Monday 6 April 2020

Recommendations for funny books

Recently I've been seeking out comfort reading, books that will make me giggle and take my mind off things. Here are a few of my recommendations:

Diary of a Nobody, George Grossmith (FREE on Project Gutenberg)
Three Men In A Boat, Jerome K Jerome
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Mindy Kaling
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle
The Wife, Meg Wolitzer
I'll Sell You A Dog, Juan Pablo Villalobos
All Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Barbra Comyns
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (FREE on Project Gutenberg)

Currently Reading
Wild Swans, Jung Chang

Friday 27 March 2020

We Need To Look After Ourselves

Good afternoon.

These are strange times. Over the past few weeks life has changed dramatically. Suddenly thousands or millions are finding ourselves out of work, and the Government is saying they will ban evictions, and pay some or all of our wages, for some of us at least. We're being told not to travel, to stay two metres away from others at all times (hello, dystopia!) and above all, never to go outside.

The mere act of being able to stand outside is one of the few things that can help keep writers sane ordinarily, in a life that usually involves spending a lot of time inside our own minds.

A lot of my writer-friends on that Virtual Writers' Staffroom, Twitter, have shared that they are finding it hard to write or concentrate at the moment. I have found this too, and I've made a few changes to my own routine that have helped massively in reducing anxiety and worry, so I'm going to share those in the hopes that they will help you too.

Switch off all notifications on your news apps 
This was the first thing I did, and it made a huge difference. If something bad happens, I don't find out about it straight away, in real-time. It waits until the main news at 6 o'clock, or maybe never. In fact, I've reduced my news consumption generally. I let myself look at the news once a day, at teatime, which I watch for half an hour on telly, and then switch it for something fun or funny, usually Seinfeld.

Delete Twitter app off your phone
It will reduce the amount of time you spend mindlessly scrolling and looking at dire things. Even if you kid yourself you're keeping yourself sane by looking at cute and funny videos, all those things are mixed in with news stories, unhelpful speculation, incorrect information or nonsense, and Bad Things. Just delete it already. I promise it'll make you feel better. I look at Twitter once or twice a day now, for five minutes, on the desktop computer. Usually turns out I haven't missed anything important.

Put phone in a drawer or something so you're not looking at it first thing in a morning
Seeing bad news first thing has a way of starting the day off on a bad footing. Before you know it, you're scrolling down onto other, similar bad stories, googling "can you catch Coronavirus over Zoom?" or second-guessing yourself to see whether that slight headache you've got, which you probably got by looking at your phone too much, is an early Coronavirus symptom.

Just put your phone in a drawer - or better yet, switch it off or better even, smash it with a hammer (JOKING) and don't look at it until you've done your work for the day. I promise it'll make you feel better.

If your workplace say that you need to have your phone switched on, I suggest putting the volume up, then putting your work mobile in a place where you can't easily see it or reach it, but where you can still hear it if it goes off. If you can get away with switching it off entirely though, I recommend doing that.

Do something mindful 
Anxiety has a way of spiralling. It tricks our brains into thinking that things are going to get worse and worse and worse, and never better. I know we all have real, pressing concerns at the moment, from losing our income to being worried about paying the rent, to worrying about how our elderly or vulnerable relatives can manage. All legit things to worry about. However, worrying about problems does not fix them. Worrying is like riding a rocking horse: it gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere.

How do you stop worrying? Well it's tricky, but one thing that has helped me massively is a mindful approach. Mindfulness is basically a technique that encourages you to pay attention to the things around you. It essentially encourages you to immerse yourself in the things you are currently experiencing, to take yourself out of that state of worrying.

There are lots of different things you can do to be mindful. You can watch the birds from your window. You can pet your cat. You can fingerpaint with your kids. You can do a jigsaw or read a book. (if you're finding it hard to concentrate, I suggest starting with something small and unchallenging, like short stories, or a book that you already know and love.) Obviously we can't all be mindful all day every day, but it's definitely a useful thing to do a couple of times a day, to remind yourself that there are real and beautiful things in the world, and to get your brain out of the spiral of catastrophising that tends to happen when you're anxious. I've been doing it several times a day recently and it has helped loads.

The goal is always to get your brain to think about something other than the thing you're worrying about, whether that's how soft your cat's fur is, or how funny birds look when they hop along a fence, or whatever.

Seek out things that are fun, or funny, or comforting
Seek out comforting or funny books and TV shows. Now is the time to rewatch all of Friends, or Brooklyn 99, or to re-read Bridget Jones' Diary. Watch or read whatever undemanding nonsense you like. We're all on lockdown, so whatever you choose to watch is between you and your Netflix subscription. Nobody's ever going to find out, so you might as well.

Try to have a bit of routine in your day 
Having your routine disrupted is in itself destabilising, but the good news is that developing a new routine, whatever that may be, can help. It will give structure to your day.

Mine's easy, because I've only really got myself and the husband to think about, and he can look after himself. Because I'm currently on furlough from my day job, I don't really have to think about working either. My routine is essentially: 8am, get up, get dressed, eat breakfast whilst watching Homes Under The Hammer. 9am, go to desk, work. 12pm, lunch. 2pm, relocate to another area in the house to watch a different episode of Homes Under The Hammer, or to finish the one I started watching that morning.

However, if you're not in my position, and you're currently homeschooling your kids and trying to work at the same time, my advice is probably just try not to kill anyone, and try not to start drinking too early. I'm very sorry that I can't be any more helpful than that in this blog post.

Spot positive things, and enjoy them Yes, there have been plenty of wankers. We've seen people stockpiling hand sanitiser and selling it on for £30 a bottle. We've seen billionaire bosses making their staff either take unpaid leave, or worse still, continue to come into work in non-essential industries. The flipside of that is the amazing community spirit that many have shown. A neighbour of mine in her 70s has told me she's had so many notes through the door offering to help that she could almost light a fire with them. Thousands have signed up to be volunteer helpers getting food and medicine to the elderly and vulnerable. We are showing the best of ourselves as a society in this crisis.

Look to the future hopefully 
"That's easy for you to say!" you're shouting at your computer. (see, I'm psychic as well as annoying.) "If I have to spend another 11 weeks in isolation I might just kill somebody!"

One thing that has kept me going is to keep reminding myself that this is not forever, that one day it's going to come to an end.

The world may well have changed dramatically, and maybe that's for the good. Whatever else about lockdown is driving you / me/ us mad, one thing it has going for it is that it's extremely low-carbon. We're not travelling to work, very few people are flying, and lots of us are sourcing groceries within our local area. Lots of us are trying to grow our own veg (spoiler alert: any veg you plant now won't be ready for months!) and some of you might even have had a few disastrous attempts at baking bread. I can tell you there are a few underbaked, misshapen loaves in my own immediate future. If nothing else, we'll all come out of this more connected, very grateful to our essential workers such as nurses and teachers, and maybe with a few new skills as well.

Either way, I've got a projected end date for our current lockdown lifestyle marked in my diary, mid June, and I'm looking forward to it. I've started planning what I'll do when it ends: go to my favourite local beauty spot, have coffee in my local cafe, go on holiday to Northern Ireland and Donegal. I can't wait to see my nephews and nieces again in real life and to throw my parents their rescheduled Golden Wedding anniversary party. What a joy it will be to enjoy simple things like going for a pint, or giving a dear friend a hi-five or a hug. There are so many things I've been taking for granted and I can't wait to be able to do them all again.

Whatever you're waiting to do, remind yourself of it. Do whatever you need to do: list it, write it in a diary or calendar, make a mood board if you're a mood-boardy kind of person. Give yourself something to look forward to because one thing's for sure, one day all of this will be over, and when that day comes we will all be pale, we will all have very strange hair, but we will all at least be smiling.

Thursday 3 October 2019

Leeds / Dortmund 50

"Hanna was walking her dog in the field when she saw herself. The other her was coming back towards her, holding a worn red lead, at the end of which was a soft brown dusty dog, exactly the same as the dog Hanna had..."

I've written a story as part of Leeds Dortmund 50, a project celebrating the 50th anniversary of the twinning of Leeds & Dortmund. This project was set up by Peter Spafford of Chapel FM, and as part of the project I was paired with German poet Eva Von der Dunk and translator Rosie Shackleton. You can read my story, Meet Yourself Coming Back, on the Leeds Dortmund 50 website here.

Many thanks to Peter, Eva and to Rosie for the opportunity to take part in this project.

Wednesday 4 September 2019

A busy Autumn...

I've got a busy Autumn in the works: I'm teaching, talking, and appearing all over the shop, it seems. This October marks the launch of the Liminal Residency Alton Towers book, and I'll also be appearing at Morecambe & Vice Crime Festival, talking about organising small festivals in the North of England. Most exciting of all, I'll be speaking to the legendary David Constantine, one of the country's greatest living short story writers, and introducing his new collection The Dressing-Up Box, at Halifax Square Chapel.

September 23rd. An Evening With David Constantine. Square Chapel, Halifax. £5.
An evening celebrating a new collection of stories by David Constantine, the author of the short story behind the Oscar-nominated film 45 YEARS, who has been hailed as one of the greatest writers of the short story form. David has previously been awarded the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. Tickets here.

Sunday September 29th. A Festival Of Festivals, Morecambe & Vice, The Midland Hotel, 9.30 am.
"Festival organisers discuss what led them to partake in such insanity", it says here. Full programme for the M&V weekend here. 

Saturday October 5th. Alton Towers Liminal Resident Book Launch, North Stafford Hotel, Stoke.
Encompassing a waterpark, two hotels, an 'extraordinary' golf course, and a range of peripheral attractions, Alton Towers is the oldest theme park in the UK. This is the launch of the resulting 90-page book from our writing residency at Alton Towers, and features work by Julia Deakins, Claire Fuller, Gaynor Jones, Alison Powell, Eloise CC Shephard, and Krishan Coupland. Book tickets here.

Saturday October 26th. Write A Horror Story in An Hour at FRIGHTFEST, The Leeds Library, 2.00, £6.
I'll be teaching a mini-workshop as part of FRIGHTFEST, where you can use prompts to create your own scary story super-fast. FRIGHTFEST is a one-day minifestival of horror writing all taking part at The Leeds Library, which is the city's oldest and most haunted surviving subscription library, and there's also an event with Alison Littlewood & Lucie McKnight Hardy. More info & book here. 

Wednesday October 30th. RESIST! book launch with Gaia Holmes, Hyde Park Book Club, free.
After a long wait, I'm really pleased to see the launch of this book, part of Comma Press' acclaimed Protest series, which pairs authors with historians and activists who were actually there, to write stories about key moments in British protest. Come along to this FREE event to hear myself and Gaia Holmes talk about our respective stories.

On the whole, I think I might be doing one too many things, but never mind, I can always dose up on Lemsip.

Currently reading
The Arabian Nights
The Barbarous Coast Ross MacDonald

Friday 7 June 2019

Alton Towers Liminal Resident

Me and Gaynor Jones in the titular Towers. That's me in an Alton Towers branded cape. It was raining. A lot. Photo by Alison Powell.
"Alton Towers is the oldest theme park in the UK, situated on the border of the village of Alton in the middle of the Staffordshire countryside. The resort encompasses the park itself, a waterpark, two hotels, an “extraordinary” golf course and a range of peripheral attractions. At the centre of the complex stands the neglected remains of a once-magnificent stately home, which has fallen into disprepair even as the modern park has developed around it." [Liminal Resident website].

I recently spent several weird, and deeply enjoyable, days at Alton Towers as part of the Liminal Residency. It was a wonderful and extremely strange weekend, and it was great to spend time in the company of a bunch of extremely talented writers.

Julia Deakin, Alison Powell, Krishan Coupland, Eloise CC Shepherd, Claire Fuller, Gaynor Jones
We stayed in the Alton Towers Hotel (where the lifts play music!) explored the original Towers in the rain, looked at starfish in the Aquarium (it was raining - the rollercoasters were closed) ate expensive, terrible food in a restaurant with FAKE CURTAINS. It was a brilliant weekend of oddness and beauty, and I'm incredibly grateful to have had the chance to go on it. Many thanks to Elly and Krishan for organising.

Krishan Coupland & Eloise CC Shepherd of the Liminal Residency

"I often say that I like to write about real things. I suppose by that I mean things that actually happened, stories that are little told, or that other people don’t think about or write about." You can read my interview about the experience here.

The writers who took part in the residency - Alison Powell, Gaynor Jones, Julia Deakin, Eloise CC Shepherd, Krishan Coupland, and Claire Fuller - have each contributed a story or poem inspired by the workshops and experiences of the weekend, It also features a story by me, but don't let that put you off. Pre-order your copy here.

Currently Reading

Theft By Finding: Diaries by David Sedaris
Nudibranch Irenosen Okojie  

Thursday 25 April 2019

Next appearance....

Saturday June 1st, 4.30-5.15: Resist! Stories of Uprising preview event. £4 / FREE. Tickets here. [note: event may appear as "Protest II" on Carriageworks website.]

Northern Short Story Festival, Carriageworks, Leeds, with Lucas Stewart, Uschi Gatward and Jude Brown.

Following on from Comma Press' hugely successful Protest anthology, Resist is another of Comma Press' "fact into fiction" anthologies, where authors are paired with historians and academics to re-tell incidents of protest and resistance. I'll be talking about my story about the 1590 Enslow Hill Rising, and am looking forward to appearing with 3 hugely talented short story writers who will be talking about their own stories. Event hosted by James Nash.

The "Creative nonfiction for punks" workshop that I'd hoped to run at Ante Art Festival on May 5th now isn't happening, but watch this space, as I hope to run it at another time or place.

That's it for now, and I hope to see some of you in June.

Currently reading

Watership Down Richard Adam