Who Likes to Be Beside the Seaside?

The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees. Influx Press 2018

 ‘Whatever that thing was, I didn’t want to deal with it. I would not die in my pants.’

 Have you ever been laughed at by a duck in the middle of the night for pondering the end of civilisation as we know it? Gareth Rees has. Join him as he moves to Hastings and discovers a town on the edge, both literally and figuratively. This ‘rebel without a clue’ is a writer who, with his fortieth birthday looming, sets up home in a dilapidated Victorian townhouse. With his wife, two daughters and pet cocker spaniel in tow, he soon realises that this is no ordinary residence.

A mysterious white orb appears in the garden at night. He hears girls giggling in the bedroom but when he checks on his daughters they’re fast asleep. His wife Emily makes the grisly discovery of a mummified heart in the attic. Even the décor is sinister, as beneath the 1970s wallpaper lies a room ‘the colour of dried blood.’ Absence hangs heavy but apparently there are no ghosts, only subsidence.

Feathered creatures are not Gareth’s friends. Upon venturing into his neglected back garden, he endures filthy looks from a malevolent seagull whom he suspects to be the house’s eccentric architect reincarnated. Stubbornly reluctant to live and let live, he ends up embroiled in a pointless oven glove-clad battle whilst dodging ancient animal sculptures hidden among the weeds.

On his regular wanderings outside of this madhouse, Gareth notices that Hastings seems to emit a strange magnetic pull, attracting ‘magicians, addicts and dreamers.’ With a creeping sense of dread, he worries about being swallowed up whole by a sinkhole, suspecting that he may be destined to join the surprising number of other visionaries who ended their days in the area. Apocalyptic weather adds to the vague sense of unfolding doom, although it’s hard to tell whether his fears are real or a result of the ‘hot dog and candy floss fumes’ of the seaside going to his head.

‘Sooty, Soo and Sweep were trapped in a glass box, playing synth-pop cover versions for a pound a go to feed their crack habits.’

Gareth is in danger of losing his grip on both his health and home life.  He frets about ageing and losing his sense of adventure, reluctant to allow the mundanities of daily life to erode his curiosity. The past catches him unawares at the local beach where among the detritus washed up on shore are his long-buried memories and aspirations.

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Hastings emerges as the unlikely star of the story. A former suicide blackspot framed in gothic faded grandeur, this was the place where John Logie Baird drew inspiration for the experiment that would eventually develop into television. There’s even a Wetherspoon’s named after him. Rees deftly parallels the historical story of the dawn of television with the modern communications age and the current unsettling sense of epoch shifting times.  Baird stands accused of unwittingly enslaving people and allowing the huge positive potential of his idea go to waste, with TV instead becoming a modern-day opium of the masses.

‘Other people’s lives were so compelling when framed in a well-lit window.’

Multiple narratives flip in and out of the past as events are expertly transformed from the ordinary to the surreal. Bizarre stories are told about little-known historical figures of dubious moral character, such as notorious fraudster Charles Dawson. An enthusiastic amateur palaeontologist, he falsified fossils to sell to museums, setting up whole scenes in caves around Hastings’ coast. Big names like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are casually thrown in as co-conspirators until eventually it’s difficult to tell what’s made up from what really happened. Rees parodies the unreliable nature of historical narrative by presenting outrageous liars in an almost heroic light. Even Gareth’s late best friend Mike is posthumously praised for his ability to exaggerate to make events sound more entertaining. Whilst searingly relevant, this constant blurring of the lines between fact and fiction does get a little exhausting, a constant reminder of the post-truth world in which we’re living.

‘When I once told (my children) that the moon’s gravity caused the ocean’s tides they found the concept bizarre and far less believable than the myth of Father Christmas and his army of elf slaves. They had not yet erected a barrier between perceived reality and fantasy, if there were such a thing at all.’

The moment you turn the first page to find a contents list with chapter titles like ‘The Eel with a Head the Size of an Armchair,’ you know this is going to be no ordinary reading experience. The eclectic format features photos as well as text and even a full-length comic strip. There are frequent laugh-out-loud funny moments and Rees’ genius lies very much in his comedic details and observations. I’m not sure what a ‘smoke dried Tudor cat’ even is but found the image of a pair on display in a pub highly amusing. The author isn’t afraid to tackle the big questions about death, parallel universes and how the choices we make impact other lives and the world around us. Men with metal detectors, disappearing lollipop ladies, and Rod Hull and Emu are amongst the many unexpected characters to make an appearance in this exhilarating, truly original and highly entertaining alternative history of Hastings.

‘It’s all coming to the surface.’

 

About the Publisher

 Influx Press are an innovative independent publisher dedicated to taking risks and producing radical, exciting books. They ‘publish stories from the margins of culture, specific geographical spaces and sites of resistance that remain under explored in mainstream literature.’

About the Reviewer

 Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, book reviewer, and dog lover. She is currently organising a UK and Ireland-wide poetry and short story competition for adults and children for a London charity. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123 or visit her website: www.beckydanks.com

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Autonomous Voices

An interview with poet/activist, Kathy D’Arcy, editor of Autonomy, a women-led anthology on taking back the body, published by New Binary Press (March 20th). The collection includes writing by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Sinead Gleeson, amongst many others, and makes a literary contribution to raising awareness in the campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment. Profits from the sale of the book go towards funding those involved in reproductive healthcare for women, including safe, legal abortion.

Editor Kathy D’Arcy originally trained as a medical doctor. She is completing a Creative Writing PhD at University College Cork, where she teaches with the Women’s Studies and Creative Writing Departments.

Fiona O’Connor is a writer and Visiting Lecturer at University of Westminster. Her one act play, she had a ticket in mind, has its London launch at Etcetera Theatre, Camden, April 5th – 7th. Excerpts from the play are included in Autonomy.

 

 

Fiona O’Connor: Kathy, can you speak about the origins of this project?

Kathy D’Arcy: I wanted to do something unusual and creative to raise funds for the campaign. And because I love reading creative writing, and because I think stories have a lot more power to engage people than academic work, or even sometimes facts, or the kind of angry tones that can happen in a debate like this, I wanted to gather a collection of writings exploring what it means to have bodily autonomy. I wanted to show how this is a complex concept, and so through all these stories and all of these experiences we can reach an understanding of the importance of this idea.

FO’C: How did you go about gathering these narratives?

KD’A: This had to be a collaborative project. I believe very strongly in activist collaboration. And particularly because this is a people-powered campaign – this fight is people powered, people on the ground, their experiences, their stories. It’s all about collaboration. So all I did really was put the word out – I just kept tweeting about it – making a call for stories, wanting anyone who wanted to, to get in touch – they didn’t have to be established writers or experts or anything like that. The book now is exactly what I wanted: it’s a very diverse collection of perspectives with many different genres, from memoir to poetry, to academic writing, to green plays, dramatic scripts, and people from all different levels and kinds of experience. Some are established writers and some are just beginning to write, some are bloggers, some people have never written creatively before and some people are well-established academics. So it’s a huge range. The launch too is a collaborative effort, taken over by contributors, and going really well throughout the country.

FO’C: It strikes me that this is literature moving forward in a new way. Do you feel the advance of the indie publishing industry, powered by technological developments, contributed to this people-powered initiative?

KD’A: I think we are very lucky to have so many new dynamic small presses. And I’m particularly lucky that we have New Binary Press here in Cork – only a few years old and run by James O’Sullivan, a lecturer in Digital Humanities at University College, Cork. James feels very strongly about opening out the range of publications available. He publishes very interesting, challenging books. And books like mine that I would never have been able to pitch to any kind of mainstream or commercial publisher, where the focus is going to be on profit. The importance of small literary presses like this can’t be overestimated in getting a more diverse voice out there. When we only have lots of large, commercially driven presses the voice gets very homogenous and monolithic. And so many perspectives and stories get left behind, which is so bad for literature, and culture. So it was fantastic that New Binary Press said yes, and is behind this project, willing to publish this book and to be part of the campaign.

FO’C: The Autonomy project seems to have been accomplished at a fast pace – from idea to the book in hand – just a few months. Is that something also more available to the small press industry? That they can get in behind an initiative like this and then produce something, which is so packed, almost instantaneously, as this seems to have been, to create an intervention in a political campaign?

KD’A: Well, I know from friends who work in some of the larger presses that things tend to be planned for years in advance. There is much less scope for spontaneity. New Binary Press moves from project to project, across disciplines and sectionalities. I think we have in Ireland a history of vibrant small presses that will explore issues larger presses wouldn’t touch. Controversial issues around power and class – and gender and equality. I think there’s often something subversive about smaller presses. And that’s so important.

FO’C: Then there’s also the role of this publication, not only in feeding into the debate, the discourse on feminism, women’s bodily autonomy, but also actually being part of the effort to raise funds, as well as awareness, something novel perhaps in relation to small, literary presses?

KD’A : Well, I think it’s something I’m seeing happen more and more – I’m thinking of work like Terry O’Brien’s anthology, Look at the Stars, a collection of work by contemporary writers about homelessness. That collection raised over £20,000 for the Simon Community charity working with rough sleepers in Ireland. For me it’s a no brainer – specifically on these kinds of issues, which people feel passionate about – they want to read stories and be involved in thinking these things through. And if they can do that, and contribute to the cause at the same time, and contribute to keeping small presses alive, which is after all, contributing to a richer literature for us all, I feel it’s one of the most useful things you can do with regard to publishing, because of the social value of publishing. So yes, contemporary literature can be a vital force for change.

The London launch of Autonomy takes place April 7th at Etcetera Theatre, Camden following performance of she had a ticket in mind.

Click here to pre-order Autonomy from New Binary Press.

Liberating the Canon

Liberating the Canon, Isabel Waidner (ed.): Dostoyevsky Wannabe (January 2018)

Isabel Waidner makes some bold claims in her introduction to Liberating the Canon, ‘Liberating the Canon: Intersectionality and Innovation in Literature’ (you can read it here, and I wholly recommend that you do – it’s a manifesto for literature in our times), all of which are fully realised in the anthology’s project. The broad (and specific) aim of the anthology is to counter the exclusion of marginalised voices from UK avant-garde aesthetics. As Waidner argues: ‘Bringing together intersectionality and literary innovation, Liberating the Canon is designed as an intervention against the normativity of literary publishing contexts and the institution “Innovative Literature” as such’ (7). This is accomplished not only by showcasing work from traditionally marginalised writers at the intersections of sociopolitical identities such as BAME, LGBTQI, woman, working class, but also by very deliberately working across formal distinctions and disciplines to ‘unrepress’ the “multiplicity of writing” (Raymond Williams, 1977). Waidner argues, in a deeply visceral rallying cry for innovative literature at the intersections, that, ‘in order to ensure that this kind of work can be written and published, what counts as literary innovation has got to change’ (10). Liberating the Canon is at the forefront of that making that change happen in the UK.

‘Bringing together intersectionality and literary innovation, Liberating the Canon is designed as an intervention against the normativity of literary publishing contexts and the institution “Innovative Literature” as such’

Although most of the contributions to this anthology are written in experimental/poetic/cross-genre prose, many of the contributors – such as Nisha Ramayya, Steven J. Fowler, Timothy Thornton and Eley Williams – are also/better known for their poetry, reflecting the way the canon must be liberated from the constraints associated with a strict division between forms and genres/genders. Mojisola Adebayo’s contribution is a multi-form play exploring female genital mutilation, which incorporates West African griot style storytelling, projected animation film and music as well as dialogue, monologue and poetry to reject and overcome the ‘duel of dualisms … / Repeated the world over’ (46). Nat Raha’s poetry from ‘£/€xtinctions’ collages language in a visual/visceral cut-and-paste style materialising the body’s broken contours, its torn edges, its unintentional and violent collisions/caresses.

Prose forms merge and blend, with many stories blurring any discernible distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Isabel Waidner writes from life – with a style that demonstrates language knows no boundary between experience and imagination, and which includes quotations from her reading of both philosophy and popular culture. In ‘Deep Desert’, Jess Arndt shows that language has the capacity to disorientate as well as to illuminate. The writing in this piece veers between times and locations, dreams and actualities, never settling and never allowing the reader to settle into easy assimilation. Timothy Thornton blends magic spells, popular mythology and a spoof academic style in his contributions from ‘Birds, Magic, and Counting’, while in ‘Ragged Sigils’ the lyric/autobiographical ‘I’ surfaces to both foreground and question the act of writing.

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What I find most exciting about this anthology are the numerous and various ways that consciousness of the act of writing frequently breaks the surface to make me aware of the constructedness of language use, only to submerge itself again in a memory or dream, or take flight in imagination that carries me along for sentences, paragraphs, or pages, in a rush of bewildering sensation like an itch that can’t be scratched.  Liberating the canon by injecting an awareness of the constructedness of language leads one to ask questions about the constructedness of the canon itself. Whose constructions are we reading, and what purposes do they serve? Nisha Ramayya foregrounds these questions in the procedural construction of ‘Fainting Away’, which responds to colonial and postcolonial experiences of being British-Indian by adopting the structure of a nineteenth century lexicographer’s classifications for the Sanskrit word smaradaśā, translated as ‘love-state’ – raising implicit questions around categorisation, classification, construction and cultural appropriation.

Fiction pieces such as Eley Williams ‘The Flood and the Keeper’, Rosie Šnajdr’s ‘Bingo the Drunkman’ and Steven J. Fowler’s ‘The Bassment Gallery’ also pique our awareness of the language used in their construction in various ways. Williams’ character-driven story chooses the deliberately understated use of the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ in referring to the story’s protagonist, ‘the child’, as well as producing a linguistic flood that raises questions about writing, grammar and who is language’s ‘keeper’. Fowler’s ‘Bassment Gallery’ includes minor unedited typos and errors, shifting the meaning, multiplying the possibilities and subtly unsettling the fiction of language’s fixity. Šnajdr’s potent shot of explosive linguistic liquor is a flash fiction complete with its own list of ‘Errata’, yielding more and more each time it is returned to. Language is foregrounded in this piece, but it is certainly not at the expense of meaning.

Jay Bernard plays with the visual conventions of a written text, creating a reading experience that’s unsettling and disorientating, which some may find a challenge to read. Reproducing the feeling of seasickness that can accompany certain reading difficulties such as dyslexia, again the reader is invited to experience the alienation and discomfort suffered by so many who find themselves excluded from the literary canon.  In ‘Supermarket Revelations’, Seabright D. Mortimer explores language as an environment and its relationship with the body:

‘If language is an environment, that must mean words have a physicality and belong to an ecology. Speech is a psycho-physical act that is ‘produced by the body’. It is a physical process, one intrinsic to our sense of self, our relationship with gender, and it dictates how our bodies move around in the world. Verbal language, the product of bodied speech, does not have to shore up existing de facto systems and ecologies. It can be used to resist and underwrite them. Language is a weird material crying to be punched I say.’ (176).

Mortimer’s argument that language ‘can be used to resist and underwrite’ the existing systems serves as a kind of coda to the anthology’s project. It’s a project that every contributing writer is writing at the forefront of, a project ebulliently outlined by Waidner in her Introduction, and a project often made possible by the growing number of innovative small presses in the UK and Ireland.

In her introduction, Waidner recognizes the work of the UK small presses in creating an environment of resistance to the existing publishing system. She writes:

‘As part of the wider digital disruption of UK publishing (driven by journals including 3:AM, Berfrois, Gorse, Minor Literature[s] and Queen Mob’s Teahouse), independent publishers like Dostoyevsky Wannabe, And Other Stories, Book Works, Dead Ink, Dodo Ink, Galley Beggar, Influx Press, or Tilted Axis are drastically changing what and whose work is being published, and as a result, what work is being written, by who’ (17).

Liberating the Canon makes this disruption visible; it gives voice and shape to its project, bringing together writers at the intersections of sociopolitical marginalization and literary innovation; and it bellows a rallying cry that can no longer be ignored. This is a vital anthology of literature at the intersections, full of great writing that’s ‘doing exactly the kind of literary work that needs doing now’ (Waidner, 19).

Click here to buy Liberating the Canon (ed. Isabel Waidner) from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

About the Publisher:

Dostoyevsky Wannabe work with a nonprofit publishing ethos, that is, they sell their books via Amazon at cost price in order to make them affordable to as broad a readership as possible.  Publishers, designer, editor and authors are working for free, and mostly without institutional support.  The aim is to produce books that challenge literary conventions, and to precipitate the ongoing disruption of the British publishing establishment’ (quoted from the Introduction to Liberating the Canon).

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster, where she is also a visiting lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing. Her writing has been published by Adjacent Pineapple, Eyewear, The Projectionist’s Playground and Zarf. The Unfinished Dream, a collaborative chapbook with visual artist Joe Evans, was published by Sad Press in 2016. She is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press project, and is on the judging panel for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. @Spaewitch

 

Women, Writing and Freedom

Linen Press in collaboration with The Contemporary Small Press 
Keynote talk by Maureen Freely, President of English PEN.

‘A word after a word after a word is power.’ Margaret Atwood

In a masculine centred literary tradition that values male over female voices, women refuse to be silenced and continue to tell the truth about their personal and political lives. Join us in exploring the politics of silence and in honouring the voices of women writers everywhere who, despite repression and invisibility, risk all to give voice to the need for liberation and freedom.

Thursday 19th October
17.30 – 19.30
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street
London
W1B 2HW
Freedom

Speakers:

Keynote speaker Maureen Freely on the crucial work done by English PEN and like-minded partners, with particular reference to women writers.

Hema Macherla on the plight of Indian women – fallen women, broken women and women shunned by society.

Avril Joy on working for over twenty-five years with women writers in HMP Low Newton.

Lynn Michell on publishing women writers. She is here to celebrate ten years of Linen Press and to launch The Red Beach Hut.

This event is hosted by Linen Press – a small, independent press run by women for women – and the Contemporary Small Press, which aims to promote, explore and facilitate the work of small press publishers of fiction and poetry.