

We are fast asleep. We are not dreaming. We wake up and it is morning. We get out of bed and go to the bathroom. We look in the bathroom mirror and it is staring back at us, our own reflection. And now we are the tattooed man.

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I’m at home listening to Mik Artistik’s Ego-Trip, specifically, their new album, SUPREME. I’m on the second to last track when a parcel lands on my door mat. Inside is a slice of bread, with a note attached, ‘Sorry for the delay, you seemed in need.’ Who is it from I wonder? Should I eat it? Should I feed it to the chickens? What would Mik do? He’d write a song about it, that’s what Mik would do. It would have disco, funk and soul influences, but filtered through a punk aesthetic. He would sing in a Leeds accent, or an Irish accent, or a Jamaican accent, or a Texan accent. It would be gentle and fierce, normal and weird, with surreal imagery and it would be, in the words of another reviewer, ‘a bit druggy’.


I get to the end of the album, and still unsure what to do with the bread, I play the album again. I hold the slice of bread in my hand. It’s a slice of brown bread. I never eat brown bread. I don’t like brown bread. Perhaps that’s the point – a challenge to my indifference, even antipathy, towards brown bread?


I listen to the album again. Liked it the first time, I’m liking it even better the second time around. It makes me laugh. It makes me dance around my kitchen. It makes me worry about my domestic wiring. I’m thinking now about Mik Artistik. What makes him tick? Perhaps Mik sent me the slice of bread? That’s just the sort of thing he would do. He once sold me a calendar that didn’t have any dates on it, and when I complained, he said I was getting a bargain: because it would never go out of date. With this question and others on my mind, I fire off an email to the great man himself. First off, the album is called Supreme, what makes it supreme?


MIK: The title is another in the great tradition of Ego Trip productions. See ‘SHOCK AND AWE’, ‘PULVERISER’, ‘HANG ON… I’M GREAT’. It felt a bit more melancholy than usual… Maybe they’re all like that.


My favourite track on the album is called ‘Stars’. It’s about a little boy of seven trying to reach the stars with the light from his torch. Is that boy you?


MIK: It’s all me in ‘Stars’. ‘Stars’ began as a little Christmasy phrase on the piano that sounded a bit like Brian Wilson ( I love the album ‘Surf’s Up’ and his piano playing) and it has a meditative quality and is a kind of love song to the planet. It’s not funny, and is awkward to play (I’m limited as a pianist) and makes occasional appearances at gigs.


My favourite Mik Artistik’s Ego-Trip track of all time is ‘Castaway’, which is the first track on the ‘LISSENN’ album. You were kind enough to let the BBC use the track for a play I wrote for them. The lyrics go, ‘still a fan of The Smiths’, ‘still growing a beard’, ‘all your friends are fat and bald, except for Carl, who’s selling cars for Renault’. You really draw a character through the use of minute particulars. Is it based on anyone you know?


MIK: ‘Castaway’ isn’t based on anyone. I just wanted to play with the idea of someone missing out on some cultural changes (he’s on a compulsory sabbatical). Mobile phones, hip-hop, Leeds in the nether regions of the league, and then trying to catch up.


That’s disappointing. I envisaged a sad little man somewhere, fuming at the ill treatment meted out by your satirical approach. But you do reference real people, often people in the media eye, in your lyrics. Have you ever written something about someone that you regret?


MIK: I do reference people and I do occasionally regret it… but not much. I wrote a song called ‘Hair’ that referenced ‘Tony Blair’. He’s gone so the potency of the song went. We haven’t played ‘Jimmy Savile’ for ages. I can’t be arsed to write a third version of the song. Two’s enough.


Well, Jimmy sort of ruined that song for you didn’t he? You also say that Jenny Murray is smug and Jo Wiley is smiley. Isn’t that a bit mean?


MIK: Slagging off Jennie Murray and Jo Whiley is stupid and puerile. But there is a place for that in a wordy genteel sad little number like ‘My Friend The Radio’. A lot of my songs are little dramas with some savoury and unsavoury people, some of whom I examine, or play. I love combining sweet and sour elements in a song.


What depresses you about the music scene?


MIK: Teeth.. and people doing ‘tormented’ shapes in pumps.


Are you referring to the whitening of teeth, or some other teeth based travesty?


MIK: Neither.


Do you like poetry? If so, who?


MIK: Poetry? I have a go, probably read two a year. There’s a poem called ‘Millionaires’ by Bukowski I like. A Robert Frost poem about snow…


I see. What music do you listen to?


MIK: I listen to lots of dirty funky music. Just discovered Lionel Hampton and Arab Strap… and enjoying Television Personalities.


How would you describe the band to an alien from planet Zob?


MIK: Describing it to promoters and venues on this planet is bad enough. I don’t really know what it is. I’ve tried ‘rock and roll stand-up’ but that’s inadequate really. There’s three of us on stage. Two crack musicians who can turn on a six /five pence and someone who seems to be suffering from Tourette’s at times. A song can last 90 seconds one night and 45 minutes a week later. People laugh, some people look confused. It’s a bit like free jazz. Children, security guards, get dragged on stage. Sweets and drinks are stolen by the singer.


Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip’s new album is called SUPREME, and can be bought direct from


I forget to ask him about the bread. I feed it to the chickens. They don’t like it.

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LIFTING THE PIANO WITH ONE HAND: An interview with Gaia Holmes

Gaia Image

Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed was one of the most impressive debut collections of poetry I have come across. In your new book, you seem to have developed your voice, it is more assured, more controlled. Do you agree? If so, what has happened in the interval between books?

Thank you. Yes, the poems in Lifting The Piano With One Hand are perhaps more focussed and less ‘frilly’ than the ones in Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed. I think my earlier poems had more raw, but uncontrolled, energy. They are the kind of poems I can imagine scuttling off the page. My later poems seem more fixed and sure of themselves. I think that when writing Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed I was less conscious of an audience and destination for the poems. I wrote the poems without thinking about who might read them and where they might end up. They were plump things crammed full of imagery, a bit wild and a bit naughty and they didn’t care. I think, as writer, once you’re published your writing becomes more self-conscious, more reader-orientated which is both a curse and a blessing. I always worry about overworking a poem so much that it loses its pulse. Sometimes I miss the old-style-Gaia-poems for their excess. I think I tried to squeeze everything into each poem. Now I think I realize that sometimes just one single idea or image can resonate effectively throughout a poem. Less can be more. A friend once said ‘You have to write from the throat of the wolf’. I like that idea but do sometimes worry that, with this heightened awareness of ‘the reader’, I’m playing it too safe and ‘writing from the throat of the Labrador’. But yes. My poetic voice is more assured, more controlled. In the interval between books I have read more ( I think that as a writer you have to read) and lived more. I have also done a lot of teaching (poetry and creative writing) and have learned a great deal from my students.

A lot of the poems are about relationships at the end of their life. Do you think you have to have lived through these experiences to be able to write about them?

Just about all the poems in LTP are based on my own experiences (with a little poison or glitter added) but I don’t think you do have to have lived through certain experiences to be able to write about them. A good writer should be able to borrow someone’s elation or pain and make it their own. A good writer has to be curious, observant and absorbent. Of course you have to know your subject to give your writing authenticity but that doesn’t mean you have to have lived it. If you’re observant and absorbent enough you can know things by proxy. I like the idea of ‘taking the truth and embroidering it with fiction.’ Many things in my poems are fictional embroideries. I have to reassure my mother of that. I’d just also like to say that the lines in one of my poems about eating dead kittens drowned in gin are made up . If I didn’t make things up and carry reality over in to fantasy I’d just be writing boring poems about the moon and the stars and the slugs devouring the broad beans in my garden.

The title poem ‘Lifting The Piano With One Hand’ dramatises an unusually strong protagonist. ‘Cillit Bang’ also describes that feeling of being indomitable. How strong are you?

What a difficult question! People always ask me to open jars of beetroot that they can’t open… I think that actually I’m a bit brittle, a bit of a weed, but not in my poems. That’s one of the reasons I write, because in my poems I can flirt, say ‘no’ to the things I don’t want to do, lift a piano with one hand, smash up someone’s tv , set a house on fire with my fingertips or tell someone to ‘fuck off’.

There are a lot of religious images in the poems. Are you religious?

No. I’m not at all religious but love some of the ritual and colour of religion. I was brought up in a church. When we first moved in all the churchy fixtures were there. Me and my brother would sing in the pulpit. We’d jump off the balconies on to a big green foam mattress. The pews and the aisles and the bell tower were our playground. When my dad started renovating the building we kept finding all kinds of religious trinkets in the powdery foundations- gold crosses, saints set behind turquoise glass,  prayer-book lockets. My dad was a big fibber. He had a scar on his chest which he claimed was a bullet wound from the first world war. For a while he was a photographer and him and my mum would dress up for photos. One of the photos he took was of him dressed up as a vicar, dog collar and all, with his face blacked-up with shoe polish. When I asked him when the photo had been taken he said it’d been taken in the days when he was a black vicar and I believed him and told my friends and teachers at primary school. All the kids in the village used to go to Sunday school where they sang hymns, ate Rice crispie buns, made nature tables, played games, drew bright Crayola pictures of Mary and Jesus and came home with rosettes and prizes. I got very jealous and wanted to go but my dad wouldn’t let me. When I asked him why,  he said ‘because they’ll fill your head with bloody rubbish.’ My childhood in the church was a rich and happy one. Me and my brothers had a lot of freedom and the church was full of good magic. We had 7 cats, 12 rabbits and, for a year or two, a crow that we’d rescued called Eric. Maybe I associate churches with childhood happiness? I think that some of the holy dust from the church has stayed in my blood and, whether or not I understand it, I want to keep it there. In one of my creative writing seminars I handed out photographs of rooms and asked the students to imagine who lived there. One of the photos was a picture of my front room cram-packed full of religious imagery, saints, angels, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Buddha. I asked the girl who had got my photo who she thought might live there. ‘A nutter,’ she said. Though I’m not religious, I pray. Praying is a form of wishing and I do it often.

One of my favourite poems is ‘Someone Should Tell Her Mother She Is Taking Drugs’. It’s about a nosey neighbour who gets the wrong end of the stick. Is it based on anyone in particular?

Yes. That nosey neighbour is Joe who has moved on and probably passed away. Despite my portrayal of him in the poem he was a real sweetie, a nosey sweetie. He was a lonely, gay man in his 70s. Sometimes a young man came round and I’d see them sitting on his sofa together topless and eating pizza but most of the time he was alone. Joe was Irish. On hot days he’d open all his windows, put The Saw Doctors on full volume, wash his Shamrock and Tipperary print tea towels and hang them out on the washing line to dry. Joe’s sofa faced my front room and I imagined him watching my life like a television. I think he was more interested in my Irish-wandering-minstrel-boyfriend of the time than he was in me. Conversations we had usually began with Joe saying ‘When’s he back?’ Joe was very fond of my wandering minstrel. My wandering minstrel would wash Joe’s windows twice a year and then they’d sit on the sofa drinking whisky and getting more and more Irish by the minute. I think Joe really looked forward to his ‘window washing’ days. My wandering minstrel was away a lot, working at festivals or singing for his supper. He’d say goodbye to Joe each time he left and Joe would say ‘I’ll keep an eye on the little lady for you,’ and he did.

Who are you writing for?

I hope my poems are ornate but accessible. I love it when someone who has previously been ‘scared’ of poetry reads my poetry, and relates to it or likes it. I’m writing for anyone who is interested enough to read my work. What a feeling that is… to think a total stranger might pick up my book and read it. What a privilege. I’m writing for myself because, in reality, I’m a timid wee mouse but in my poetry I can roar. I’m writing for dead dogs and burger men and men who make churches out of matchsticks and people no one notices. I am noticing and remembering these creatures, these people, by accommodating them in my poems and giving them a home which won’t rot away. I often think my poems are letters in which I’m writing to the people I’m too scared to talk to, the people I’d like to meet. I love what Ali Smith says about writing, ‘ Writing anything at all, is to invite a dynamic meld of anarchy and discipline, to leave our prints in the fizzing fuse-lit possible places between order and chaos.’ I hope I’m leaving a few prints somewhere.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing about lock smiths and mothers. I’m writing about the stigma attached to being childless at forty. I’m writing about slugs devouring the broad beans in my garden. I’m writing a story about a mad Lollypop lady. I really want to strengthen my fiction writing muscles, write some short stories, but I think I need to eat a lot of spinach to give me the stamina to do so. Poems feel fairly transient. I want to inhabit another world and stay there for a while. I want to marry an idea and stick with it for longer than a year but I have yet to meet the right idea. It has to be strong, handsome and a bit of a wolf.

Are we going to have to wait another seven years for your next collection? (I bloody hope not).

I hope not too. The sense of limbo I experienced between my two collections was a hindrance. I completed the manuscript for Lifting The Piano With One Hand in 2010 and had these ghostly poems loitering around my head and waiting to ‘go out in to the world’. I felt I couldn’t really write anything new until they’d packed their cases, put on their shiny jackets and gone.  They were sad, broken, whining things. They held me back and took up too much room in my head leaving little space for new ideas. I have written lots of poems between 2010 and 2013 but not as many as I could have done. I’d say I’ve got about 1/3rd of my next collection already. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but the publication of Lifting The Piano With One Hand has given me a sense of validation and I’m raring to write lots and lots of new poems in new voices. For a while, when people asked me ‘so what do you do?’ I’d say ‘uuum’ and avoid answering.  Now I’d say ‘My name’s Gaia Holmes and I’m a poet.’

To buy Gaia’s book, go directly to the Comma website here:


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Evening with A L Kennedy (5)alkennedyonwriting

AL Kennedy’s new book is an anthology of essays, many of which were written for The Guardian newspaper’s website. It is a warm, witty, insightful and deliciously idiosyncratic collection of musings on the art, craft and business of writing. Below is my interview with her…

The book is largely a compilation of blog posts that first appeared online. Can traditional publishing and the new electronic media coexist happily?

Oh, God, I don’t know. Yes, probably – the one should help the other. Sadly UK publishing has crashed morally and intellectually since it stopped being run by Europeans (Weidenfeld, Secker, Gollanz, Warburg… etc) who believed in the importance of culture as literally life-saving. You add in financial and commercial incompetence and you have the perfect storm – people who can lose money across all formats.

You say that the UK publishing industry is ‘floating belly-up in its own sad, poo-and-algea-filled bowl’ and later you call it a ‘urine-filled thimble’. Are you hopeful for the future of publishing in this country?

See above. It’s their own fault but readers and authors suffer.

I like re-writing, it’s about 80% of what I do when I write. Certain writers, for instance Kate Atkinson, say they don’t do a lot of re-writing. Hemmingway said that the first draft of anything is shit. Do you agree?

I think it depends on when you write and how prepared you are. If the thing is very set and cooked in your head then you can have at it and batter away and there it will be, with not much to do… other people work out what they’re doing on the page… which then takes forever to mend. Most people are between the two.

You call the book ‘On Writing’ but you could easily have called it ‘on viruses, illnesses, disease and medical conditions’. Are you a hypochondriac?

Sadly, no. I’m ill quite a lot. I tend not to notice until several other people tell me, so things get a bit far gone. I am therefore incredibly glad to have moved to England where there is no health service.

When I invited you to the Huddersfield Literature Festival in 2011, we had quite a bit of bother (to the extent of us nearly having to cancel the gig) from a man who took offence at something you wrote about bullfighting. Is it flattering or frightening for your writing to have that effect on another human being?

Um… in that case it was bewildering. Any reactions to any work are surprising and I tend to keep away from them and just get on with the next thing.

To what extent is writing/reading an escape from life and to what extent is it engagement with it?

It certainly can get you through rotten times, or let you forget if you’re in some kind of phsycial of psychic pain, but I think it has to be connected to who you are and what’s going on, otherwise why are you doing it and who are you talking to?

You write about the process of inhabiting the head of another character as being akin to the proverb about walking a mile in another person’s shoes. Is this deluded thinking?

Of course – you’re only ever going to be yourself. The problem is that you have to make your reader temporarily be someone else, so you have to do it, too. People love being deluded, they do it all the time. At least I’m not asking them to believe “Austerity” is necessary, or watch The Wright Stuff as if it were a proper television programme and not a bag of other peoples’ vomit.

You are attending a writing workshop held by a small man with a beard who calls himself a ‘post-language poet’. In the room are a dozen beautiful, intelligent, vulnerable people who all think this man has something to teach them. Instead, he asks them to write a poem about the colour red. Then he asks them to read out their responses. ‘I like that’, he says, ‘it reminds me of so and so blah blah blah’. The entire two hour session consists of him doing this. In your bag you have some superglue, a gag, a length of rope, a taser gun, a bag of cable ties, some piano wire, a bag of ball bearings and a tub of swarfega. What do you do?

Oh, you tempt me horribly. Thing is, I wouldn’t be there in the first place and if I was, he’d get as far as “Post lang-“ I do sometimes just get annoyed. Don’t mess with my family, don’t mess with people I love, don’t walk on writers’ brains and hurt them. Generally speaking. Thing is, you don’t have to be violent at all – words do it. That’s the whole point. No one is “post language” – and it’s easy to demonstrate that in ways even they would notice…

The book is now available from the usual places.

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