Getting into a bit of a stew

I have been making what in Stoke-on-Trent is called lobby. In Merseyside it is called scouse and I am sure has different local names around the country and abroad. It is a stew. A food whose roots are in poverty, which makes a little poor quality piece of meat go a long way with plenty of potatoes and root vegetables and, what I love most, dumplings. Why ‘lobby’ I’m not sure perhaps because you just lob into a pot what is around the kitchen. I make enough to last me about five days.

To add some extra flavour I went to a local supermarket to get a sweet potato. They had some good ones, but on looking at the box I saw they were grown in Israel. I will not buy things made in Israel because of their treatment of the Palestinians, so I had to trudge off and find another shop selling them. Another supermarket and the box said USA, well a bit better as I like America (not their political leaders or international policies), and have met many great people over there working for their communities and unions.

This reminded me of when I was about 8 or 9. My mother took me shopping and I saw some bright red sweet Cape apples, she wouldn’t buy them because they were South African and said that at least she could add something to the opposition to apartheid. She wasn’t a political person and would certainly have been on the liberal conservative side of things, but she believed that apartheid was wrong and this was her bit to help. I continued that and never knowingly bought South African products until the regime changed.

Today I still find it hard, the plight of the poor seems no better, everyone has a vote and ‘freedom’ but mass poverty precludes the majority from really being in charge. The government seems to be owned by big business, the ideals lost. So I still won’t buy South African products.

The stew is cooking well and is on slow cook for about 8 hours, with its mix of Welsh beef, Scottish potatoes, American sweet potatoes, onions from France, swede from England, okra from Kenya, parsnips from Holland, carrots from Poland, Greek olive oil, leeks from Spain. It’s a pity we can’t all be lobbed into a stew pot and come out as one wonderful flavour!

Photograph of sweet potato taken at 10.30am


10.40am. Sweet Potato chopped into 50 pieces


..and the finished lobby…



One of the people who ‘liked’ my blog has on her site music to offer inspiration to writers. I usually listen to music when I’m writing, often on 6 Music on the radio, as when I am writing I can get so lost I forget to set up another album. Though it doesn’t really inspire me in my writing I have often referenced music. When I made films I used musical structure, such as a fugue, to develop the sequence of images. The two recent short films on my website have a structure based on serial form (

Inspiration is an odd thing, where does all this stuff we write come from?

I have no hesitation and do not apologise in saying that my poetry is an exploration of events in my life, a way of working through them, and perhaps sharing them with people in similar situations such as grief, adoption, separation, depression (that makes them sound really jolly doesn’t it!).

For my other writing there are of course situations in my life and often amalgamations of people I have known. When I started Underpainting (available free on my website) in about 1994, it began as a writing exercise a group I was attending set, to write the first page of a novel, I ended up writing about 100 pages and mapping out the whole novel before the next weeks’ meeting, though it wasn’t completed until 2007 and still needs a final edit for spellings and grammar. What it did was empty my brain of the many stories and experiences that were knocking around it, and after reading hundreds of novels want to prove to myself that I could carry a story through to a form of conclusion.

I have no training as a writer, my background is in visual art, so I have little fear of error, but also hardly any knowledge of technique, style and form. My knowledge comes from my reading. At the time of starting Underpainting I was reading through the novels of Iris Murdoch and I can see her influence in working with a close group of people where all the stories are linked to each other. I was ‘inspired’ to write a novella called The Report after reading Philip K Dicks’ The Man in the High Castle and wandering around for a month or so, telling myself as story of how the situation he writes about had happened here and today.

Of course if I had any sense my inspiration would be to write to make money. However to do that ‘art’ has to be forgotten about and plot (which I hate) come to the fore. Someone like Lee Child sells millions and makes millions, it aims for the lowest common denominator with very short chapters, plenty of gun porn, violence and silly sex. He is a very clever writer like the slightly less ludicrous James Patterson, they use a journalistic technique and sell millions, but will they be remembered? Who now reads Earl Stanley Gardner, Harold Robbins or Rex Stout? They are ephemera like pop songs or fashion.

Does that make me an elitist? Maybe so.

Today’s photograph was taken at 11.30am while I was throwing a ball for Oskar to chase (who you can just see), in the nearby park, on a wet, mild and misty day.


The aliens have landed

New Year’s Day. I saw a blog that suggested taking and ‘publishing’ a photograph each day of the year. So, I have started with the picture below.


I did not have to go far; it is the view down High Street, Tunstall from the bay window in my flat at 9.30am. It was not laziness, but a realisation from quite early (5.30am) when I woke that it felt as if an alien space ship had come down and destroyed all the people, well maybe not, perhaps more of a restart as the intense rain of yesterday had gone, the deep dark clouds of the last few weeks had gone and the sun had come out. At that time the road is usually very busy, the shop across the street has a steady flow of people who park and go in and an equally steady flow of people quite often still in pyjamas walking from the surrounding streets to buy cans of beer and cider. Usually on a Tuesday at about this time an elderly man parks his car, goes into the shop, buys a half bottle of whiskey, then sitting in his car drinks it. When the bottle is half empty he angles his seat back, and goes to sleep. A couple of hours later he wakes and drives off, to where I have no clue.

New Year is an odd time because in reality nothing has changed, we are probably a bit poorer or maybe richer depending on our financial situation; relationships are as strained as ever due to Christmas; food tastes no different. But psychologically it is a new start. We think in years, days, hours, minutes which are a man-made overlay to the natural cycles, we need them to survive, I know I do and when a clock is not in site can become quite anxious. In my flat I have at least one clock in every room, including the bathroom. I remember getting into a state of depression when attending a week of writing at the Arvon Foundation and there were no clocks anywhere and my watch had stopped working. I almost left half way through and if I had travelled there by car would almost certainly have!

I am writing this at 11.15am and there is still hardly any traffic moving, it is eerily quiet, perhaps the aliens have landed…

Writing Groups in North Staffs need to get together

I am pleased to say that at the end of 2012 the health of writing groups in North Staffordshire is very good. From what I can work out there are 8 groups regularly meeting and there may be more, plus the classes and groups which meet at the local colleges and universities. There is some cross-over of members, so I reckon around 100 people are part of one or more groups.

I attend Renegades Writers because it offers very helpful criticism of my own work and an interesting and often very entertaining selection of work from the others, which I readily offer I hope constructive criticism. Not everyone wants this, they just want to perform. There seems a move to develop a regular performing night at Bad Edit in Burslem, which would include music, this would be a good addition, though the space is far from intimate and doesn’t have the sort of feel that say The Frog and Bucket had in Manchester and was so successful for many years.

With so many groups meeting this offers the opportunity to group together to get funding for workshops and training. The work the City Council did in the past was ok, but, well I didn’t exactly find anything in their programme I wanted to participate in. There are skills which I am sure many would wish to develop, such as marketing e-books; poetry and prose performance; re-writing and editing.

Where can funds come from? There would need to be a ‘union’ of writers groups to apply for funding from Trusts, Foundations and grant giving bodies such as the Arts Council. There has been a huge grant given to this area for a project through Arts Lottery Funding, it may be possible to tag into that, though I would prefer autonomy from Staffordshire University and the other partners.

I feel this has to be a challenge for 2013. It is not easy as there are many egos at play in these writing groups and I am sure each would have their own ideas of what was needed. But to really develop writing and performing skills top class training is needed and the only way to get that without members having to fork out £50+ each is find grants.

Why put a photograph on Facebook?

On Facebook I have just put up a photograph of me in 1976 making a film during my last year at Cardiff College of Art. It is a long time ago, and yet I can still remember that day quite clearly, even the breeze coming off the sea; the taste of the beer a couple of hours later; the smoked filled Ninian pub even later trying to watch the European Cup Final in a haze of drunkenness.

So why put a photograph on Facebook? Back in 1976 there wasn’t even an inkling of what we now take as everyday. Computers were around, but they were not things available to someone like me. I remember when I had a summer job at British Steel in Cardiff, working on the coke ovens, that walking home I would pass a quite large building and through the windows could see huge boxes with reels whirring away, which probably had less than a hundredth of the power this machine has.

Few people see what the future will bring, those who do and speculate are probably the billionaires of this world. Science fiction films purport to see into the future, I remember reading that Motorola designed their mobile phones on the Star Trek communicators! It is now strange to see what the past saw of the future, After London by Richard Jefferies published in 1885 about a post-apocalyptic Britain a hundred years later has horse transport, with no notion of the absolute revolution in oil powered transport. The film Blade Runner made in 1982 set in a futuristic and at the time highly believable Los Angeles, did not see the mobile revolution and the hero has to find phone boxes!

It has been said many times that science fiction as well as genre like the western is really about the present. So why put a photograph on Facebook?

If like mine an old one, to amuse people with the hairstyle, clothes, situation. Psychologists would probably say to draw attention to yourself. I put this one on for all those reasons and also maybe to prove to people who know me that at one time I made films, had hair and was remarkably thin! Image

Worrying Signs

As nearing the end of a year is often a time for reflection I realise that since 1st January 2012 I haven’t left Stoke-on-Trent or Newcastle-under-Lyme! In fact the furthest I have been is North Staffs University Hospital!

So how has this situation come about? Poverty.

Well that is one perfectly good answer there are probably others. After my last car was written off I haven’t owned a vehicle since early 2007, it makes financial sense of course and to be honest after initial ‘withdrawal’ symptoms I haven’t really missed one (except when trying to get to Renegades Writers on winter nights!). It would probably be more frustrating having a car sitting outside my flat and no money to buy petrol and all the extended costs a car takes up. Opposite me is a bus stop and another about 20 yards up the road; a couple of miles away is Kidsgrove station where I can get a train to London for just £8 each way! So few excuses not to go places, except that whenever I get enough together another bill comes in and seems to drain my resources.

In 2009 I began to feel that my grip on finances was running away, and on a chart I keep of my level of depression I could see worrying signs. I receive Incapacity Benefit at the full rate because I had paid my taxes and National Insurance for around 30 years. Despite what many Conservative politicians may think, £98 per week does not stretch very far! So from the beginning of 2010 I began to keep a close record of my finances using Excel spreadsheets. At first I felt like some sort of Scrooge without the welcome intrusion of the ghosts, keeping a record of every pound I spent. But it has lightened the burden, I now know how much I have left; what I have to keep funds for; the daily costs of gas and electricity so not to run out. It can get (for me) fascinating after a while, I will not bore you with all the facts but over the three years I can see the differences in costs, for instance in 2012 I have spent on average more than £10 per month than 2011 on gas and exactly the same on electricity; my shopping bill (for probably less stuff) has gone up by £24 per month and yet in the Other category (travel, clothes, fun stuff etc…) expenditure has gone down by £34. I will not go on but you see the trend!

In reflecting about these things I remembered that my father kept a little red notebook in his jacket pocket, and whenever he spent anything he wrote it down, then I take it worked out, like I do, what his income and expenditure was. He was an extremely brilliant mathematician (I am not!) who if born into an upper class family would probably have ended up in the City rather than teaching. His father worked on the railways and the family struggled in the early 1920’s to get him through grammar school then university. After my mother died and I went through her things I didn’t find any of these. It would have been interesting but one of us must have destroyed them when he died in 1980. Pity really.

Time to walk the dog in the rain.


I should try to blog more. Well I see my last posting was 2011. Why?

I was talking on the phone to an old friend on Christmas evening and we both agreed that it is not a great time if you are on your own. I was telling her that although people are very kind and invite me to lunch I feel a bit like the ‘charity case’ who people feel should not be alone. So over the past ten years I have, except for one year, cooked for other people, rather than being an addendum to their family, and left then pretty quickly.

She told me about a house in Sheffield where people on their own go and share Christmas lunch, so are part of a ‘family’ and have a shared experience. Sounded a good idea. I like Christmas, and although have no interest in its religious significance appreciate that it is great to have a celebration, share special food, give gifts and generally have a break at what is the darkest time of year. Christmas is about the past, we try to recreate those magical years in our childhoods, then when they are not shared by others, it is difficult. So a celebration where everyone understands the situation we find ourselves in, then that sounds good. Better start the planning!