Poison Pen Letters to Myself

Like Romany, I’ve written poetry in self defence for a long time. It’s cheaper than therapy and as methods for bleeding out pain go, it’s a lot safer than many of the available alternatives. I have old books full of dark, angry, wounded words, and I would not share them. There are many kinds of exposure I will brave, but this isn’t one of them.

Romany’s book is a brave sharing of a tough journey, through poetry that clearly spans years. There’s not much autobiographical detail to pin it to – and that works well, because if my reaction was anything to go by, this is a book that manages to transcend the individuality of pain and speak to long dark nights of the soul in a way anyone who has suffered depression might recognise. It is a very odd feeling, to look at words I could have written, and see that it isn’t just me. I can think of a number of times in my life when a book like this would have eased the terrible isolation that deep depression creates. Depression helps a person feel like no one else could possibly bear to hear much less be able to understand, and Romany demonstrates that it isn’t true.

I suspect anyone dealing with the depression of a loved one will also benefit from this book, because it gives a fair idea of what it’s like to be inside a dark place.

It’s no good telling a depressed person that things can get better, because depression takes away the scope for believing this. It’s also often no good telling a depressed person what they should do to be less depressed – they are unlikely to have either the will or the energy or the necessary belief. I know, when I am down, how pressured I feel by the need to be well and functional, and it’s so easy to add to that, with the best possible intentions. There are no cures here, no magic solutions, no instructions, and there are times when that’s really helpful. There’s the catharsis of sharing and recognising, and there is a woman on a journey to a better way of thinking about things, and you can just go with her, and see what happens. No demand, no pressure, no guarantees, either.

If any of this chimes, you might want to pick up the book –

Pondering gender identity

Two blogs in the last week or so have really got me thinking about gender identity issues. Read them, they are awesome. http://www.wildyoga.co.uk/being-an-ally/ https://locksley2010.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/magic-and-a-thing-called-gender/

I find gender identity difficult. From the outside I look simple enough – born a woman in a woman’s body, mum, married to a guy. Except… gender has never been the primary focus for attraction. I fall in love with people. Since I hit puberty, I’ve found this body a weird and alien place to inhabit. I didn’t much like it as a child, but it made more sense then than it does now with curves and hormones. And yet, it also made sense to me when I was pregnant, a rare patch of feeling some coherence in myself. I find anything around binary gender difficult, and women’s mysteries remain a total mystery to me. I tolerate my body, uneasy in it, accepting it as best I can.

Back at uni, I dabbled in psychology, and played with tests, and confirmed beyond any shadow of a doubt that I am psychologically androgynous. Whatever that means. Most of the time I feel like I have no idea how to be female. Some of that is about culture, and personal experience, but the truth of it is that I do not identify much with my gender. I have no desire to be male, either (except occasionally on long walks where the need to pee generates a bit of penis envy).

In my heart of hearts, I often wish to appear genderless. On reflection I think this is primarily cultural. It is because I do not want people to relate to me in terms of my gender identity, or what they assume my gender identity to be. People who cause me to be conscious of myself as biologically female are, generally speaking making me uncomfortable, either because there’s something sexually predatory, lecherous etc, or because I’m being confined to some kind of gender norm. Equally, the people I feel happiest with enable me to feel like a person. It’s much easier to bring my head and heart into connection with someone else’s head and heart when who has which reproductive organs isn’t much of an issue.

In my ideal spaces, how I dress and the shape that I am makes no discernible difference to how people relate to me. I feel more comfortable with people who relate to my ideas and actions, who do not read intention into clothing or consent into skin.

My sexual identity, my gender identity, the social identity I want, is ‘person’. This is hugely important to me. But, binary approaches to gender, and the way in which social ideas about how we construct male and female identities, make that difficult. I don’t want to undermine anyone else’s identity, I know that the gendered aspect of identity is really important to some people. I don’t want to be genderqueer, I’m not asexual, because these are both labels that come back to gender and sexuality and I do not want to be labelled on these terms. To resist being defined by my visible femaleness without offering some gender-orientated alternative tag for myself, is nigh on impossible. But here I am, nonetheless, wanting something that is not a gender identity. It’s taken me a long time to get here.

Mournful Poetry and the power of despair

This is a poem that came out of a number of things. I think it makes sense without the explanation, but I also think the explanation is interesting in its own right, so here we go. The content for this poem came out of two lunatic walking expeditions, one which took me over, the other under a motorway. In both cases, the increasing impact of the motorway sound on what else I could hear was quite a distressing experience, and on one walk produced a great sense of horror in my son. Most people only get near motorways when driving on them, which reduces this horror considerably. To stand in a field and hear it roar, is a whole other thing, and not pleasant at all.

Thing number two was an article about how you can hear the absences in ecosystems, and that any listening orientated science is hearing the hush descending on the non-human word. A deathly hush of absence.

Thing number three is Miserable Poet’s Cafe, which I went to last night and for which I needed material. This is the one I did not end up reading – there is a glimmer of hope at the end – and there wasn’t time. Still, I did win a bottle of very cheap wine.


Silence falling

Allow me to render you unquiet, and unhappy

For there are uneasy truths I would inflict

Of deathly silence falling on ecosystems

No dawn chorus but a quiet straggle.

I invite you to be glum, to despair.

Have you heard the fox at midnight?

No wolf will howl for you, not on this shore.

Have you heard the haunting crane call?

Or the bittern boom at the edge of viability?

Owls and orcas, nightingale and narwal

Passing into myth on our watch

For future generations to place beside unicorns.

Have you heard the roar of motorway

The ever busy sound wound carving

Its angry self into land and air,

Always hungry, raging over miles to eat up

The subtle songs of hedgerow dwellers.

Have you heard the fevered squeal of late night

Just having a laugh at 80 would be racers

Thunder of aircraft tearing the sky, the insidious whir

Of fans, coolers, air conditioning, the sound

Of life being stolen from the future,

One loud pluck at a time.

I invite you to hear the ruined world song

And despair.

Only in grief will there be hope.


(*and yes, I know there are people trying to reintroduce wolves to the UK, but I’ve never heard one here and most of us never will.)


Lunatic wandering poets

Ivor Gurney was the first mad poet in my life, a man of dubious mental health long before the First World War (although I can’t imagine being a soldier helped him!). He wandered my native Gloucestershire, taking epic long walks. Laurie Lee’s mad walk across Spain inspired me greatly as a young person. John Clare, another poet who went mad was also a walker, including an epic walk after he escaped from an asylum, and ended up eating grass. Tennyson clearly spent a lot of time out in nature and was seriously depressed, Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud (although in practice was walking with his sister and cribbing from her diary). I read a thing a while ago about the frequency of creative people suffering from depression, and I notice that ludicrous walking shows up as an issue for a few of them.

There is something about the rhythm of walking, when you’ve done it for hours, that takes the troubled mind into a trance-like state. Step by step, it knocks destructive rage out of the body. If poetry is one of your vices, then hours of rhythm, moving through landscape, can influence the pattern of your thoughts and align words with movement.

Lunatic walking, as I am increasingly inclined to describe the process, is about going far beyond your comfort zone, in terms of distance, time, energy used, conditions endured and so forth. That’s very personal and so a little restorative lunacy is probably available at whatever level you can just about cope with. For me there is something profoundly spiritual about stepping out of my normal life habits to walk and walk until my mind is entranced and my body exhausted. Moving through landscape, moving with it, affected by its every curve and contour, its every texture and surface, encountering what lives there, learning and speculating about its life and history.

In terms of feeling insane, drowning in stress or depression, thoughts tangled or overworked to incoherence, walking is a balm. It brings life down to one step after another, and after long enough, when tired enough there’s only enough space left in the head for where to put the next foot. This can bring considerable relief. With sun, wind, hills, water and birdsong for company, perspective shifts, everything slows to walking pace and it becomes possible to breathe again. All I have to do is outwalk my own mind, walk it beyond what it can overthink, beyond what it can stress over until I am seeing the trees, the views, feeling the ground at each footfall and not lost inside my own mind. I usually come back calmer, and inspired.

For me, the whole process of excessive and unreasonable walking raises questions about the mad poets. The cause and effect isn’t simple, and what looks like madness – walking ludicrous distances, may in fact be a solution to problems that are less visible. Perhaps there is something in some of us at least, that needs to be pushed to its limits, and that lunatic walking expeditions answer something in that. I have been drunk on an excess of landscape, and the chemistry of a body pushed beyond its limits. I have staggered onwards, thinking about Baudelaire’s instruction to always be drunk, with wine, with poetry or with virtue as you choose. In a mind too trashed for poetry, too angry for virtue and too prone to addiction for wine, being drunk with sky, with exhaustion, and with the rhythm of moving seems like a viable array of good alternatives.

The size of a tribe

It is my understanding that generally people are wired up to be able to cope with social interactions between a group of 150 people. It’s an average, and like all averages there will be people to whom, one way or another and for whatever reasons, it does not apply. It is however a place to start from. How many people do you regularly deal with, through work, neighbourhood, family, social engagements… because of course back when we were tribal peoples, there wasn’t this weird distinction between different interactions with different groups of people in the same way. Pre-industrial revolution in fact, we peasants played, reproduced, worked and struggled alongside our neighbours. Pre-cars most of us had more connectivity to the people around us.

And then there’s internet. It is both a blessing and a curse in terms of the scope for breadth and depth of interaction. I’m married to a man I met online and some of my closest relationships depend to at least some degree on maintenance by ether, but there’s a lot of you out there.

Some weeks ago now, I had a meltdown. It happens. I was exhausted and I’d just had a run of messing up. I’d massively annoyed someone, and couldn’t work out if I needed to feel responsible over that. I’d forgotten an important historical detail while dealing with someone I care about. I panicked. In the process of stepping away from that and looking at what had happened, I realised a thing: I’m dealing with a lot of people.

In a normal week, I will interact with hundreds of different people. Local people, authors, random people on social media, friends, people I’ve run into somewhere, business contacts, bloggers, and so on and so forth. For that to work I have to remember who they are and what we have in common and what we talked about last time and what their issues are and who they don’t get on with and what offends them and all the other things.

Now, it’s possible to do this well with a handful of close connections. Trying to hold that level of detail and information-intimacy with truly hundreds of people some of whom I seldom communicate with… that’s tough. There are things about how I work and what I do that make it necessary, or at least useful, and when I can pull it off, this ability to handle a ‘tribe’ of excessive proportions certainly has its advantages, but what I realised is that I need to cut myself some slack if I can’t remember a conversation from a year ago, or if I make a mistake and someone is offended by that.

I can’t magically know everything, and that’s pointed to some much bigger issues. I’ve been places where I’ve been expected to magically know things I had no way of knowing, and been punished for failing to be psychic enough. I don’t have to carry on doing that to myself in the hopes of staying ahead of people who would otherwise cheerfully hurt me. What I need to do instead is have less to do with anyone who demands perfection of me, be more alert to unreasonable demands (mine and other people’s) and recognise that I actually have a really good memory for people related stuff, but I frequently push beyond its limits. I have to stop trying to be omniscient, it’s exhausting as well as being entirely beyond me.

Stroud Short Stories

It all started last year, when a chance encounter on twitter alerted me to the twice yearly event that is Stroud Short Stories competition. In a fit of inspiration, I wrote a piece of the right length, sent it in, and entirely forgot about it. Consequently, I was very surprised some weeks later to find I had been picked as one of the ten authors reading at the event. I hadn’t been on a stage much for years at that point, and was nervous, but it went well and I enjoyed it.

Along the way, John Holland (author and organisational powerhouse who took on running this event last year after Miserable Poet Bill Jones set it up in 2011) kept saying ‘and there won’t be a print version’. I’m perverse. There’s nothing like saying a thing can’t be done to get my interest. And really, a book of short stories? I can edit, I’ve put books together before, I live with a cover artist, how hard could it be?

80 stories and more than 50 authors. I’m nervous about stating an exact number for fear that, like Rollright standing stones and May Hill trees, they will prove uncountable in practice. I started in January, and there was a lunatic mad dash at the end to include the people who read on the 19th. Only three authors declined to participate. One straight ‘no’ and no reason given, but Adam Horovitz declined because he’d worked his into a much longer piece and is doing things with it (how awesome is that?) And one of the chaps who read in October is still looking at placing the story elsewhere. So, the odds are we’ll get him in volume 2 a few years hence. At least one other story became the basis for a novel.

The authors span ages, styles, genres and just about anything else it might occur to you to span in 1500 words. Even distance, because while most have a Gloucestershire connection, some are further afield now. There is genuinely something for everyone, and during the editing process I developed a deep affection for many of the stories and become fond of all the others. It has been a labour of love (which is to say, no one will become financially rich out of this, but other riches have definitely been forthcoming). We launch officially on the 8th of May at the Ale House in Stroud (all being well, I shall be chewing finger nails until books turn up.) There will be some copies to buy on the night, and otherwise, a saunter to www.lulu.com/will provide!

And there’s a lovely post from Debbie Young, here who read on the 19th.

One way or another I’ll be throwing myself at next October’s event, and yes, there will be another anthology a few years hence.

An Interview with Amythyst Raine Hatayama ~ by Nimue Brown

Nimue Brown:

My day job means I’m working a lot at the moment to help other authors get their books out there and find the people who need to read them. It’s happy work, and I take great joy in supporting other people. It’s really brought home to me how greatly we need a diversity of authors, voices and ideas, because we’re all walking our own paths, an the more there is to explore, and the less dogma, the better. I had a really interesting time interviewing Amythyst, and I am also alluded to in this other post of hers, http://wytchymystique.com/2015/04/12/book-launch-party-hooza/ and I admit I get a huge buzz out of being a small part of getting something moving. Here’s to more good things and people doing what they love and finding what they need…

Originally posted on Magickal Connections:

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Two Gentlemen by the name of Dunsany

It would be fair to say that Lord Dunsany, aka Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany,  is one of my favourite authors, and his ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’ haunts me in the best possible way. I came to Dunsany in no small part through Tom, who read me short stories by skype when I was ill and there was an ocean between us. It turned out I had ‘The Charwoman’s Shadow’ read to me as a child but had not remembered the author. Or, to be honest, much of the story.

Tom had already named his central character for Fast Food ‘Dunsany’. He has a first name, and it isn’t any of the above ones, although people who have been paying silly amounts of attention will have spotted Horatio Plunkett in Letters Between Gentlemen mentions the Drax Plunkett line.

I love Dunsany the author because he is beautifully melancholic. He seems like a man in the wrong time and place reaching for a world that no longer exists, or maybe never did. A man who longs for somewhere else. His prose style and breadth of imagination leave me breathless.

Dunsany as a character is no attempt at capturing Lord Dunsany. I like to think of him as a descendant in a time slightly ahead of our own. Our Dunsany is a magician, also seeking wonder and drawn to the edges of otherworlds. He’s very much a man alone, and he carries that aloneness – which comes from my responses to Lord Dunsany’s fiction. Where Lord Dunsany writes of impossible palaces that fade with the dawn or are destroyed by angry gods before you even get to see them, Dunsany the sorcerer is in the business of calling such cloud castles into existence. He’s not anything like as alone as he thinks he is, either…

To be seeking re-enchantment can be a lonely business, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be. Fast Food at the Centre of the World is my castle in the air, my borderland with faerie, my impossible dreams coming into being. I wrote it in the midst of a love affair that was being sorely hindered by an ocean, and no certainty of improving on that. Some of the characters in this story give voice to my fears and despair. But also to my wildest hopes.


The power of the past – a dog story

11119339_10153234470340775_816866045_nGuest blog by Issy Brooke

“Imagine a woman in her late thirties,” said Martin, “who has never mixed with human beings ever in her whole life. Now imagine she’s walking down the street and she sees another human but they shout at her. The next one she sees ignores her. Another one shouts. One tries to hit her. Imagine how her life is…”

It’s a horrible thought experiment.

“And that’s how it is for Stella,” he said.

Stella is our dog. We adopted her from an animal shelter last November. We don’t know her past. We don’t know her previous owner. We don’t even know how old she is – maybe somewhere between four and six.

We do know – now – that she’s very, very damaged.

We were naïve. I’ll hold my hand up, right now, and say that if I knew then what I know now, I would not have taken this infuriating, problematic, neurotic dog on. She’s changed our lives.

But honestly? She’s taught us so much that I couldn’t bear to give her up now.

The shelter simply said: “she’s fine with people but not so good with other dogs. She can be socialised. Bring her back for some training.”

So I did. The trainer at the shelter was optimistic. “She’ll soon learn.” When she saw another dog, she would pull hard, barking and snarling to get to them.

The trainer dragged her back. “Get a half-choke collar,” he instructed, “and snap the lead to correct her. If she’s really going for it, get some lemon juice and squeeze it into her mouth. She won’t like the taste, but it will do her no harm.”

Not like electric collars, not like prong collars – lemon juice will do no harm. Or so he said.

I knew I didn’t want to use physical force on the dog. I think most people agree that’s not productive. Did lemon juice count as physical force?

I soon learned that it did.

I was walking her in a deserted car park, practising our heelwork. Heel. Back. Round. Wait. Sit. Stay. Good girl. Then a man walked past with a terrier, and she hurled herself towards him. I was mortified. Once more, I had become “that” dog owner. You know the one – you’ve seen me, or those like me, struggling to hold a dog back as it foams at the mouth and tries to attack another dog. Stella is half Labrador and half Rottweiler. She looks intimidating.

I tried the lemon juice.

She hit the deck, throwing herself to the floor, cowering away from me, terrified.

Terrified of me.

“Stella, Stella, it’s okay, come here girl, come on.”

She wouldn’t.

Of course she wouldn’t.

I didn’t go back to that trainer, and the lemon juice got used up on pancakes. Instead, I turned to the internet, and soon discovered that there are a hundred different “methods” of dog training, and each has its vocal and passionate adherents. And my goodness, but they cannot agree on what is “right.”

I threw the half-choke collar out, and bought a headcollar. I looked at all the training advice, and one stood out: a website called “CARE for reactive dogs.”

By now I knew that Stella’s reaction could be caused by fear. We can’t always judge on what we see. You might see a dog barking and snarling – yet it might not mean anger. In many dogs, their instinct when faced with something scary, is to make that scary thing go away.

Therefore, the website argued, the trigger – such as the sight of another dog – needs to be paired with something delightful, and for most dogs, this means food. Specifically, amazing treats that they don’t usually get.

The progress, they warn, will be slow. You have to work at the dog’s pace, and that might be infinitesimally slow. Your dog might explode when it sees another dog four hundred metres away. You can close that distance metre by metre over the weeks. A friend sent me a message to reassure me … and to tell me that her dog had taken nearly a year to become settled.

I found another trainer, Martin, who worked with rescue dogs. His patience and his hope lent me strength, as day after day I’d come home from a walk in tears, both my stress level and Stella’s up through the roof. He believed in me, and more importantly, he believed in Stella.

She can’t tell me why she reacts to other dogs. We can guess but we’ll never know for sure. Working with Martin has led us to the uncomfortable discovery that, in her case, she’s not reacting as much out of fear-aggression as other forms, more intractable forms: interest-specific aggression, for example. She doesn’t want to make the other dog go away. She wants to kill it. She may have been bred for fighting; she may have been abused in other ways.

As we will never know, all we can do is work on today. He’s referred us to a behaviourist. Now we have to find £1000, and we will, somehow, because none of this is Stella’s fault.

Triggering. It’s a powerful thing. Stella doesn’t enjoy lunging at other dogs. She doesn’t do it for fun. Her adrenaline spikes, she stares, she shakes, she pants; we have learned how to help her to calm down. I mimic dog body language. I sit on the floor and I yawn: I send her “calming signals” and I might look stupid, but it works. We know this will take months to cure, maybe longer, and it will never fully be gone. And for the moment, my husband takes her on the evening walk, and endures the stares of the general public, who mutter about dangerous dogs and wonder why she is muzzled. I take her for hours in the morning on the moors, miles from anyone, and she is finally able to be the dog that she ought to be.

And I think about people. Us. Our emotions. Those visceral reactions to things half-seen and barely remembered. How a smell or a sound can take us to the brink of chaos and we don’t know why. And our reaction might not look like fear, but it often is.

And I think about how other may judge us for it. “She’s neurotic,” they might say, and “he’s attention seeking, so just ignore him.” They think that all we need is a half-choke collar and a good squirt of lemon juice.

So we’d hit the deck, and cower down, and they’d think that their methods had worked.


Stella was the inspiration for the dog Kali in my cozy mystery stories, Some Very English Murders. I know I’m writing from a wish-fulfilment angle. If only Stella has made the progress in real life that Kali has made in fiction! They are light, traditional cozies with an idealised and fluffy tone.

Book One, Small Town Shock (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VGQXDWE), is 99c/99p or free to those with Kindle Unlimited. Book Two, Small Town Secrets (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00W5RIJTK), is also available. You can check out my website, and see more pictures of Stella, here: http://issybrooke.com



A history of Fast Food

If you found the magical centre of the world, what would you do?

Fast Food at the Centre of the World first existed as a small number of instalments written and drawn by Tom Brown. It was part of the work he was doing, alongside New England Gothic back when we first ran into each other online. The second title I took on writing and that became our joint creation, Hopeless Maine. Fast Food languished in the background because there’s only so many pages of comic a person can draw in a week. (7, if you were wondering, but fewer than 7 if you also want to have a life and stay passably sane.)

The second time I flew to America, I took a big notepad with me. I spent the long hours of flight, and the dull hours at airports, scribbling frantically into it, much to the amusement/bemusement of the people sat next to me on the plane. I wrote sat on Tom’s porch, with him drawing, and we decided this was a way we could be and that we liked it. Most of my work now happens with me typing at one end of a table and him drawing at the other, and this is good, and suits us both well. In Portland, I read Tom what I had so far – because these were his characters in his setting. I had previously been very wary of sharing work in progress, but since then, Tom has listened to everything as I’ve been developing it. I find his insight and feedback invaluable.

Life threw us a lot of challenges, and the novel took a back seat. I eventually finished the first handwritten draft, and then, when I could get enough electricity to run a notepad computer, I typed it up on the narrowboat, and then it languished again. Last year I got it out and polished it up.

Since rejoining the land of electric, I’ve done a number of short audio stories over at www.nerdbong.com and decided to offer them Fast Food at the Centre of the World as an audio serialisation. I recorded it myself, at home, with limited technical gear such that I could do very little editing. Most of it went down in one take, and I did not find that easy. It wasn’t written for audio so there were a lot of voices to find, and as I can’t pull of the New Jersey accent that was in my head when I wrote some of the characters, alternative solutions had to be found for my jazz gangstas. I had to work out what Gary sounded like. That’s Gary, in the picture. He’s voiced entirely on the inbreath, which was tough on the throat, but gives him a distinct sound. I’ve never done any serious acting – only mumming, which is largely about shouting your lines, not nuance. Apparently I have scope for using my voice.

The first two episodes are now up, and more will be along, and hopefully they will amuse you… http://nerdbong.com/category/podcast/fast-food-at-the-centre-of-the-world/

Music by Cormac Brown – Tom’s awesome son, who has been with Fast Food since the beginning.


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