Hannah Vincent: “The Downs Laid Out Under a Clear Autumn Sky”

Sea and DownsI walked from Brighton to Lewes recently, with a friend who is a textile artist – a maker of cushions in vintage fabrics and an embroiderer. The Downs were laid out under clear autumn sky (this was a couple of weekends ago – none of the recent mists), the land neatly stitched in shades of brown, blonde and green. During the week, if I have time, instead of a leisurely walk I bike the same path, taking a left turning at Woodingdean and bombing down the wonderful new cycle path to Falmer where I am teaching and studying for a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Sussex. This week I will deliver one of the Reading the South creative writing workshops in Eastbourne. I’m not quite up to hiking or biking the journey and part of living in the south means I choose not to own a car in our crowded corner of the country so I will catch the train along the coast. The train is a slow one, which suits me – I find being still and yet going somewhere makes for especially good writing conditions. At our workshop I plan to invite participants to consider where they have come from and where they might be travelling to. Hopefully, the exercises we do will provide a moment of stillness in which to contemplate our life journeys as well as ideas and techniques that will be helpful in articulating these journeys, giving them both spoken and written shape.

Hannah VincentHannah Vincent


Lunar Eclipse by Gary J. Oakes

Lunar Eclipse 2014-Reuters/Gene BlevinsIt was midnight again, the time of day Trevor hated the most. Since Val died, every single night he just could not get off to sleep yet if he got out of bed he felt so tired, his body ached but in bed he just lay there thinking: thinking of the past; thinking of Val; thinking of how empty and pointless his life was now. Generally Sunday wasn’t so bad as at least they played music he liked on Radio 2 until midnight when that awful woman came on!

Sometimes he would give up trying to get to sleep and go out into the road and walk about – it was better doing that at night as his neighbours were not out there then. None of them spoke to Trevor anymore as, when Val was ill, he had not been able to look after the garden and that made him public enemy number one in the little close of bungalows where he lived.

And so it was, at 3am that night he got dressed and went out into the road. To his amazement, he found that he was not alone as, standing in his garden in his dressing gown, was the young father at Number 28. Val used to talk to his wife, so she knew his name and referred to him as “Ginger Pete”.

Seeing Trevor, Ginger Pete spoke. “What an incredible sight,” he said, pointing up at the sky.

Trevor looked. Where the moon usually was, there was a large dark red object, it looked like something from a Hollywood film in which another planet comes and crashes into the earth.

“It’s an eclipse,” explained Ginger Pete. “The shadow of the earth is over the moon making it look like that.”

At that point the Colemans at Number 26 came out also. They did not speak to Trevor!

“Anybody fancy a glass of Chardonnay?” offered Ginger Pete: “I’ve got a bottle in the chiller, and I think we should all have a glass to celebrate this once in a lifetime moment.”

Trevor quickly accepted the offer; after a moment’s hesitation Mrs. Coleman said that she and her husband would have just a drop in the bottom of a glass each to toast the occasion. After drinking some Chardonnay, Mrs. Coleman did finally speak to Trevor just to say that she had been sorry to hear the news about Val, and Mr. Coleman nodded his head in agreement. Twenty minutes later Trevor returned to his bed and went straight off to sleep.

The following night at 7.30pm, Trevor was looking out of his front window and he saw Ginger Pete arriving home from work in his car. He put his shoes on and hurried out. When he got to Number 28, the Colemans had also come out to speak to their next door neighbour.

“Hello everybody,” said Trevor eagerly, “wasn’t that just an amazing sight last night?”

The Colemans ignored Trevor; they acted as if they were deaf, and he was invisible. After briefly speaking to Ginger Pete they went back into their house to the accompanying sound of a slamming door.

Ginger Pete did speak. “Look old chap, my kid goes to bed at eight and I don’t get much quality time with him in the week so no time for small talk – yeah!” he said in a semi-aggressive manner. And, with that, he too vanished behind a slamming door.

Trevor looked up at the sky: tonight the moon looked like it usually did and so did the soulless cul-de-sac beneath it.

Juliet West: “The Elusive Voice”

Sky at sunsetDuring our second creative writing session at Worthing library we attempted to unpick the meaning of ‘voice’ in fiction. It’s a slippery concept much loved by agents, editors and competition judges. When asked what they’re looking for in a manuscript, the reply is often: ‘A strong voice’. They can’t explain exactly what’s meant by this – it’s not a magic formula, they say – but somehow they just know it when they see it.

How can beginner writers learn to develop a strong voice when there’s no accepted definition? One way of looking at voice is to see it as a marriage of two elements – the writer’s own distinctive prose style combined with the voices of strong, believable characters. Of course, even these elements can overlap. See? Slippery.

We looked at the openings of two novels to illustrate ways in which voice can be established from the very first page. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s casual first person narrative is instantly engaging:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

As readers, we know we’re in safe hands. We sense that this is Holden Caulfield speaking: it’s as if J D Salinger is a vessel through which the character’s thoughts and experiences are set down.

Next we discussed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – a very different book but one which also sings from the outset, establishing character and tone through a mixture of third person narration and virtuoso dialogue.

Clearly, voice can be summoned in a myriad of ways. First person narration might seem like a short-cut (immediate, intimate, etc etc), but writing in the third person can be equally powerful. What links the novels are their brilliantly-drawn, memorable characters. The authors know their characters, believe in them, and this in turn lends a confidence to their writing – gives them a voice.

Our first practical task was to write a diary entry in the voice of an imagined character, with the date October 31st for those who might wish to experiment with a Halloween theme. This produced some excellent short pieces – sinister and edgy, with intriguing and original voices which left a strong impression.

In the second half of the workshop we looked at a more literal interpretation of voice, focusing on the use of dialogue in fiction, and how this can be used to further character development. Extracts from Ernest Hemingway and Sussex-based novelist Isabel Ashdown illustrated the possibilities.

What of our overall theme, The South? Much of the work written during the exercises was set within the Sussex landscape, including Highdown Hill, a seafront hotel and the bar at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre. I can’t make any link between Salinger and Sussex, but there is an Austen connection; the author stayed in Worthing in the autumn of 1805, and her final unfinished novel, Sanditon, is believed to have been inspired by her visit to the town.

Did we manage to nail the meaning of ‘voice’ in fiction? We didn’t devise a magic formula, but by studying some of the components we came a little closer to understanding this elusive concept. In any case, perhaps we shouldn’t search too hard for a catch-all definition. The joy of writing is in the journey, the sense of discovery. Who wants to colour by numbers?

Juliet WestJuliet West


On the Verge by Johanne Ball

coca-cola litter
The blades obey
the elements, while
seeking to be upstanding.
Carbon dioxide invisibly
gluts by day
tailing by night –
terrestrial carbon sequestration;
the highway factory
operates without so
much as a sabbatical.
The debris of life strewn on her –

7UP – ‘naturally’

Duck wrap with hoisin sauce –
‘no additives’

Coca-cola –
‘You can’t beat the feeling’

Coffee cup –
‘Eco friendly’

Hen party, buckled bucket –
f a s t food chain.

Sod it.

Stephanie Norgate: “Walking the Downs with Mr. Stevens”

aldwick-beach-pathAfter storing my books and materials at the library, I walked into town and then along the coast to Aldwick. Walking clears the brain and opens up the imagination. I am a greedy walker in that any comparatively new walk will fill my head with images and over excitement.  The slits between concrete beach huts opened up momentary glimpses of blue-grey sea. The tamarisks were in flower.  Verbena raised its frothy purple in the parks along the way.  Some teenagers sat in a group at the top of a fir tree, looking oddly secure.  And there was a heavy smell of fish among the boats pulled up opposite West Park.  I imagined R.C. Sherriff taking the very same walk, which was fitting as I was about to read a short section of his novel, The Fortnight in September, with the two creative writing groups.

Sherriff celebrates the act of walking in the South in his quietly humane novel, which charts the two week holiday of the Stevens’ family in Bognor Regis. The novel was written in 1930 and prompted new interest in Sherriff’s work after the success of his play, Journey’s End.  The novel, as well as the Royal suffix, increased Bognor’s fame. Having used seaside settings in the previous workshops, I was keen that we would move inland, perhaps to the Downs.  So we followed Mr. Stevens, the father in the novel , on his yearly downland walk, where a sense of the deep past under his feet  enables him to encounter his own past,  his imaginative nature and his thwarted ambitions. Dick, his son, also takes a significant walk, along the very same path that I’d walked that morning, though Dick goes right on to Pagham, where he faces his frustrations but is able to envisage a new creative future. (Hopefully, walking to Aldwick has the same effect.)

In the workshops, we used Mr. Stevens’ walk as a basis for an exercise on writing about a place with which we were intimately connected. Then we united place with character by taking a lucky dip of conflicting characteristics. We worked in the close third person, imagining the character in that well known place, engaged in an intense activity. Both groups wrote very vivid, moving pieces. It was great to work with such responsive and risk taking writers, who created a strong sense of inner conflict and a vivid atmosphere of place. Southern settings included Pagham,  Bognor, the Weald and Downland Museum, Lavant, Cheesefoot Head, the Isle of Wight, Bournemouth,  and, as the imaginative memory has no borders and needs no passport, I will admit that we may have strayed into Yorkshire, London, the West Country and France.

Stephanie NorgateStephanie Norgate


Four pieces for Reading the South by Kara Mazumdar

Lonely horseThe Journey.  Mental Health Drop-In in a middle of an industrial estate. A brief encounter with a German shepherd. Car journey from Hampden Park to the centre of town. Passed the roundabout waiting to be sponsored, and my friend wanted it to be filled with shrubs.

Down Kings Drive, past the formerly flooded fields that are now newly built affordable housing. I will miss the cows and horses that used to pasture there, God bless the grass munchers.


A Place You Don’t Want To Go To.  The sea is morbidly quiet, small ripples signifying an intent to arrange a date with your guts later. The sibilant repetition of ‘S’s issues forth from the foamy lips of potential oblivion, a pregnant invitation to a place to which you don’t want to go. Mesmerising still to stand and watch, you are poised to make a leap, like thousands before you. You observe the crosses and ultimately turn away, to be swallowed up by the grasslands.


Sterile rooms.  Clinical waste, not yet disposed of. Nurses tutting at the mess. It was my waste, and I was sitting, quivering, in the corner. I held a scalpel in my sweaty palm. The words ‘my pain is political’ were carved onto my arms and legs. I am a sculptor and a pain addict. I was sick of being demonised by the government and society. They wanted to gouge my eyes out because I had to live by different rules. If I had been a suffragette, I would have chained myself to iron railings. Instead I would punish my non-productivity with dripping blood and the scream of the silenced.


A Place You Do Want To Go To.  Bonsai trees sit in a row, petite and pruned. The sun showers them with love through the pristine glass. White metal struts stand proudly from the conservatory foundations. Exotic cretaceacous ferns blossom from the sidelines, ready to erupt in ripples of polite applause to the bonsai newcomers. The warmth of the sun is absorbed by the sandstone paving slabs, gently heating them to a comfortable temperature, so one could lightly run over them in bare feet like a sprite.

Niyati Keni: “Goodbye to the Big Smoke”

plane-over-big-benI must confess to feeling slightly fraudulent before my first Reading the South session at Worthing Library. Technically, I have only been a Sussex writer for 9 years. Before that I was a Londoner. So what, I wondered, would I really have to say on the subject of what ‘the South’ means to me or to my work?

My novel, Esperanza Street, was described by Kirkus Reviews as a ‘study of the connection between person and place’, a theme which I wasn’t even conscious of when writing it. The first draft of Esperanza Street was written in St Albans, a commuter-belt town just north of London . We hadn’t been there long. We were renting a home and St Albans , though lovely, was never intended to be where we took root. The preceding years had been restless. I’d traveled overseas or worked away from London for substantial periods, but somehow always gravitated back to the Big Smoke. I was a Londoner through and through. I wrote the first draft of Esperanza Street while pregnant with my daughter and shortly before she was born, having barely thought it through, we tore ourselves free from London ’s orbit and moved lock, stock and barrel to West Sussex . The idea was conceived and executed in a few short weeks. At the time, I had no idea what an impact this move would have on me personally, specifically on my sense of who I was. Suddenly I could no longer claim to be a Londoner even though I’d been born and raised there, studied there, worked there and everyone I knew still lived there. Worst of all, I didn’t feel remotely like a Sussex or Worthing-ite, whatever that was supposed to feel like. After moving, I spent the next six and a half years redrafting Esperanza Street . Now, when I look back, I see quite clearly how the process of refining it became my way of ‘writing myself back’, not back to London , but back to myself.

 Esperanza Street is about a community in the grip of change. It is, amongst other things, about people displaced by gentrification. Displacement of people whether from economic migration, gentrification or conflict, is very much the story of our times. In fact these kinds of interrupted human narratives have become commonplace. I find myself increasingly wondering, if moving from London to Worthing had such a profound effect on me, what was it like for my parents to move from India to England ? Or for refugees from Syria , migrants from Albania ?

I wanted to explore this connection between place and person, between place and self, in the reading group. I had chosen a second book to read from to contrast with mine: Maggie Gee’s book, The White Family. Gee spent time in Sussex before ending up in London , a journey that is, from the outside, the opposite of mine. The White Family is an interesting mirror for a book like mine. In Esperanza Street a community is dismantled by developers, its people forced to move away from what has always been their home. In The White Family the protagonists stay put only to find that their community changes inexorably around them, from gentrification and from immigration.

I was surprised to discover that, like me, none of the reading group participants were indigenous Worthing-ites. All had their own stories of change, of relocation and of the necessity of building new lives which they were willing to share with the group. It became an illuminating and lively discussion about shared experiences which it was a genuine pleasure to have been a part of.

Niyati KeniNiyati Keni