Literature for change: vital reading for the left-wing optimist

31494960884_4e7f403137_o-1-1024x628

We live in difficult and uncertain times and the world around us seems increasingly full of fear and terror: it is easy to lose hold of hope and grow cynical and weary. But this is the sort of attitude that suits only those who would seek to exploit these feelings to push agendas that nobody wants.

The newly announced general election in the UK is a prime example here. Brexit is not the sole issue facing the country and a general election should not be used as a battleground on which to debate it; least of all because in the debating of it the government will be able to hide the fact it has no clue or plan or strategy. Yet unless we demand and fight for a more positive world and put other issues on the table; we will hear of nothing else over the coming weeks. There will be no talk about the fact that wages for the majority have stagnated or fallen every year the conservatives have been in power; there will be no talk about the fact that we are working longer and harder for no reward, as our physical and mental health and wellbeing deteriorates; there will be no talk of the rising levels of misogyny or hate crime; of the crises in our public services created by privatisation; or of the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our world.

We have the power to change this; to stand up to the politics of hatred and division. Optimism is a strategy for building a better world – if you believe human beings have an instinct for truth and justice and equality; and you believe there are opportunities to change things so we build our society around these pillars – rather than those of fear – then there’s a chance you can contribute to making a better world. “Don’t mourn – organise!”

To help you do just this, we’ve picked out some of our favourite left-wing books. We’ve tried to avoid the obvious tomes of Marx, Lenin and Kropotkin – and instead gone for alternative inspirational, informative, interesting and accessible texts. Check them out!

1. Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay, by John Lanchester

We have been living with the fallout from the 2008 banking crisis, and will continue to do so for decades to come. Fortunately, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, as – without any irony – the publishing industry reacted to the near total failure of modern capitalism by successfully pushing out to the market books that tried to explain the crisis and the myriad political consequences of it. Few of these books, however, are as pleasurable to read as John Lanchester’s “Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.”

The snidest villains and the greediest buffoons in the narrative are the bankers and other financial wizards who began recklessly playing with new, risky, little-understood tools to get richer faster — tools that ostensibly hedge against risk but also dramatically increase it. If you don’t know how derivatives or credit default swaps work, or what securitization is, or why futures are riskier than options, this is a book for you

2. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

A painfully well-researched, addictive romp through Friedmanite economic terrorism by one of the best journalists working in English. Read this book and you’ll understand how and why world governments are capitalising on the economic crisis to impose austerity on ordinary people.

3. Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? By Mark Fisher

The late, great, Mark Fisher identified the paradox of modern capitalism: that the more it fails, the deeper it becomes entrenched. The more people rail against it, the more powerful it appears to become. Yet while Fisher does not identify a single tool or solution to help us achieve the radical social change necessary to displace capitalism, he does however, hint at what any theoretical tool or idea must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

4. The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

A powerful explanation of the nature of violent uprising and the psychology of oppression.  Almost every page contains quotes that one wants on a poster or revolutionary t-shirt (after all, in the words of Billy Bragg “the revolution is just a t-shirt away”).

5. Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft

Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s tome is an inspiration for three centuries of subsequent human rights thinking. She identifies natural rights as being just that – rights; and not to be denied to any group in society by another.

6. The intelligent woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, sovietism and fascism, by George Bernard Shaw

Shaw’s 1928 work is a brilliant debunking of the myriad excuses for inequality. He argues that women of all classes must free themselves from economic dependence on men, and points to traditional family structures and familial roles as being at the heart of patriarchy. Capitalism is the villain of the piece (as well it should be), as Shaw argues for a humanity driven by forces of love and compassion, rather than self-interest. Intriguingly, he also posits that men will never be truly free or able to reach their full potential until women are free and released from bondage.

7. Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood

An evocative portrayal of life in depression-era Britain, the fact that Greenwood’s Love on the Dole remains in print stands as a testament to a lost industrial culture, and also as a story that speaks its essential truths loudly whenever times get hard.

“I have tried to show what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole,” Greenwood reflected, “the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth.” As austerity policies continue to deprive millions of men, women and children in the UK and elsewhere of essential decent living standards  and newspaper columns bulge with warnings of yet another generation laid waste by unemployment, it’s a mission statement that we would do well to take up.

8. The Cultural Roots of British Devolution, by Michael Gardiner

For citizens of the UK and Europe, the very real possibility of a break up of the United Kingdom demands proper study and research. Scottish devolution and independence takes precedence in Gardiner’s tour de force of a book; yet within it we can also pick out the same recurrent features of “British” culture and politics that have created the climate for Brexit and the push for greater powers for Wales and Northern Ireland.  Gardiner makes, for instance, concrete and extraordinary connections between, for example, English rave and a new unBritish, pro-democratic Englishness. Its scope makes it sightly wandery at times; but this is part of its appeal: unlike anything else in the subject you’ve read.

9. The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

One of the first books to give a voice to marginalised and ‘otherised’ groups in post-war British society, this is not only a novel about race and survival; it is also a novel about the city. Selvon’s descriptions of post-war London are so powerful and evocative that one fancies oneself alive and present on these same streets. He brings to life the grubby, working-class backstreets of the Harrow Road and Notting Hill, and the seemingly unbreachable divide between them and the rich neighbourhoods of Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Hampstead. He shows how London is not one city, but a compendium of many little cities: there is no such thing as one London or, indeed, one Britain.

The message of The Lonely Londoners, then, is even more vital today than in 50s Britain: that, although we live in societies increasingly divided along racial, ideological and religious lines, we must remember what we still have in common – our humanity. As the novel says: “Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead.

10. The Coming Insurrection, by The Tarnac 9/The Invisible Committee

This short book, written in 2005 by an anonymous French collective known only as The Tarnac 9 (also sometimes known as the Invisible Committee) has become a core text for radicals and revolutionaries across Europe and the Middle East. The slender text is part antimaterialist manifesto and part manual for revolution. The writers expound at length on what they see as a diseased and dehumanizing civilization that cannot be reformed but must, they contend, be torn apart and replaced. To that end the authors direct their readers to sabotage authority, form self-sufficient communes and learn how to “support a conspiracy against commodity society.”

 

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list and we’d ask anyone and everyone reading to respond in the comments with their own essential articles, books and texts for organising and mobilising as a progressive force against the disastrous forces of capitalism.

Now, here’s a video of Charlie Chaplain. Because reasons.

 

Advertisements

Creatives in profile: interview with Laura Waddell

image1

Laura Waddell writes reviews of fiction, a book column, articles, and short fiction and poetry. She has been in the Guardian, Independent, Sunday Mail, Gutter, Glasgow Review of Books, 3AM magazine, Review 31, and others, while working extensively in literary and translation publishing before joining HarpterCollins as Publishing Manager of Children’s Reference.

Shortlisted as Emerging Publisher of the Year by the Saltire Society in 2016, she is also quite the social media guru – creating a number of innovative literary initiatives such as #ScotEbookDay and #ETeaParty, which was featured as a book marketing success in the book Blogging for Writers.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

WADDELL

I work in publishing, and am a writer, and I live in Glasgow. As for background/lifestyle, where to begin? I grew up in Coatbridge, a post-industrial town outside of Glasgow, and far enough away from it to glamorise living in the city. I studied up to an MLitt in Modernities (essentially modernism and postmodenism), with a focus on William Carlos Williams. I have A LOT of personal projects on the go in my spare time, and write a lot. I’m drawn to writing with observations about the everyday, and to finding the small, subtle, interesting notes in everyday life. As a result I pick up a lot of bits of paper I find on the ground incase anything interesting is written on them. There are some weird shopping lists out there. I find a lot of trash on the street aesthetically pleasing. I like to people watch. I’ve always been better able to connect with writing that focuses on the modern, the grubby, and all that is accessible about cities – I think because classics, or references to flora, weren’t really part of my education. I’m interested in experimentation with form, of making the most with a little, or utilising material in unusual ways. This can often be seen in my poetry newsletter, Lunchtime Poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

WADDELL

Writing is absolutely my first love. Before I could write, I would dictate stories to adults around me who’d write them down. I found a little red notebook containing some of these, and there was one about an octopus tap dancing on a table. In recent years I’ve written articles (politics, opinion), short fiction, and book review, and built up a portfolio of published pieces (the Independent, Sunday Mail, 3am magazine, Review 31, Glasgow Review of Books, The List, a couple of book contributions coming this year such as Nasty Women (404 Ink), others). I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been utterly consumed by the need to write, and times when I’ve felt too dispirited to pick up a pen – like most writers, and people in other disciplines, I imagine. By extension, I’m very invested in reading and the business of publishing, and finding new ways to find and communicate what’s out there.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

WADDELL

Writer-wise, I love William Carlos Williams as mentioned, for finding joy and meaning in the ways that I like, and Eimear McBride for the transcendent feeling of reading her use of language, connecting with her books in a rare and deep way, because the words in their broken-down fragmentary form go right in whole. I’m inspired by writers who have depicted places and people I’m familiar with and who are also masters of style and story, like James Kelman and Janice Galloway. I think Lara Williams is one of the most talented and exciting young writers around today and can’t wait to follow her work as it progresses. I like bell hooks and Rebecca Solnit. There are a lot of women leaders in business, politics, arts and media I look up to, as well as women who are just beginning their careers and taking on, tenatiously, areas that are still unbalanced playing fields in terms of gender. I’m also very inspired by the energy of friends who are also writers, publishers, or artists from other disciplines such as music, performance and theatre.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

WADDELL

I had a teacher in primary school called Mrs Shields, who taught our small class to always look up when walking around a city, for that’s where surprises and beauty in architecture can be found. I had a history teacher in high school called Mr Jenkins, who encouraged my love of learning and told us fascinating stories. As an only child (until I was 11) I spent a lot of time with adults.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve worked extensively in the literary and publishing industry – what do you think are some of the key challenges facing the industry at this point in time?

WADDELL

It’s not always an easy industry, and nobody joins it to make a fortune, but the upside of that is that it’s often a workforce of people who are very passionate about what they do. I’m glad to hear more talk about diversity in publishing, not only in terms of gender but in race, and I think it’s a problem that stems from the makeup of the publishing workforce itself, which may not always be able to imagine why anyone would find writing interesting when it comes from a background that is not white and middle class or upper class. A lot of stories have never been told, and I want to read them, and I believe there’s an appetite for them. Other than that, when it comes to trade, there are all kinds of issues around discounting – when authors make little money (and this is decreasing), it’s rarely because publishers are rolling in money themselves (although contacts should always be as fair as possible), but because of squeeze at the other end. I hear a lot about the FUTURE and TECH and whilst it’s essential to find new ways of publishing in an era where the media landscape is rapidly changing and digitising, there’s an awful lot of vague noise full of internet-related words that sounds like change for the sake of change instead of looking at better ways to simply publish what people will want to read and make them aware it exists.

INTERVIEWER

What power do you think writing, literature – and art in general – has in supporting and encouraging aspiring artists from marginalised communities?

WADDELL

For me, as a working class kid in an area of poor resources and endangered libraries, what literature I could get my hands on was very special to me. Access to art, both creating and consuming, broadens options in life, as well as empathy and self-expression, and it shouldn’t be the preserve of the rich. Art is about communicating, and what is communicated forms the landscape we live in – what we can expect or demand from our politics, the perspectives we read, the stories that are told and on the record throughout history. Scottish PEN are working on a project now called Many Voices, which sees writers hold writing workshops with groups of people whose stories often aren’t told in their own words – young offenders, refugees, and others. I’m suspicious of any politician who says working class people (or other groups) need only simple things in life. No, I want more. And I’m suspicious of anyone within these groups who says the same thing. Both are ways to control and restrict, to peg people into small, stereotypical boxes. And as a reader, I want writing that is the most innovative and beautiful, I want more of it, and I don’t believe that comes from any one demographic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as a writer?

WADDELL

Not in a way that is separate from the ethical responsibilities I feel as a human being. When I write articles, occasionally I want to highlight a cause or examine a prejudice. When I write fiction, I write whatever comes out, but it will naturally reflect my beliefs, and I am very interested in class and gender. 8. Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write? Not particularly. Perhaps myself, a little younger.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began your career in the publishing industry?

WADDELL

I was very fortunate to get a paid internship assisting a writer (Sara Sheridan) facilitated by the wonderful Adopt an Intern. I stayed on, and it was a wonderful and generous experience, where I learned a lot about marketing and PR, the media, the needs of a writer and how to work with them. I’m now a Publishing Manager with my own list of titles. Paid internships are important. They make it easier for a wider range of people to enter the industry. As I believe diversification of the industry is an important part of diversifying the books we publish, and that is key for staying relevant and commercially viable in the present day, publishing as an industry should be paying people for the work that they do at this early stage, for their own good.

INTERVIEWER

What advice can you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway? To anyone who is interested in getting into publishing, I strongly urge you to: A) read as widely as possible. Having an understanding of the terrain is important.

B) Stay aware of industry news, such as the free bookseller.com newsletter digest.

C) Network, network, network. Opportunities arise this way. Twitter is a fantastic way to follow people who work in publishing and see what they’re up to. Go to book launches.

D) Be kind to everyone. I’ve always remembered who was welcoming to me when I was young and shy and feeling out of place at the very beginning of my career. Publishing generally is a supportive and jolly industry, and we’re mostly all in it together for the love of books.

E) Develop hard skills. Nobody is impressed that you’ve used social media – talk about copywriting skills, data analysis, project management. Learn Excel!

F) Look after yourself. Life/work balance is hard when you love what you do, but you need rest and time to let your mind wander.

INTERVIEWER

What, in your opinion, makes a “good” book?

WADDELL

I don’t think there’s one good answer to this. Some books I like are very different from each other. I think a good book is one a reader loves, and readers have very different desires. I review books, and when I review I am looking for some basic requirements – depth, structure, eloquence. But the books I’ve loved the most almost always split between 1 and 5 star reviews on commercial sites.

INTERVIEWER

If you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?

WADDELL

I really don’t think I could do that in brief, here, sorry! Here’s just one I found directly instructive – Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. I snuck it into a book cover once.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

WADDELL

I’ve been really thrilled to see the success of 404 Ink, publishers of Nasty Women, an anthology of writing by women that has captured the zeitgeist of women-led protest and initiatives to raise each other up. I’m honoured to be a contributing writer. The crowdfunder was 369% funded and backed by Margaret Atwood. Another example of small indie publishers going out to publish what they really believe in are Own It!. Both these publishers have talked of publishing what they’ve heard other people dismiss, but they’ve known there is a commercial and cultural appetite for, and that often means diversity. As I’ve said above, I think diversification is the key to publishing’s continuing relevance and success.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

WADDELL

I’m currently guest editing an issue of The Drouth magazine and enjoying commissioning writers for it. Other than Nasty Women, I have an essay in another book coming out in 2017 about literary criticism in the digital era, and a piece in the first issue of brand new magazine Marbles, which has a focus on mental health. I’m continuing to write fiction, articles, and review. I want to see more writing from Scotland translated, more international relationships developed between Scottish artists and artists of other countries, and more investment in smart, commercially sustainable publishing – but that’s a very long term goal!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

WADDELL

Varieties of female moths lack wings.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

WADDELL

To young writers, keep going. Try not to lose or flatten your early or original style (I’ve never written as easily as I did when I was a kid), but take criticism on board. Do not be dissuaded by rejections – everyone gets loads. I was rejected by a magazine I later went on to be an assisting editor on. Build a portfolio. Pitch. Put yourself out there. But be respectful and follow guidelines when submitting. Read the worst reviews of writers you adore, and bear them in mind when you read reviews of your own work. Find what’s at your core that you have to express.

Reason in an age of terror: vital reading from Albert Camus

2fd2c35f036899931a4c58740fa90710

Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

As I write this, I am being told by an incessant stream of news and media outlets that I am living in a city and a world in which an astonishing number of my fellow human beings are trying to kill me.

This is not true.

One cannot see the modern world as it is unless we are able to lift the veil of hyper-sensationalist media coverage, which increasingly fictionalises reality.

The overall average likelihood of dying in any kind of terrorist attack worldwide is 1 in 9,300,000 (9.3 million).

You are 14 times more likely to die in your bathtub than in a terrorist attack, 11 times more likely to die by slipping during a shower, 16 times by lightning, 517 times more likely to be murdered (there is on average one murder every 60 seconds worldwide), 991 times by self-injury, 500 times in a car accident (3,000 people die every day in road accidents worldwide), 450 times by falling, 118 times by accidental drowning, 41 times in natural disasters (earthquake, flood etc.), 25 times by choking on food, 13 times by a dog bite, 4 times by falling off a ladder, 1.8 million times by a heart disease, 1860 times by electrocution, 93 times by bee sting, and 3 times more likely to die by a snake bite or food poisoning. (Source)

There are, of course, acts of terror committed by individuals across the world in which innocent people are killed. 2017 was ushered in with a shooting at a nightclub in Istanbul; and has since seen car bombs kill civilians in Mogadishu and Kabul, a shooting in Belfast, and – this week – a rogue vehicle and knife attack  in London. These events are, undeniably, terrible. Yet they remain incredibly rare. Of 162 terrorist attacks worldwide in January this year, only 14 caused more than ten deaths – and these all took place in countries suffering extreme political unrest, including war-torn Syria. The fact remains that the chances of being caught up in such an attack in any Western country remains almost infinitesimally small.

Yet our 24-hour news culture would have us believe that those around us would sooner seek to attack, injure or kill us than help us; and this helps perpetuate the fear of terrorism. See for example, the extremely emotive and theatrical language used in the Daily Mail’s front page story that claims “Jihadis” can find instructions on how to implement a rogue vehicle terrorist attack using Google in less than two minutes.  Such lack of consideration for either facts or for the language with which outlets report the news reinforces the idea that we live in a manufactured and artificial world, where it is difficult to attain a semblance of actuality or reality – and nigh impossible to separate fact from fiction.

This hysterical response also helps spread the ideas that terrorism requires in order to have any meaningful impact. It distorts reality by not providing the full context of attacks, nor considering the wider-influences of them. We are limited only to the immediate background and ideology of attackers, and perhaps some consideration may be given to their state of mental health. But we are not reminded of the sources of different strains of terrorism: British Imperialism in Ireland; Globalisation; the fall of European empires; war in the pursuit of oil; the deals made shortly after the second world war between leaders of the Western world and neo-conservative leaders in Islamic states to consolidate power in the hands of followers of Wahhabism and other extreme forms of Islam.

Without the benefit of context, our world becomes that much more terrifying.

This is because human beings are, and will continue to be, ultimately rational creatures who look to make decisions based on reasoned logic. We are tool makers and problem solvers; yet our brains can only process the information they are given – and it is this information that is increasingly distorted, so that we are only ever presented with a world that is bleak and terrible and awful; and this in turn leads us to fear those around us, which itself leads to more anger and suffering.

Because we are rational, it is vital we remember we live in a world of contradictions; one that is both beautiful and good, and one that can be ugly and evil.

Few authors have written on this with as much clarity or astute insight as Albert Camus.

Writing in the mid-1940s, a time in so many ways as bleak – if not more so – as our current climate of shootings, catastrophic climate breakdown, unacceptable wealth inequality, and globalised conflict, Camus’ magnificent essay ‘The Almond Trees’, calls on us to remember what it is to be human.

We’ve picked out a few choice extracts below:

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.

Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. “Tragedy,” [D.H.] Lawrence said, “ought to be a great kick at misery.” This is a healthy and immediately applicable thought. There are many things today deserving such a kick.”

How should we deliver such a kick to our propensity to fall into thoughts of misery and tragedy? Camus argues it requires us to cultivate our minds, and recall our propensity for rationality of thought. He explains, “We will not win our happiness with symbols.  We’ll need something more soild.”

Continuing with this train of thought, he adds:

“If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder. Our world is poisoned by its misery, and seems to wallow in it. It has utterly surrendered to that evil which Nietzsche called the spirit of heaviness. Let us not add to this. It is futile to weep over the mind, it is enough to labor for it.

But where are the conquering virtues of the mind? The same Nietzsche listed them as mortal enemies to heaviness of the spirit. For him, they are strength of character, taste, the “world,” classical happiness, severe pride, the cold frugality of the wise. More than ever, these virtues are necessary today, and each of us can choose the one that suits him best. Before the vastness of the undertaking, let no one forget strength of character. I don’t mean the theatrical kind on political platforms, complete with frowns and threatening gestures. But the kind that through the virtue of its purity and its sap, stands up to all the winds that blow in from the sea. Such is the strength of character that in the winter of the world will prepare the fruit.”

As writers, creatives, and free-thinking individuals, it is vital we use our ability to articulate reasoned thought and ideas into responsible arguments and theses. We must not be caught up in the traps of misery and despair so many media outlets create for us. As Camus notes, this requires a great strength of character – even “superhuman” effort – but this doesn’t make it any less necessary or vital today.

Read Camus’ full essay online.

“You had me at ‘haiku’” – why so many people wrote haikus for the NHS

its-our-nhs-demo-300x222edited

When we first launched our inaugural poetry project, ‘Haikus for the NHS’, we couldn’t have predicted the incredible response we received. With over 200 haiku submissions from poets and writers across the world, the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook were, quite simply, blown away by the support and eagerness of fellow creatives to get involved.

Our competition winner, John Blackmore, spoke movingly about how he “found the poetry project and felt literally moved to write.”

So what exactly was it that moved so many people to contribute their haikus in support of this project?

We spoke to dozens of those poets who made our short-and long-lists (read their haikus online here) to find out. Their responses are published here below:

Shortlisted poet Sarah Purvis was moved by the power of protest poetry to inspire others to action:

“I chose to submit a haiku to be used to support this campaign because I believe that effective protest poetry is a powerful way to ignite emotion and create a lasting imprint on the human conscience. I believe that our NHS is invaluable and have witnessed first hand the dedication, passion and kindness that NHS staff innately possess, through various hospital stays and care provided for myself and my family. Our NHS reflects the values of our society as it supports inclusion and compassion. The conservative government continues to eradicate all that is ‘human’ in society, casting an impersonal blanket of privatisation, which continues to suffocate our NHS. I wanted to show my support for the NHS in a very human, subjective way; a way in which we can all freely express the essence of important issues – through creativity.”

Many poets, including Katie Bell, Joan Barker and Charlie Rowland, spoke about their personal experiences of using the UK’s National Health Service and the importance for all of us to support it through any means necessary.

“I entered the Haikus for the NHS poetry project mainly due to the fact I rely heavily on the NHS – I have marfan syndrome and scoliosis, which meant I had to undergo numerous cases of major surgery. Without the NHS’ support, I would’ve been unable to afford the surgery. It really shocks me how the system is failing, and I hope the haikus everyone submitted help the NHS start to try their best to reform and survive.” – Katie Bell

“I recently started taking part in a Monthly Creative Writing Competition being run by my mobile phone provider.

I would see the title of that month’s competition and within a few days my work was thought out, sketched out, fleshed out and then finally sent out with a sense of achievement (and not a little excitement that it might win).

Then my husband was diagnosed with cancer and my time and energy was focused on him and our interaction with the NHS.

I found that the choice of topics for the competition no longer inspired me and I stopped submitting an entry.

It  was with a wonderful sense of irony therefore that, when I found out about your competition I was immediately enthused and the words came without any effort.

The end result succinctly summed up what I feel about the people who are looking after my husband and the knowledge that we are all responsible for keeping them safe; not just physically but as part of an essential organisation.

Is there a point to “Poetry as Protest”?

Poems themselves may not cause change to happen but their creation may encourage others to action.

They can also alert those who are part of the change-making process that people are aware of what is going on. They can never say that didn’t know how people felt and that they did what they did because no one cared.

I would say that anything that can affect others on an emotional level has to make a difference.” – Joan Barker

“I wanted to submit to this particular project, probably for the same reason that a lot of people strongly about the NHS.

They have helped my family countless times without ever wanting thanks. They provided palliative care for my Grandma in her final days; they nursed my son back to health when he had pneumonia. My mum was also a Nurse when I was young, so the NHS was part of our household income.

Let’s not forget the families on the other side of the care workers lives who rely on the NHS for their income. Funding cuts will dramatically effect their financial security and cause stress and worry. We have a right to say we’re not happy about the Government’s decisions especially as it effects millions of people lives.” – Charlie Rowland.

For others, such as Karen Rodgers, Robert Holtom and Sean Smith, the NHS is a vital part of society, and hugely symbolic of the power of political ideals that have been systematically attacked and undermined by the incumbent Conservative Government. And, as such, they felt moved to use any form of resistance – including poetry – to protest these devastating and ideological tory policies to help save the NHS.

“I entered the NHS Haiku competition because I feel strongly about how important the health service is to the community. I think good health can be taken for granted, sometimes, but when you’re sick the health service is there to help and support people and their families, hopefully, back to good health. Being sick is stressful enough, without the worry of financial issues. Doctors and nurses should be celebrated for their caring and professional manners. Writing expresses feelings and thoughts, and is such a powerful tool.” – Karen Rodgers

“Hundreds of nurses with patients on beds flooded the stadium, a giant Queen of Hearts was there and lots of Mary Poppins flying about by umbrella. As the dance unfolded the beds were pushed together and lights were lit to spell the ‘NHS’ – it was epic. That was part of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and I can still picture it now. Given the government was already imposing austerity and cutting our public health services it was also a moment of beautiful protest. The NHS is testimony to what can be achieved when people come together to improve all the nation’s health and well-being. And it must be free at the point of delivery to ensure it transcends our abysmal class system and the inequality it creates. We can’t give up on the NHS and whether it’s a display of Olympian proportions or the three lines of a Haiku we must keep celebrating and defending it.” – Robert Holtom

“I live in Ireland but was born in Manchester so experienced the NHS at first hand in 1962. My Mum also worked as a nurse so had a direct input into the NHS at the time. I believe the NHS to be one of the most important progressive pieces of social legislation in the twentieth century. The thought that governments in Westminster have spent the last twenty or so years trying to dismantle the NHS is extremely worrying. Having experienced the Irish health system, I know that allowing a small sector of business people to turn public health into profit is a recipe for disaster and will have a direct negative effect on the most vulnerable people in society. If poetry can be used to bring attention, consideration and protest to this impending debacle then it serves a very worthwhile purpose. Long live the NHS!” – Sean Smith

31494960884_4e7f403137_o-1-1024x628

Photo credit: Ed Lederman/PEN America

And other creative comrades were inspired by the power of poetry – and the arts in general – to facilitate change and serve as tools of protest:

“I work for a charity with strong links to healthcare and am very angry about the number of privatised services in my city – it’s happening very much under the radar and it’s frontline services- those which should be responsive to patients not beholden to shareholders. I also love poetry and a challenge – a triple whammy- although to be honest, you had me at ‘haiku’!” – Andrea Mbarushimana

“I believe the arts in general are a powerful protest tool, whether that be through film, theatre, photography, painting, prose or poetry. I think the way NITRB is planning to disseminate the poetry is an effective way to show our support for the NHS and make various salient points to the government. (Some would even make great placards.) I have always been passionate about the NHS, it is our civil right to have a fully effective and free health service regardless of income. It is perhaps the greatest institution to have ever been introduced to Britain not just for the health benefits, but for social equality, too.” – David Milligan-Croft

“I always believe in the power of poetry, and to me good poetry is like a national healthcare service that should be available to all. Ah, a person without healthcare is like a poet without a poem.” – Ernesto P. Santiago

“As a young man growing up in Cardiff, I came upon a statue of Aneurin Bevan.  I remember feeling immensely proud that a welshman had come up with the idea of a socially inclusive and nationally supportive idea, that is the NHS.  At its inception in 1948, Bevan, the then Labour Health Minister, famously said; ‘The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the fate to fight for it ’ – That is precisely why I am compelled and proud to add my voice to this campaign.

A little over a year ago, I stumbled on a book of Haiku poetry, in a wonderful little bookshop in Bath.  I fell for this very poignant style of sketching out a thought or idea, in a naturally free and impulsive style.  Ever since, Haiku has provided me with the opportunity to take a creative time-out moment.  It allows for me to capture a feeling or moment in words, in much the same way a photograph can capture a visual image.

As we have seen, from the popular idea that the Haikus for the NHS project has presented; a few carefully chosen words, committed to a single idea, can have a profoundly powerful and emotional impact. Words can and do make a difference.” – Michael Gerard

protestpoetry500x500-twt

And we also heard stories from Maureen Miller and Courtney Lesa Minto that provided us with two international perspectives on how both the NHS, and the idea of using haiku as a medium of creative protest, literally transcended international and geographical borders, spanning oceans and cultures:

“Like most Yanks, I was introduced to the National Health by a Beatles lyric. Not that pop lyrics are poetry, but they help you to understand when you’re being stopped from doing everything you can. My workplace, one of the largest government hospitals in the US, pops songs without lyrics in the halls between the new and old buildings at all hours. Lost patients and doctors walk it dazed and out of step, their back-and-forths through the additions fighting death Muzak from above. It’s poetic, by which I mean tragic, romantic and tragic, maybe recognizable. That’s the vibe I got from British junior doctors in the London Review of Books, anyway, and they have a bang-up poetry section, plus their payroll gave this editor I know insurance for eyeglasses he couldn’t get here. My brother, paraphrasing Shelley, once made fun of people who need poetry to protest by saying his eighth grade English students were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He meant that children already knew what Shelley meant without having read him. The same is true of doctors who see everyday with those specs that universal health care works. If saving the NHS requires a schoolchildren’s scrum, so be it. Get in it. The people in charge need to be knocked into some sense from the adults in the room.” – Maureen Miller

“I may not be a UK resident, however across the 16,000 kilometres between us, I stand with the poetry for protest movement and I stand with the National Health Service.

Upon learning of the ‘Winter Crisis’ and the planned March movement, paired with [Nothing in the Rulebook’s] planned poetry for protest distribution, both the movement and the heart of the NHS captivated my support.

To protest with such a loud silence… to give the most silent and meditative form of poetry the power to communicate volumes to the hearts and ears of a crowd… it leaves one beyond words.

I think that the way people protest says a lot about who they are protesting for, and so I felt compelled to write and submit my haiku on behalf of the hearts across the world who stand with the NHS.

I may be only one seventeen year old Australian girl, however I stand proudly for the hearts outside of UK borders who have been touched in some way or another, be it family members or friends or simply admiration, by the health of the NHS.

The National Health Service and all of the life saving doctors and nurses and all in between who have suffered from funding cuts and staff salary reductions, have international support.

I stand and write, beyond her borders, in support for the NHS.” – Courtney Lesa Minto, Australia

What so many of these moving and inspiring comments prove is poetry’s ability to produce a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

 

Faking Lit: A serious podcast about books

DTl-q3iB

Faking Lit is a new podcast in which five rising comedians (Chin Tee, Daniel Offen, Haran X, Alice Burden and Josh Bellman) get together to discuss the finest works of classic literature, the twist being that none of them have actually read the book.

The podcast has been started primarily as an excuse to eat various pies, which are lovingly produced each week by Alice. Ideas about growing the profiles of five talented young comedians are very much secondary to this objective.

“In essence, we’re five comedians who met at the Edinburgh festival (where most of us took successful shows) and we’re incapable of hanging out without the excuse of some sort of content to produce. We hope that Faking Lit will become a roaring success, not only for the good of our careers, but also our social lives,” Offen explains.

The opening episode features Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel “The Alchemist”. Talk of the book somehow leads to discussion of which is the best House Robot on “Robot Wars”, the underlying racial themes in the movie “Predator” and that this book isn’t all that forthcoming on how to actually turn base metals into gold. Also, somehow along with all of this, the episode features a fair amount of discussion of classical literature and is occasionally insightful as well as nonsensical.

You can listen to the podcast here below:

The podcast will be released weekly, from now until the end of time.

Creatives in Profile: Interview with John Blackmore

 

john-blackmore

We’re absolutely thrilled to introduce a special Creatives in Profile interview – with the winner of our inaugural poetry competition, ‘Haikus for the NHS‘.

The project was launched early in 2017 to use the power of poetry as protest – specifically, the power of haikus as protest – in support of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).

Somerset-based poet and musician John Blackmore was announced as the winner of our competition ahead of the national demonstration to support the NHS on Saturday 4 March.

Blackmore’s poem was chosen from a shortlist of haikus by the poets Eva Reed, Juliet Staveley and Sarah Purvis. You can read his haiku, along with those that made our short- and long-lists online.

A semi-finalist in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk award, and contributor to a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the Victorian Dorset Dialect poet William Barnes, Blackmore is part of the Poetry Society’s ‘Young Poets Network’.

It is an honour to present this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

First things first, many congratulations again on winning our ‘Haikus for the NHS’ prize. Could you tell us a little about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle?

BLACKMORE

Thank you very much! Gosh…I don’t know what to say…

I’m 25 years old, and live and work in rural Somerset, which is where I grew up. After university, I returned home to train to teach. I’ve been teaching English in secondary schools for four years and I’m currently head of the departments of English and Drama at the school I attended as a student…if you had told me that ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you!

When I’m not marking, I love singing and playing guitar. I’ve only recently started turning my hand to poetry, but have written songs for years. I was lucky enough to be a semi-finalist for the BBC Young Folk Award in 2011.

My rural upbringing and surroundings are a huge part of who I am; I’m not at home in a city and I don’t think I’ll ever seek to be part of the homogenous masses commuting for a 9-5 job in the metropolis. I don’t know yet whether that makes me strong-minded or foolish! I suppose I strike a pensive, solitary figure living and working in a community which most young people leave, and yes, it can be lonely, but I don’t think I’d be happier anywhere else, and it is a great place from which to write.

INTERVIEWER

What drew you to our poetry project and inspired you to get involved?

BLACKMORE

A couple of things really.

A number of my family members have worked as nurses, including my mum, but I never really had need for a hospital until last summer. In July, just before the summer holiday, I broke my finger during sports day at school. Over the following weeks, I had consultations and x-rays and physio appointments, and despite the discomfort and the inability to drive or play guitar, I found the hospital a fascinating place—like school, really: all life can be found there, a myriad of stories, and the determination of staff to do their best for all in a stressful, challenging environment really caught my attention.

More recently, just before Christmas, I was diagnosed with something more worrying and underwent CAT scans and surgery. It was while I was recovering at home, off work, that I found the poetry project and felt literally moved to write. Even when the NHS is not attacked by politicians and the media, we take healthcare so much for granted. It is not until we are put in a position of personal vulnerability or frailty that we finally take notice and value what we have.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry and writing – your first love, or do you have another passion?

BLACKMORE

Poetry snuck up on me at primary school. I liked being able to express myself in rhyme—I think all children do—and playing with words. I didn’t enjoy school until my year-two teacher gave me confidence in my writing. For my seventh birthday, my parents bought me the “Children’s Illustrated Book of Verse”, and from then I was hooked! While I have enjoyed writing songs and analysing poems since then, it’s taken me years, decades, to find my own poetic voice. I’m certainly still developing as a writer.

I suppose my other passion would be education. I’m the bossy eldest brother (or so they tell me) to four younger siblings, so I’ve grown up imparting knowledge, sharing ideas and helping others develop skills and confidence. Becoming a teacher was a natural step, and was no great surprise to my friends and family. Helping ignite passion and curiosity within someone else is incredibly powerful, rewarding and addictive.

INTERVIEWER

Who (and what) inspires you?

BLACKMORE

Studying literature at university and now teaching English at a secondary school has given me a fair share of literary heroes. I think place and identity are particularly important to me, perhaps due in part to my Irish, English and Welsh roots, so poets who have captured a landscape or a group of people have often gained my attention. I gravitate to the likes of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Clare, but also the insecurity of Victorians like William Barnes, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins and Tennyson. Twentieth Century poets like Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have also captivated me, as have those that I’ve gained a new appreciation for through teaching, like Imtiaz Dharker, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage.

On a day to day basis, though, it’s often the little things that inspire me to write poetry: a funny turn of phrase I’ve overheard, a half-caught smile, an interesting scene that plays out before my eyes. A lot comes down to personal experience, too, and my interactions with people and places. My song-writing draws more on the landscapes of my native west country which I suppose comes from my folk music background.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, poetry is for?  And what do you make of ‘poetry as protest’?

BLACKMORE

I think poetry at its heart is a form of communication. While you can be motivated to write an opinion piece or a novel, though, I think you must be moved to write poetry. The transmission of thoughts and emotion in often stringent poetic forms excites me as a reader and writer; distilling words and meanings in such a way that they retain personal resonance, but can still be interpreted in a myriad of ways, is both incredibly cathartic and empowering. It also inspires great empathy and consolation, too.

As a document of a time, place, person, a collective or individual feeling, then, poetry remains unrivalled. It is a medium that demands intimate reflection, forcing a deeply personal response from its readers, and so is a powerful vehicle for social change. To this end, all poetry is protest.

INTERVIEWER

‘Haikus for the NHS’ was primarily launched to support the UK’s National Health Service as it faces one of its greatest crises in decades. How important do you think institutions like the NHS are for our society?

BLACKMORE

I think institutions like the NHS are the corner stone of our society. You can’t wish for more in life than health and happiness, so offering a system of welfare for all, from cradle to grave, was an astonishing achievement born out of the horrors of war and widespread poverty. It is remarkable. Sadly, the foresight of our forefathers has been betrayed by the short-term thinking of successive governments. The sooner health—and education for that matter—are elevated from their current position as political footballs, the better.

INTERVIEWER

On the topic of what is important for society – what role do you think poetry has to play in the UK today?

BLACKMORE

Good question. I think poetry is frequently considered an unconscious voice. In our modern world of sensationalism, fake news and Facebook likes, the most read literature forms—journalism and fiction— must be “in your face”, almost militant and explicit in terms of meaning, which weakens the message it communicates and its quality.

Poetry must be the refuge of self-reflection, the point of quiet questioning, that nagging conscience that remains a touchstone of what really matters in life. It is a form that is underestimated, doubted, but remains ever-faithful: like riding a bicycle, people neglect poetry for years and years, but, at key moments in life: weddings – funerals – birthdays – it is poetry that people turn to for expression that is testament to memory, experience and meaning. If you ask children on the spot whether they like poetry, they look at you as though you’ve asked them whether they like going to the dentist. Nevertheless, with a little help and encouragement, I would say almost every child, and every person, can read a poem and take away meaning, some personal reference or wider understanding. Poetry is, and remains, integral to what it means to be human; it is vital that it continues to be so.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? Could you tell us a little about any future projects you’re working on?

BLACKMORE

I wish I knew! I go through phases of investing time and energy into each of my interests: music, poetry, teaching. I’m just finishing my Master’s degree in Education and I’m looking forward to recording a CD in the coming months, thanks to the William Barnes Society in Dorset. I’m also continuing to write and pursue publication online and in print…when I’m not in the classroom!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

BLACKMORE

He listened, smiling, remembering once more.

 

Make sure you check out Blackmore’s music on soundcloud and award-winning poetry online. And, to see his haikus for the NHS in action, watch the video below!

 

Haikus for the NHS: watch the video

IMG_2025.jpg

On Saturday, 4 March 2017, the team at Nothing in the Rulebook joined almost 250,000 protesters at the demonstration in support of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) in London.

This was a crucial part of the final end-game of our  ‘Haikus for the NHS‘ poetry project, which sought to build on the long-standing tradition of poetry as protest to support the NHS.

You can watch the short film detailing our experience of the day below.

You can also read the winning haiku, along with short- and long-listed entries online. 

Haikus for the NHS: read the poems here!

its-our-nhs-demo-300x222edited

When the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook first launched our ‘Haikus for the NHS‘ poetry project at the turn of the year, we did so with a simple aim: to show our support, through art and creativity, for one of the UK’s most treasured institutions: the National Health Service.

Quite simply, we have been blown away by the incredible response to our project. While we have now announced the winners, we wanted to share with you the haikus we received that made our short- and long-lists.

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence,” claimed the brilliant poet and political activist Audre Lourde. In these challenging times, we need poetry more than ever before.

This is because poetry is far more than grammar and syntax – the terms and measurements that help us identify and discuss language scientifically. It is more than copy on a page. It is rhythm; it is sensations; it is incantation. And, through this, poetry becomes meaning. It becomes truth.

Poetry’s essence, therefore, produces a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

The poems we have published here – and which we will distribute among the thousands of demonstrators marching on London on 4 March – capture this essential essence of poetry and move us through a range of powerful emotions, all while leaving us with the essentially common strain of thought: that we must fight and do what we can to protect the UK’s National Health Service.

At times, personal, moving, funny, abrupt, stark, visceral and filled with a vehement passion and anger against the incumbent Conservative Government, these poems stood out for us among over 200 submissions as capturing the essential essence of all that is good about the NHS, while also using poetry – specifically, haiku – as protest.

To all those who submitted: thank you. And to those reading now, we hope you enjoy reading these fantastic haikus as much as we did.

The winning haiku

john-blackmore-haiku

Here, for those past help, the best of humanity, banishes all fear – John Blackmore

Our shortlisted poems

Juliet Stavely haiku.png

Aneurin Bevan, had a beautiful ideal, stop shitting on it – Juliet Staveley

eva-reed-haiku

Crisis is defined, by all we are losing, save our NHS – Eva Reed

Sarah Purvis haiku.png

A nurse with tired eyes, her golden heart is breaking, beneath her disguise – Sarah Purvis

Selected poems from our longlist are below:

Tories underfund
Our welfare, schools and councils.
At least we have our-

– Daniel Louden

“The Hippocratic oath,
We’ve signed, you haven’t.
Hypocrites”

– Emma Gowen, Suffolk UK

health care . . .
riddled with holes
the open sky

-Ernesto P. Santiago

“We are a first world!”
We cry – unknown is the fact
That we will soon die.

– Katie Bell

slash-and-burn farming—                                                                                                                 one more NHS service                                                                                                                     reduced to its cost

-Shrikaanth krishnamurthy, Birmingham UK

My life, again; mine

and untold others, living,

made livable. Thanks.

-Sarah Peploe

Picks you up when all is lost

The NHS, it breathes life…

back into despair

They come through for us

Doctors and Nurses are there

Be there for them, Now!

Tell the children why

You can’t afford their care fees

Bet you can’t do it

– Charlie Rowland

Cut, try to stem a

haemorrhaging system, a

self-inflicted wound.

A tick of the pen

budget slashed to nothing.

No nurse to heal us.

Injured? Take a seat

a small plastic one over there.

Lords sit on velvet.

– Sean Smith

I can’t stop coughing
Unnecessary death sucks
Free health care is cool

– Kaela Starkman

nurses help,
doctors heal patients,
amplify life.

– Karen Rodgers

What is as good as

dead as preventable deaths

the NHS saved?

NATO allies throw

bombs with their talk of markets.

Wrap yourselves in white.

– Maureen Miller, USA

We came in crying

And stay amongst the dying

Care is more than words

Come one and come all

See the power of profit

Stealing from us all

– Joshua Deslatte

No beat of the heart

His on the Surgeons table

Save our NHS

– Louise Burgess

Professional medics

Determined to provide us

Care when we need it.

– Morna Sullivan

We lie ill in beds

They come and make us better

We should care for them

– Joan Barker

They want defunding,

Then complain the NHS

Is under-resourced

I’ve estimated

That without the NHS

I’d have died twelve times

I needn’t cook meth

To pay for cancer treatment

Thanks to free healthcare

Fuck every Tory

Who thinks that dying people

Owe them anything

– Hannah Froggatt

Unsung heroes dedicate their lives

to save us in our desperate hours.

Now we save them.

– Jess Burman

You can only cut

Something so much before it

Slowly bleeds to death.

-David Milligan-Croft.

What does it cost you

To forget the sick and dying?

How much for a life?

Decision makers

Acting in self interest

Will not heal the poor

– Andrea Mbarushimana

Beds and meds, they said,

Free to rich and poor alike

Don’t ruin that now.

– Juliet Staveley

Live without fetters:

Shoulder health and happiness

From cradle to grave

The day our children

Second guess their pains for fear

Of cost, all is lost

– John Blackmore

From the Blitz it grew,

They said it would be bomb proof.

We will be the shield.

All the blue Tories

Profiteering wantonly,

We’ll show the fuckers!

– Robert Holtom

Why our tempers fray?

Missus May, your trolley waits

and botched service rates

She has turned back time:

the dark days of the 90’s

where people die young

– Freya Scott Broomfield

For our NHS

Humanity that binds us

It cannot be lost

Quietly you sell

Our rights, in parts, Theresa

Know that we see you

Cold hard cash, money

Its so little to pay for

Lives, humanity

– Eva Reed

The dream of caring

Was gone in seventy years.

Leaves fall; the sun sets.

– Melody Clarke

they want to privatise

So they deprive the barely alive

Keep Britians pride alive

– Alina Ahmad

Death, disease

Hardship, pain

This is not a third world country

It’s 2017, in the UK

– Michael Gerard

To have forgotten

What it’s like to sleep soundly.

Poor Prime Minister.

– Shane Young

To cut health funding

you save little, and you lose

a nation of lives.

Her hand may subtract

health from the nation, but we;

the world! will stop her.

Hearts worldwide will stand

and join hands in waiting rooms

for the NHS.

– Courtney Lisa Minto, Australia

‘Haikus for the NHS’: NITRB announces winners

its-our-nhs-demo-300x222edited

Somerset-based poet and musician John Blackmore has been announced as the winner of Nothing in the Rulebook‘s inaugural poetry competition, ‘Haikus for the NHS‘.

The project was launched early in 2017 to use the power of poetry as protest – specifically, the power of haikus as protest – in support of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).

Blackmore’s poem was chosen from a shortlist of haikus by the poets Eva Reed, Juliet Staveley and Sarah Purvis. These haikus will be printed and distributed liberally during the national demonstration to support the NHS on Saturday 4 March.

“Against a backdrop of gross underfunding, continued cuts and closures of NHS services, and the increasing trend towards marketization and privatisation, the Conservative party are destroying one of the greatest achievements of working class people in Britain,” the founders of Nothing in the Rulebook said in a joint statement. “We are looking to use the power of poetry as protest to spread messages of support for the NHS and what it stands for.”

“We have been blown away by how popular our project proved – we received almost 200 haiku submissions, so many of which were of an incredibly high quality. We’d like to take the opportunity to thank each and every person who submitted haikus – especially those we received from international writers and poets. We had entries from Australia and the USA, with people getting in touch to say they want to lend a hand in whatever way possible to support an institution that is treasured not just in the UK but across the world,” they added.

“It demonstrates, really, both what makes the NHS so important; as well as the power of poetry as protest. It was fascinating to see how many haikus captured a powerful yet meditative sense of emotion that stays with you for days after reading what is, lest we forget, such a short-hand form of poetry.”

john-blackmore-haiku

John Blackmore’s winning haiku. Nothing in the Rulebook will also publish all winning and long-listed haikus online.

About John Blackmore

John Blackmore is a singer, songwriter, poet and English teacher based in Somerset. Much of his music (listen on Soundcloud) and writing draws on his experiences of, and interactions with, the people and places of his native west country. In 2011, John was a semi-finalist in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award and, in 2014, he contributed music and literary comment to a BBC Radio 4 documentary concerning the Victorian Dorset Dialect poet William Barnes. He is part of the Poetry Society’s ‘Young Poets Network’ (read his prize-winning poems here).

 

Lines with dots under them: exclamation points and how writers use them! (or don’t use them!)

Write-a-Novel-200-Classic-Mistakes.jpg

In one of his most memorable pieces of advice for writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald voiced his disdain for exclamation points, writing: “cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

This has become a (moderately) consensual belief in the writing, publishing and generally literary spheres. The British journalist and writer Miles Kingston, for instance, opined: “so far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.” Meanwhile, in his book How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, Howard Mittelmark writes: “In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it.”

But, of course, it is easy to advise one thing and practice another. So is it true that using exclamation marks is a sign of poor writing?

Not necessarily. In Ben Blatt’s new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, we are given fantastic, empirical data that proves you can use exclamation points and still go down in history as one of the greatest writers.

Consider the chart below, for example, which shows how many exclamation marks ten of the most revered literary legends used per 100,000 words of prose writing:

d4d081b28

You will see that James Joyce – that modernist, avant-garde author of Ulysses, and arguably one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century – tops the list at over 1000 exclamation points per 100,000 words. That’s an exclamation point roughly every 100 words.

Does this mean Joyce was simply laughing at his own jokes? One suspects not. In second place, we have Tom Wolfe – one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism literary movement and winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ awards. Writing only slightly fewer exclamation points per 100,000 words than Joyce, one finds that a liberal use of exclamation points is not an anomaly among the literary elite.

Even Elmore Leonard, who, in his book ‘10 Rules of Writing’ stated: “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose” ignored his own advice. In his career he wrote 40 novels, totalling 3.4 million words. If he had followed his own advice, he would have used only 102 exclamation points in his writing. As it happens, in the end he used 1651 – sixteen times as many as he recommended.

So, why is it that, despite the perceived literary consensus that exclamation points should be avoided, so many of the ‘greatest’ writers continue to use them so frequently in their prose?

In her now famous book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss, posits her own theory for this:

“As if by common consent, people turned to the ellipsis and the exclamation point. There must have been a reason for this. My theory is that both of these marks are ways of trying to keep the attention of the reader. One of them says, ‘Don’t go away, I haven’t finished, don’t go, don’t go,’ while the other says, ‘Listen! I’m talking to you!’”

Perhaps then, the use of exclamation points by writers – great and small – is a subconscious call for attention; an attempt to hold the attention of readers they fear they might lose without such punctuation use.

This line of logic doesn’t really provide an argument in favour of using the exclamation point. Indeed, it is difficult to find many writers willing to vocally challenge the assumption that it is best to avoid them.

Writer Tom Ewing explains there can be benefits of using what Jerry Seinfield memorably described simply as “a line with a dot under it”; however, he, too, urges caution: “(The) exclamation point becomes a way to disarm the reader and pierce their shell, a kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes,” he writes. “And that’s cool! But once you notice it, you get suspicious.”

It is perhaps worth noting at this point the origins of the exclamation point: being that they were originally called the “note of admiration.” They are still, to this day, used to express excitement. They are also used to express surprise, astonishment, or any other such strong emotion. Any exclamatory sentence can be properly followed by an exclamation mark, to add additional emphasis.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter; since it goes to the root of what makes exclamation points such attractive tools for writing, but which also carries their own limitations. They can easily add emphasis to your writing; however, by overusing them, it takes the power out of it. What are your readers supposed to be excited about if it’s everywhere? If everything is exciting then nothing is exciting, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps, then, it is best to aspire to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar – instead of relying on lines with dots under them.