Much to my delight, I have been selected to read at the spring 2021 occurrence of Stroud Short Stories. This short story competition runs twice a year and I have quite a long history with it. This will be my third time reading. Last time I managed to smuggle in a Hopeless Maine story and you can watch that here!
I was involved in putting together an anthology of stories from the event some years ago – an epic task that very happily lead to other people doing a second one some time later. I’ve also judged on the event, alongside John Holland – the man who makes the whole thing go.
There’s a lot to like about Stroud Short Stories – it is free to enter. It picks ten winners who get to read their work to an audience – which is a really excellent thing to get to do. It’s a community project run for love of it, and the audience often has a lot of former winners in it. And probably some future ones as well. It’s something that exists simply to be a good thing, and we could all use more of those.
This year will be a recorded event, so I’ll share the video from that when the time comes. Supporters on Patreon have already read my winning entry – I put it up last month, assuming it probably wouldn’t win and that I should get some sort of use out of it. The story is a bit on the wicked side in that I have managed to make something funny out of combining various personal experiences of sexism. But then, satire is what bards and druids are supposed to do, and I would rather do my politics by making laughable the things I find abhorrent.
Get your favourite poison out, we’s gonna have a toast at the end.
A few years ago (in ye olde merry pre-Covid days), Cair and I received an invitation from Tom and Nimue Brown to participate in the book market they were hosting at the famous Lincoln Asylum Steampunk festival. They’d read some of my stuff and liked it. As traders we were starters. The handful of previous events we had attended had all been small local affairs. We had no idea what to expect from the Asylum. Cair and I rolled into Lincoln as green as Spring’s first shoots. To say the event was an eye-opener is an understatement to be sure.
As to Asylum itself, the sheer scale of the event, not to mention the fantastic setting, was overwhelming and breathtaking. The impressions we took back home after our four-day immersion into a magical wonderland are too many to fit into the scope of a brief blog. Suffice to say, I’d definitely recommend the experience.
What we also took home was a great deal of respect for the Browns. We were already in awe of their writing and illustrating skills. Unapologetic fans of their Hopeless, Maine graphic novels before we met them in real life, we discovered that the human beings behind the art are even more impressive.
Upon arrival (in a chaotic panic as the sheer scale of the event was rapidly becoming clear to us – Steampunks everywhere in Lincoln!), we were heartily welcomed and received warm introductions to the other participants in the Assembly Rooms. Over the course of the next few days it became clear that this wasn’t a random collection of traders and exhibitors – but a proper community.
Folk willingly helped each other out, minding stalls, offering encouragement, sharing treats, and showing interest in what others were up to. The volume of the exchange of ideas, visions, and dreams conjured up a perceptible creative buzz in the air. I’m socially awkward, far more eloquent on paper than in situations which involve actually talking to people, but will emerge from my shell to recharge creative batteries in the company of folk who dare to dream.
The year after, we were invited to the Steampunk festival in Stroud, Gloucester. We greeted familiar faces from Lincoln, but also met other members of the community the Browns have built around their vision of Hopeless, Maine. Once again hearty introductions were made. That included Professor Elemental, who, half-a-year later at the annual Hastings extravaganza, remembered me instantly even though we had only spoken briefly at Stroud.
During his gig in Stroud, the Prof crowned Cair as Queen of Stroud and she fulfilled her duties most regally, it must be said, looking the part in her lacy black ball gown. There was a certain reluctance to hand back the crown at the end of the night. To this day, if I try to remind Her Majesty that the Prof said it was just for the night, she’ll stick her fingers in her ears and sing “La-la-la, not listening you simple peasant.”
Although there were many highlights for the Browns during that truly fantastic event, I suspect a main one imprinted on their memories was the improvisation made to Professor Elemental’s Chap-Hop hit Cup of Brown Joy.
Mayhap I project, as I for one can still vividly hear the crowd in the Subscription Rooms roaring back at the Prof’s request. “I say Hopeless, you say…” “MAINE!” Stuck in the memory is also an image of Tom and Nimue, surrounded by the warmth of family and friends on their home turf, roaring along – dancing together somewhere far over the moon.
With all of that in mind, I’m absolutely delighted that the webpage The Hopeless Vendetta, digital epicentre of the Hopeless crowd, is to feature a novelette-length tale I wrote set in Tom and Nimue’s Hopeless, Maine. The story is called Diswelcome. It possibly has some familiar faces. Warning: May contain tentacles.
Writing it was an opportunity to express my gratitude for Tom and Nimue’s incredible hospitality in Lincoln and Stroud.
The story interweaves two worlds in a manner that respects both the fickle and capricious habitat offered by Hopeless (Maine) and my own Smugglepunk verse in Sussex. Tom has done a fantastic illustration of what might have become of the main character (based on my humble self), provided Ned managed to avoid getting eaten by the local flora and fauna. That illustration is to appear in a future Hopeless, Maine graphic novel, which is a marvellous and tantalizing link to Diswelcome.
The story and experience taught me that it was possible to link different creative worlds and art forms together, vital skills for Smugglepunk, as it turned out.
‘Smugglepunk’ started as a joke, in an amusing online convo on a Steampunk fb page regarding the voracious growth of sub-SP genres. I was almost tempted to indulge in a suggested Viking-Punk themed story, when it occurred to me that I was always explaining my story genre as being Steampunk with a bit of a difference, so I might as well invent a specific sub-genre for it as a laugh. Hence Smugglepunk, which was immediately confused for Snugglepunk, which I thought hilarious and brilliant. Snuggling sells, they say and I’ll stoop to any low to sell a handful of books.
When I first met Tom and Nimue there wasn’t much to this brave new world as of yet. Just a Steampunk novel, dropping hints as to a smuggling background history for the main character, and two short stories that had appeared in Writerpunk Press Anthologies, a recognition of which I was and continue to be mightily proud.
Smugglepunk is set in an alternative version of Sussex, in which old South East coastal smuggling lore is fused with Steampunk technology and culture.
Tom and Nimue encouraged me to pursue the ‘genre’ and explore every nook-and-cranny of this ‘Visserverse’, as someone has kindly named it. Short stories for Anthologies and two novelettes followed, and I’m currently scribbling away at a novel, the first part of which has been shared online on my website for free as Lockdown treat. As that part of the world kept growing, I contemplated other means of establishing Smugglepunk as a semi-serious genre. Before long I asked myself: What would the Browns do?
The answer was simple, they would certainly not circle the wagons whilst keening “my precious”, but share the magic of creation and invite others to partake in the sheer joy of it. So I set out, in my own clumsy way, to emulate their example.
From a one-man-show, Smugglepunk has grown thanks to the input of a great many splendid people, some from the Brown’s tribe, others new faces, or friends of old. Photographers, radio-phonic broadcasters, fellow authors, illustrators, songwriters, musicians, editors of various Anthologies, reviewers, mad inventors, Steampunk Bikers, Hastings and Eastbourne Pyrates, West Sussex Steampunks, museums, and old smuggling inns have all hopped on board.
Highlights were: a pre-Lockdown photo shoot by Corin Spinks in the old smuggler’s town of Rye; hearing Felix Clement sing a song based on a poem of mine; receiving splendid contributions for SCADDLES (the first Smugglepunk anthology); hearing Daren Callow of Tales of New Albion read chapter after chapter of Fair Night for Foul Folk (the Lockdown freebie novel) on the British Steampunk Broadcasting Co-operation; Julie Gorringe’s dunnamany Smugglepunk illustrations; and working with Professor Elemental on a new song of his called Elemental Smugglepunk.
It’s worked like a charm I reckon, a bit of the Hopeless magic in Sussex. Tom and Nimue were there every step of the way, commending the mostly impulsive mad-cap ideas I shared with them. None of these new connections or old connections rekindled would have happened without their example and mentorship.
Of course, this year has seen most of this collaboration take place online, at an awkward distance that gives a sense of connection but is still a poor imitation of real human interaction.
I’m positively certain I’m not the only one who misses those splendid moments of real and genuine contact at Convivials and Festivals. I can’t wait for the moment that I can thank the Browns in person, for believing in me when few did and all the wonderful things that have flourished since. It’s my understanding I’m not the only one whose life has been touched by these two wonderful people, always willing to give and modestly reluctant to take. I’d like to impress upon them how they have enriched the life of others around them in an exemplary manner, and how much Human meaning this has in a world that seems at times to be on a downward trajectory with regard to patience, tolerance, understanding, and empathy.
Hopefully these current dark nights reflect the rock-bottom of this crisis. Vaccination programmes take time to implement. It’s still unclear when we can all meet up again, but there’s a new hope born from the knowledge that we will all meet up again, this thing isn’t going to last forever. Until then…
…raise your glass please, and join me in a toast to absent friends.
Christmas isn’t my festival. If you come to this blog regularly, it probably isn’t your festival either.
Happy Christmas though to any Christian readers of this blog, to the Celtic Christians, the Christo-Pagans, the Druid Christians and all other fellow travellers for whom this day is meaningful and significant.
Happy Christmas to anyone for whom this day is a meaningful celebration of family, ancestry, community and relationship. I hope you have a truly lovely time of it.
For everyone else, here’s the Hopeless Maine Christmas card. we aim to do something a bit weird and un-jolly every year to comfort people for whom the season is uncomfortable.
This is, without a doubt, one of the grimmest things I’ve ever written for the Hopeless Maine project. Mostly what I do is twisted whimsy, lacing anything difficult with comedy or charm. However, when I wrote this song, I was in a serious mess. It came from a place of pain and wounding, and while it sounds like a song about a fictional island lost in the fog, it was in many ways a song about how I was feeling. I genuinely had very little hope in my life.
I needed to record a version of it ahead of a Hopeless Maine performance project. It’s been on my mind to do so for a while, but I hadn’t got there. In the end, I picked a very bad day to do it. I picked a day when I’d done a lot of crying, and my heart was breaking. It meant I was able to sing this song in something approaching the way it was written. I don’t live in those emotional spaces anymore and it was interesting to see how much has changed for me and how unusual a day it took to put me in the headspace where I could properly relate to what I’d written.
Those of you who have been with me for a while will know that aside from writing about Druidry, I also write fiction and graphic novels. At time of writing, there are three Hopeless Maine graphic novels out there, two prose books, an array of videos from our live performance stuff, a great deal of art, and copious amounts of contributions from other people. This is the project that brought my husband and I together and it remains a big part of our lives.
The latest development is a film project, which we’ve only gone public about in recent weeks. We’re going to make a Hopeless Maine silent film on a period camera, with a soundtrack, and a mix of actors and puppets. We have most of the team to do this in place.
If you’re super keen and you follow me at any level aside from Moon over on Patreon, you’ll get a monthly update about what’s actually happening right now with the project, not just the back history. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB Sign up as a dustcat and you can read one of the aforementioned Hopeless prose novels as a series. There is also Druid stuff over there – the level called Bards and Dreamers, or combine fiction and non-fiction streams by becoming a Steampunk Druid.
To avoid duplicating too much, I won’t put much film content on this blog, but I may be going to talk about the creative and collaborative processes here as that content won’t be going anywhere else. I’m really excited about the people I’m working with and the creative possibilities in all of this.
Below is a film about Gregg McNeil and Dark Box Images. I first met Gregg at a steampunk event (Timequake in Manchester) nearly 2 years ago. He takes photos of people using an old camera, and develops images in the way that early photographers did – onto glass or tin plate. It is a wonderful thing to watch, and the results have an unpredictable quality that profoundly adds to their charm.
I’ve been plotting with Gregg in earnest for some time now. He’s fed me ideas, and helped me develop as I move towards an area of creative working that is entirely new to me. That light-touch mentoring has already proved invaluable and I am really excited about where we are going with all of this. And no, I am not talking details at this stage except to say that it is a Hopeless Maine project, the first draft is written, and one of the members of the team working on this does awesome things with old cameras. I shall be drip-feeding more as we go along.
For now, I can say that I am so inspired by the people I am working with, and more excited about this project than I’ve been about anything creative in years. It’s been a long time since I’ve run into something new that I wanted this much. I like how that feels.
Mrs Beaten is a character from the Hopeless Maine project. She’s judgmental, obsessive, is probably in part an automaton (I’ve not yet clarified this) and has a messy personal history to say the least. Some of which comes up on this story…
Stroud Short Stories runs twice a year, picking ten readers to share their stories in an evening. I’ve read once before, judged for it and helped put together the first anthology of stories. I’m introduced in this video by John Holland – who runs the whole thing and who is a prize-winning short story writer himself.
I find it really interesting going out to perform in public as a deliberately unattractive character. I used to play monsters a lot in a mumming side. At the moment, I’m taking Hopeless Maine’s Mrs Beaten out to events.
I created Mrs Beaten for the Hopeless Maine blog – www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com She’s a complicated, conflicted creature. It is entirely possible that she is part machine, and whether the departed Mr Beaten was her husband, creator or jailer, or combinations thereof is hard to tell. It seems likely that she killed him in self defence. And although she hates him, she also misses him which isn’t unusual for abused people. But, she’s not sympathetic – she’s judgmental and unkind. Through her judging others I can get her to say things that nicer characters wouldn’t say, but that tend to need saying.
Going out to perform as Mrs Beaten I do not look my best. An austere hair arrangement. Little exposed skin. I might powder my face if there are going to be stage lights. I don’t smile much. I glower. I use a voice that is sanctimonious and/or harsh. She’s a figure who can both get laughs and make people uncomfortable and I enjoy playing with that.
At the same time, there’s something liberating in going out dressed not to be attractive. We all tend to make a lot of judgements on how people look. The pressure on women to be attractive, in professional life, in workplaces, in leisure, is a serious thing. I’m female appearing even though I don’t really feel that way, but people judge what they see. And Mrs Beaten judges back. I enjoy going out with no invitation to find me visually appealing. I enjoy not conforming to those pressures, and putting on a face that does not appeal.
Any man telling my Mrs Beaten character to smile, would, I promise, end up wishing he hadn’t said that.
Here’s me glowering for the camera at a recent Stroud Short Stories event where I read in first person as Mrs Beaten. I’m rather pleased with how this unflattering photo came out!
Photo by Tim Byford.
If you hop over to the page you can compare my presentation with the things other women reading have done with their faces. Although Kate Keogan also presented fierce, which is cool.
Here’s a charming thing – the creature in this video is a Spoonwalker from Hopeless Maine. The graphic novel project is full of strange flora and fauna. A very nice chap had a go at getting a spoonwalker moving, and this is the consequence…
And this one is a clothes upcycling video sharing some of my projects. I make a video most months for Patreon, and they get to see what I’ve done before anyone else does – available at all levels of support. The Patreon support helps me with the video making because i feel like I can justify the time.