Tag Archives: Stroud

Grass snake encounter

Photos by James.

We met this rather fabulous grass snake on Sunday. Said grass snake was in the canal, near the centre of town and came close to the tow path on a number of occasions while we were watching. Grass snakes are good swimmers and it isn’t the first time I’ve seen one in a Stroud canal. They are totally harmless, although their size can make them seem more intimidating – I think this fine fellow must have been at least three feet long.

The scudge in the water is just what happens at this time of year with all the pollen from the trees. Mostly willows, I think.

Story news

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.


Stroud Poets: Rick Vick – a review

Yew Tree Press is a Stroud publisher putting out small poetry booklets featuring local poets. Often these take poets in sets of three, but Rick Vick has a collection to himself. His recent death is no doubt the main reason for this.

I first came into contact with Rick Vick through the Stroud Short Stories competition. Rick was a frequent participant and I edited his work for the first Stroud Short Stories anthology. I can’t say I ever knew him well, but he was someone who would acknowledge me in the street. He was clearly an interesting chap who had lived fully and with passion and who thought about things a lot. It came through in both his prose and his poetry.

The poems in this collection are all short, intense pieces. I really like the clear, everyday language – I don’t enjoy poetry that you have to figure out like some kind of cryptic puzzle. Rick Vick demonstrates beautifully that simple language has immense poetic power. He has a knack for picking out details that evoke, and suggest. The work is often emotional, poignant without falling into sentimentality. It’s rich with observation and understanding and a great deal is communicated in a very small space. These poems are human, accessible and well worth your time.

Find out more on the website – https://www.yewtreepress.co.uk/

I say Hopeless, you say Maine…

As I write this, I’m still recovering from a most amazing weekend. Stroud had its first Steampunk Weekend, run by John Bassett – he’s a very creative local chap and also an excellent organiser of things. When he expressed an interest in Steampunk last year, Tom and I were very excited and piled in as best we could to help. Tom was heavily implicated in sorting out the day program and we both did a fair amount of luring people in.

It was a touch surreal seeing people we normally have to travel to spend time with. It was also rather lovely getting people from afar who we really like and being able to share them with local friends. There’s a particular pleasure in watching people I like connecting with each other, and this is one of the things a Steampunk weekend can be counted on to do. Steampunk is all about the social opportunities and the creativity. There was a lot of cross pollination over the weekend.

We took a Hopeless Maine Home Companion set to the event – a team piece lead by The Keith of Mystery. It was fantastic for me being able to focus on performance in an ensemble session and have someone else hold the space together and make that work. There’s also something very lovely about seeing my project in other people’s hands. We also took a Cup Full of Tentacles set to the Sunday – this is me, Tom and James singing stuff we like to sing (mostly folk) and using it to talk about Hopeless Maine a little bit. The room we were in had fantastic acoustics, which is always a delight.

Saturday night was so emotionally loaded that I’m still recovering. It all revolved around Professor Elemental. He is one of my favourite people. It was something akin to love at first sight for me, encountering his Cup of Brown Joy song on youtube many years ago. Tom got talking to him at an event in America (after some pleading on my part) and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. The Prof and I co-wrote a novel, which was an amazing thing to get to do. He wrote us a Hopeless Maine song as well – which is out there should you feel moved to hunt it down with a search engine.

In Hopeless Maine sets, my son James performs Professor Elemental’s Hopeless Maine song, but the Prof had never heard him do it. On Saturday night, he had James up on stage to do the first verse of the Hopeless Maine song. Which was brilliant. What nearly broke me though, was Cup of Brown Joy – the song I started with. Normally there’s an audience participation bit – “I say earl grey, you say yes please” and then people in the audience yell ‘yes please’ in response to a few rounds of ‘earl grey’. We also normally get assam – lovely, herbal – no thanks and oo-long…. But on Saturday the song went “I say Hopeless, you say Maine.”

And they did.

Some of this is because Professor Elemental asks you to do something in a gig and you do it because of his strange, hypnotic powers and irresistible knees… but even so.

If you want to go to a gig that will make you feel better about yourself, and the world in general, he’s the person to seek out. If you want to come out of a room feeling love and solidarity with everyone else who was there, he will do that to you. If you want a space to laugh and cry and jump up and down and feel good about things, and like there’s room for you in the world and that we might be able to make lovely things together… go and see him. He is medicine for the soul.


Stroud Short Stories, revisited

Stroud Short Stories runs twice a year, picking ten stories to be read at an evening event. Participation is usually limited to Gloucestershire. In the winter of 2014, I was picked to read. In the spring of 2015 I edited an anthology of all previously selected stories. Last autumn I was invited to help with the judging, and I’ve been asked to do that again this spring.

Judging literature is a very subjective process. A small percentage of the submissions don’t work – they don’t make sense in some way, are too unoriginal, or express prejudices that aren’t acceptable. Those are the easy ones to weed out, although I have to admit it’s possible that amongst them are high art, super clever serious literature that I’m not smart enough to get. The flip side of this is that I know the audience who come to hear the stories, and they tend to be more like me, and are not cutting edge literary academics either.

The quest for the best ten is not an easy one. It helps that there’s the ‘reading out’ aspect, because this rules out a percentage of the stories. We judge without knowing the author, so I’m less likely to pick a story that depends on fantastic, theatrical delivery. Most authors are shy, wary of the microphone and many come to the events not having read much (or ever) in public before. The story has to work regardless of delivery. I’ve learned to be wary of vast stretches of dialogue, because not every author can produce two or more clear voices on a stage.

As a reader, first and foremost I want to be surprised. This is true of anything I get my nose into. I want not to know where it was going. I want to encounter thoughts that would never have crossed my mind. I am susceptible to beautiful language, but it has to be in service to the story, and I do not like things that sound clever and poetic but lack for meaning.

In the autumn we were picking to a theme, and having the Eerie Evening (see poster!) to work with, was a useful focus for selection. There’s no theme this spring, and I have no idea how that’s going to go. The competition is now open for submissions, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll be reading, and pondering perhaps something in the region of a hundred short stories, looking for the ten. I hope I can do the process justice.

It helps greatly that I’m not doing this alone. John Holland also judges, and he’s done far more of this than I have. While there’s a fair overlap in our tastes, we think in different ways, and in finding stories that we both think work, we’ve got a good shot (I think) at getting the best ten, at least on paper. How they’ll translate on the night is an unknown quantity. Some stories come alive in whole new ways when read aloud, others don’t have the punch you expected. Nothing is certain, and that’s part of the allure.

If you’re in Gloucestershire and want to give it a go (but don’t tell me!) the details are here – http://www.stroudshortstories.blogspot.co.uk/

Tiny books, big love

3 very small books this week, all from independent creators. I’m fascinated by the way in which a small book can also be an art object, especially if handmade. Small books are more likely to be limited edition, and are in my foreseeable future going to require their own very small bookcase! 2 of these are very Stroud-centric, the last one isn’t.

Little Metropolis – poems of Stroud, of small town living, nostalgia, and reluctantly growing up, by Adam Horovitz. Ideal for anyone with a Stroud connection, money from the project goes to support Stroud Fringe, and there’s also an audio version with music. It brought home to me something of what it means to be deeply rooted in a place, which having moved several times in my life, I don’t really have.

More about the project here – https://littlemetropolis.bandcamp.com/releases




Growing Victorians in Your Garden – by Bill Jones. Illustrated by Bill Jones as well. A mix of the mournful and the whimsical, highly recommended for steampunks, gardeners,  and people who like tiny, lovely things.

I think the only way to get one of these is by hurling yourself at Bill in the street, but it’s worth doing if you can get to Stroud. More about Growing Victorians over on Bill’s blog – http://www.hawkerspot.com/2015/12/growing-victorians-in-your-garden.html


The League of Lid Curving Witchery’s Guide to Peffa Oidy Witches – (which I couldn’t find an image for) this is a tiny(peffa oidy) book from Phil and Jacqui Lovesey of Matlock the Hare. They make a lot of tiny books, with gorgeous colour illustrations and extra insights into the world of Winchett Dale. Peffa Oidy Witches are one of my favourite things. Keep an eye on their website for new peffa oidy books, these are a delight to own.

More about handmade books and what’s currently available here – http://matlockthehare.com/products/302245–matlock-the-hare-handmade-books.aspx

Stroud Short Stories

A bit less than a year ago, I ran into Stroud Short Stories competition on Twitter. I decided to have a go, found a 1500 ish word story somewhere at the back of my brain, sent it in and promptly forgot all about it. This is a protective tactic that comes from more years than I care to number sending stories, novels, poetry and articles to contests, magazines, publishers and websites. Like most authors I hear ‘no’, or I hear nothing far more often than it gets me anywhere.

Consequently I was quite surprised to find myself picked as one of the ten readers, reading on a dark night last October. I haven’t done much getting onto stages in recent years – Druid Camp of 2014, when I contributed a single song, was the first time I’d been on a stage singing, in years. I’d done a couple of talks in years previously to that, but had gone from being a confident and regular performer, speaker and ritual leader to being an anxious mess and not at all easy about stages. I’ve got a lot better over the last year, I’ve done a lot more stuff in public and I’ve had some much appreciated support. The Stroud Short Stories evening was a stepping stone on that journey, and it led to all manner of things.

During the competition, organiser John Holland kept saying that there never would be a published version of the selected stories. His version of what followed, and mine are radically different, especially around who talked whom into what and on what terms. The net result was that in January 2015 I started collecting and editing the 70 stories that had been read at previous events, plus the 10 that were read this April. Almost everyone said yes to being included. Over a busy few months I got to know some amazing local authors, a number of whom I’ve gone on to explore other creative possibilities with since. It’s been an epic journey.

There are usually two judges picking the ten stories to be read on the event evenings. When it turned out there could e a vacancy this autumn, John Holland asked me if I might consider doing it. (Give us six months and there will probably be some very different versions of how this happened as well.) I’ve never done anything like this before, so was delighted to say ‘yes’. It’s a wonderful community event, Stroud based, but open to writers in Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire.

I’m looking forward to it.

The contest is now accepting submissions, full details over at http://stroudshortstories.blogspot.co.uk/

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.

Small films, big ideas

This year, Stroud had its first film festival. I managed to be at the launch, not so very long ago, which included the winning films from the film competition associated with the festival, because Stroud doesn’t do things by halves!

These are all short films with local connections, and they were all played on the night, and for all of their localism, they have things to say that deserve a wider audience. In the order in which they were shown then…

What is Art? Funny, playful and also rather clever. John Bassett does a lot of local theatre, his update of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists last year sent me out to read the original novel.

Ganapati Clayman. Andrew Wood talks about art and Parkinson’s disease. I spent a few weeks last year being Andrew’s studio assistant. He’s a brilliant and fascinating person. I spent a lot of time re-whiting walls and cleaning floors, being a studio assistant not being a terribly glamorous sort of job really.

7 Miles of Pinkness is about the huge Wool Against Weapons protest last summer – 7 miles of pink knitting stretched between 2 nuclear weapons sites as we watch the government trying to claim that spending £100 billion on replacing Trident –  weaponry it would be unthinkable to ever actually use – is a good idea. Much to my surprise, I discovered on the night that I am fleetingly in this film. My abject panic does not come over as clearly as I had feared. My section had just run out of wool, we had no idea where any spare wool was, and I was stood where the wool wasn’t when a nice man pointed a camera at me. I’m very proud to have been a very tiny part of this epic, international project. I’ve also helped turn the scarf into blankets for international aid projects.

Creating your reality

One of the concepts in magical and spiritual thinking that could use some fettling is the notion that we create our own realities. To a significant extent, we shape and inform our own experiences. However, this is not about reality conforming to our desires. It’s not about ‘doing magic’ as a thing separate from how we live. It’s about being able to see and work with the threads of connection that guide what’s happening around us.

Let’s take a case in point. How we treat people informs who they will be for us. You can get the best a person has to give by acting as though you trust them and believe in them. Just believing in them won’t do it, you have to very deliberately put that belief where it can be seen, where it affects the other person’s sense of self and their ideas about what might be possible. And thus your will flows into the world and they become better able to manifest the things you were looking for.

I’ve noticed this recently in terms of how I respond to people, as well. If I’m taken seriously and treated as though I have a value, my morale is improved and my investment in that situation increases. The person who treats me like I have a value to them gets my best work. The people who see my skills and strengths and give me room to manifest those, get the best I am capable of. I’m finding myself in a number of spaces at the moment where this is happening, and I feel inspired by that sense of being valued. I become capable of doing more.

There have been times and places where I’ve faced the opposite. Places where I felt tolerated rather than welcomed, where what I do was/is belittled, diminished, dismissed or assumed to be of little consequence. Places where I have been taken for granted, or afforded no respect for my contributions. In those spaces, I am not at all inspired to do my best – I’m more likely to plan a quiet escape as soon as I am clear about what’s happening.

I go into these as the same person – same abilities, same willingness to give, same capacity to work and think, but what I’m able to do is informed to a significant degree by how I am treated and valued. I can’t do my best work for people who don’t think I’m up to much.

Every interaction we have with every other living thing creates ripples and changes. Every word spoken, every casual gesture. We shape so many of our relationships unconsciously, sending messages that were not intended, and reaping the awkward consequences. Self knowledge, self awareness and clarity of perception make it easier to get what we were intending. Putting into the world the things we want to find makes a lot of odds. Want to be taken seriously? Try taking other people seriously. Want to be loved? Be willing to put love into the world. It’s not a simple, causal effect, it is not the case that what you put out is what comes back to you. However, what you put out shapes what comes back to you. There is magic in being able to craft that so that what you do achieves the results you were looking for. In this I am a novice, but a happy, enthusiastic novice.

And as an entirely related aside, I’m really excited about what I’m getting to do at Moon Books, at nerdbong.com, with Down to Earth Stroud and Stroud Short Stories competition and I’m wondering whether a few other spaces might start to shape up some time soon.