Entry III: The Sinking of the Nameless: Recollections of a Volunteer/Journalist

We need decent political leadership NOW. Volunteers can’t do it alone. #refugees


Great tragedies are supposed to have name. The Titanic, the Lusitania… Their dead live forever in the stories we tell about them and the living fight for change in their memory that they might not die in vain. This is just a boat of ‘migrants’ that sunk in the Aegean, another number, another regrettable spat of collateral damage in the border war. But not to us, the ones who were there when the rescued came into harbour. Not to me. Last night was the most traumatic of my life. Back home, I spoke with confidence about how ‘borders kill’ – but now I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I will never forget the sinking of that nameless ship.

Official Count So Far: 11 confirmed dead (5+ children) & at least 40 still lost at sea

My friend Ashley and I were supposed to drive back across the island…

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Tectonic Plates Or Losers’ Blues?

‘Tectonic plates…the slow subterranean shifting’: eventually the lava bubbles up from underneath and structures that seemed immutable come crashing down.

All Human Life Is Hereabouts

The last few weeks have been unlike anything I can remember in my life, politically.  There is a disconnect between people, and between the premises upon which they build their beliefs that is strange and unsettling.  Listening to the Today programme this morning, in which Labour’s calm Seema Malhotra was interviewed by an aggressive Sarah Montague, the thought suddenly hit me: it was like a discussion about the route to take on a long sea voyage between a flat earther and someone who believed the earth was round.  Montague was annoyed because Malhotra wouldn’t say where Labour would find the £15 billion needed to pay for tax credits, which Montague framed as an accounting question.  Malhotra was saying, economic policy is not accounting, and that growing the economy grows revenues.  They were talking about different things, with no point of contact whatsoever.  Montague was yelling that if they did what…

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180th Anniversary of Town Council Elections

Local government made our cities the great places they are today: water and sanitation, street works, street lighting, police and criminal justice, social services, parks, libraries, schools, birth marriage and death registration, coroners, theatres, concert halls and leisure facilities. Local government is what makes your city a civilised, enlightened place to live. We have started to take it for granted, and now these much maligned organisations are being cut to the bone for austerity, its structures sold off for profit. Civilisation is slowly being taken away. Never forget the lessons of history!

The Victorian Commons

This month marks the anniversary of a completely new system of local elections being implemented throughout England and Wales. One hundred and eighty years ago, almost 180 boroughs in England and Wales began to publish the lists of all those eligible to vote in the new town council elections created by the 1835 Municipal Reform Act. Barely three weeks after the Act’s passage, specially appointed revising barristers started setting up registration courts to decide who would be able to vote in what initally looked like being a remarkably democratic franchise. Unlike the parliamentary household vote – only given to those occupying property worth at least £10 a year in rental value – the new municipal franchise had no minimum property requirement. In theory every male householder, no matter how humble his dwelling, would be able to take part.

Hand written council voting paper, 1835 Hand written council voting paper, 1835

As the revising barristers set about…

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TCWG September Short Story: ‘Hinky-Dinky, Parlay-Voo’ #amwriting


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Screenshot 2015-09-28 22.13.26The Telegraph Creative Writing Group September theme was ‘Hype’ and ‘Hinky-Dinky, Parlay-Voo’ is a short story about the conflict between the hype of war and the reality of war.

I was on holiday in the Ardennes, where it rained every day and our campsite turned to soft mud that the driving rain spattered a foot high up every surface. Thinking every day that the end of the month deadline for the story was drawing near, and here I was in this muddy place not doing any writing. On the way back to Calais, a town now bound in everyone’s minds with the refugee crisis and the grievous human costs of war, we had arranged an overnight stop near St-Omer. We passed Armentières; the name stuck in my mind. We passed Hazebrouck, where one can glimpse the graves from the bypass. On the Michelin map one can trace the Western Front in a scatter of crosses that mark the WW1 cemeteries. The story came into my mind in a jumble of fragments and dialogue, typed into my iPad at odd moments. I had an idea that the jingoism of that period would fit with the ‘Hype’ theme.

When I got home to my desk I googled ‘Armentières’ and the song ‘Hinky-Dinky, Parlay-Voo’, one form of which begins ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’, struck me as one of the most irritating tunes ever written. And there we have it.


TCWG August Short Story: Adam



Adam-pixellated#amwriting The brief for the Telegraph Creative Writers’ Group August Competition was a 500-word short fiction on the theme of ‘Nightingale’ and one option was the plaintive song of the nightingale threaded through a tale of unrequited love.

Adam‘ was my take on this.

The image is pixellated from a painting by Theodore Gericault dating from approximately 1820.

‘The Birmingham Rat’: Freeth’s cheese and workhouse dripping


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If we understand attitudes to the poor in 19th century England it sheds light on our attitudes to the poor today. Being richer has not made us kinder. History still has much to teach us. To quote Donna Taylor: “PLEASE SUPPORT OUR ARCHIVES, CURRENTLY UNDER THREAT AS A RESULT OF CUTS TO THE LOCAL FINANCES – ONCE THEY’RE GONE, THEY’RE GONE FOREVER.”

Notes from 19th Century Birmingham

Those who have been fortunate enough to visit the Birmingham History gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BM&AG) will be familiar with the wonderfully presented ‘Freeth’s Coffee Shop’, where it is possible to take a step back in time and hear the words of Birmingham’s famous  balladeer, John Freeth and read a little of his place in local history. If you’ve not been, I can highly recommend a visit (and better yet, it’s free entry!). Freeth was proprietor of the Leicester Arms, on the corner of Bell Street, in the latter years of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth. He died in 1808. The pub was also a coffee house and it became generally known as Freeth’s Coffee House when he ran it. At this time, coffee houses had become important centres for debate on national political issues of the day, as well as local affairs…

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Manuscript revision – advice from a pro

A Writer of History

The First Five Pages by Noah LukemanNo, I’m not the pro, but Noah Lukeman is. Lukeman is the author of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. As an experienced literary agent based in New York City whose clients include Pulitzer prize nominees and New York Times bestselling authors, Noah Lukeman knows a thing of two about finding top-notch manuscripts to represent. And he presents his advice simply and succinctly, using lots of examples to illustrate his points.

I’ve been revising Time & Regret so a book designed to help writers stay off the rejection pile seemed an excellent one to reread. I thought some of you might be interested in the notes I took as a result. Today’s post will be part one of two.

Overuse of adjectives and adverbsavoid the use of common adverbs or adjectives and the use of adjectives or adverbs when a stronger…

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The Immortal Lavoisier: July TCWG Short Story


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#amwriting The Telegraph Creative Writing Group July Competition has ‘Ocean Crossing’ as its theme. ‘The Immortal Lavoisier’ is based on the connection between E I du Pont, the founder of the famous American chemical company, and Antoine and Marie Lavoisier who were his mentors as a student of chemistry in Paris, at a time when the sciences of chemistry, applied chemistry and chemical engineering were just coming to life, only to be tragically interrupted by the French Revolution. Lavoisier was at that time an acclaimed scientist, the Einstein of his day; his wife had considerable experience in the chemistry laboratory, and in writing and illustrating scientific papers.

I have used as much as I can gather from historical sources and imagined conversations that might have taken place between du Pont and the Lavoisiers. He kept no record of these, although the Lavoisiers are often mentioned in the family correspondence. But it is certain that he printed the Memoires de Chimie at that time and that he also printed the defence of the Fermiers-Generaux. Lavoisier was of great importance to him and his family, and his original idea for the gunpowder mills at Brandywine Creek was to name them the Lavoisier Mills. So it is not unreasonable to imagine that he would have visited Lavoisier during his imprisonment, or the kinds of conversations they may have had.

The link between the story and the month’s theme is du Pont’s emigration across the Atlantic, and the reasons for his journey. The decision to emigrate is never taken lightly; what courage or desperation must it take to leave behind a familiar world to seek one’s fortune in an alien land? It takes ability and self-belief. We should respect the immigrants who seek shelter with us – amongst them may be the du Ponts of the 21st century.