Archive for September, 2013

Mechanics’ Institutes are educational establishments, originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men…The Mechanics’ Institutes were used as ‘libraries’ for the adult working class, and provided them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs.

In 1823, George Birkbeck, an early pioneer of adult education, founded the then “London Mechanics’ Institute” at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand. Over two thousand people attended. However the idea was not universally popular and some accused Birkbeck of “scattering the seeds of evil.”


Scattering the seeds.  That belief in disseminating education to working people enabled me, almost 200 years later, to achieve my MA whilst holding down a full time day job.  Thank you, George Birkbeck.

The Review is a collection of creative writing from students past and present.  Over 90 stories were submitted this year, 21 were chosen.  In addition, there are stories from published writers Colin Grant, Jackie Kay, Adam Marek and Evie Wyld.

I started writing my story ‘Roxburgh’ years ago.  In the final version there are still references to characters smoking in pubs.  That’s how long ago it was that the idea came to me.  I’d worked on it a bit over the years, and revised it during a term of my MA.  SInce graduation, I’d forgotten all about it.  Earlier this year, out of the blue, a fellow graduate emailed me to say he’d heard something on the radio that had made him think of the story.  I was so touched that he’d remembered it, and taken the time to email, that after replying to him I looked at the story again and thought ‘s’alright, that old story’.  It happened to be the submission deadline for the Mechanics’ Institute Review, so on a whim, with no nerves and certainly no expectation, I sent it off.   It was a genuine surprise when I was told they wanted to publish it.

Then of course, the internal critic started needling.  Having sent it off without much thought, I started agonising.  It’s not a complex story, it’s formally conservative and thematically rather sentimental.  I wasn’t ashamed to attach my name to it, but it’s not one of the pieces I’m most proud of having written.  On the other hand it is funny, the dialogue is very good and it’s something of a coming-of-age for a middle aged character.  That’s relatively unusual.  The fact that it was selected for publication meant that a group of people (the editors) thought it was good.  Despite my own caveats, I think it is well written.

We were assigned an editor, and the wonderful Mary Bracht http://marybracht.com/ was mine.  It was my first experience of being edited, and it was fantastically useful.  At one point in the writing, I had vaguely toyed with the idea of ‘Roxburgh’ becoming a novel, and that shadow structure lay under the short story.  I’d almost forgotten, or certainly thought it was invisible.  Not to such a forensic editor as Mary, who charmingly and supportively suggested cuts that removed the extraneous ideas and focussed on the key characters and key relationships in the story.  Sue Tyley, a professional copy editor then went through the text for line edits.  I thought I was thorough, I thought I had a good grasp of grammar and syntax.  Perhaps I’m reasonably detailed, but being edited by a professional is awe-inspiring.  And for someone as pedantic as me, a delight.  In a short story especially, each word is important.  Sue’s focus means that every sentence has been interrogated to check for inaccuracies or inherent weakness.   The end result is as strong and as precise as it can be.

There was a launch party for the authors, editors and academic staff on Thursday 26 September.  The Review has been in existence for 10 years, so this was also a significant birthday party.  I chatted to my friend and fellow contributor Barbara Bleiman https://twitter.com/BarbaraBleiman  Her story, Indecent Acts, is an extract from her novel.  It’s very powerful, and I’m sure her search for an agent won’t be a long one.  I was told that there were two actors who would be reading extracts from two of the stories, and mine was one that had been chosen.  The terrific and charming actor Lloyd Hutchinson http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0404371/ read an extract from ‘Roxburgh’.  It was of course the first time I’d heard the story out loud.  I’d spoken it to myself as I was writing it, to get the rhythm and the dialogue right.  But this was the first time in front of an audience, and thanks to Lloyd’s perfect timing they laughed in all the right places, which was gratifyingly.  Perhaps most potent for me was the experience of hearing Roxburgh’s voice, of imagining his presence in the room.  A man speaking the words of a male character.  It was a lovely moment, and I did feel proud.  Afterwards, lots of people complimented me on the story (thanks really to Lloyd for bringing it alive) and Claire Houghton-Price, an agent from HHB Agency http://www.hhbagency.com/index.html gave me her card and said when I’d finished my novel, I should get in touch.  It’s no more than that, but it has acted as a spur to get on with finishing the novel, and with perhaps writing some more short stories.

And if you want to buy it…

This is the book version:


This is the Kindle edition:


And finally, if you want to see me read an extract, nowhere near as well as Lloyd, then come to The Harrison, 28 Harrison St, London WC1H 8JF at 7.30pm on Monday 14 October. I’d love your support.



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