Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Land of My Fathers - Treasures of Welsh Literature

Just before St David's Day, three Triskelites with an affinity for Wales have chosen their favourite recommendations and invited a friend to share theirs.

Photographs courtesy of JD Lewis

JJ Marsh

Dylan Thomas - Under Milk Wood

I've been reading and listening to the work of Dylan Thomas for over forty years. The sounds and rhythms of his poetry are as familiar as a lullaby. Thomas uses language like a composer, assembling a sequence of signifiers to leave you breathless, touched, shaken and delighted. His passion and affection for Wales and its inhabitants radiate through his words, tumbling off the page like boisterous drunks.
Under Milk Wood, a play for voices, draws you into the minds and personalities of its broad cast, yet still leaves room for the imagination. The village of Llareggub is both earthy and delicate, ruddy and fragile, but most of all, musical and dramatic, just like the Welsh.

Other Welsh poets I often re-read are RS Thomas and Dannie Abse, who were an essential part of the school curriculum. Nowadays, Gillian Clarke and Owen Sheers are continuing the tradition. Wales is a place where poetry is valued and appreciated, but not treated with an excess of reverence. After all, poetry, language and songs belong to the people.

Jean Gill

Alan Garner – The Owl Service

“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.” The old Welsh tale of Llew and Bloduewedd is playing out centuries later, through
three young adults who hear strange noises in the attic. They discover only old plates, which lose their flower pattern and display owls instead. This was one of the first fantasy books I read in my teens and it haunts me still, mysterious, beautiful and dangerous.

Equally recommended! Menna Elfyn: Welsh language poet, who writes with the same passionate brilliance with which she speaks and lives. She is the living writer I most respect and in 2001 she came to my book launch, sat quietly at the back, and smiled.

Two more must-reads for fantasy-lovers, incorporating Welsh legends: Susan Cooper and her Dark is Rising series; and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series.

Catriona Troth

Peter Ho Davis - The Welsh Girl

I have a particular affection for Peter Ho Davis because, like me, he grew up with one Welsh parent and one not, hearing Welsh all around him but not learning to speak it. The Welsh Girl is the story of a teenage girl caught between some prisoners of war who have been brought to a camp near her isolated village and the rough English squaddies sent to guard them. It’s delicately written, the Welsh Girl is beautifully realised, fully rounded character, and you feel as if you are walking in those Welsh Hills.

Also Recommended

The Detour by Gerhard Bakker

Until Our Blood Is Dry by Kit Habianic

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce

Travels in an Old Tongue by Pamela Petro

I Bought a Mountain by Thomas Firbank

Gillian Hamer

Kit Habianic - Until Our Blood is Dry

"Up ahead, Helen saw the police line harden into a barricade of bodies and shields. Resin batons thudded on Perspex shields; slow, thuggish, brutal. Goosebumps studded her arms and legs. Her pace slowed to the truncheons' beat. Mary halted a yard from the riot shields, raised her megaphone. 'We are women from Ystrad an' from all over Wales,' she said. 'We are here to make peaceful protest. Here in solidarity with the men.' The drumming quickened."

If you lived through the era of the miners strike in 1984 and think you know everything there is to know about the troubles of the time ... think again ... and read this fabulous novel.

It's a wonderfully crafted tale of families thrown into conflict against the unions, the Coal Board, the Government, the country ... and each other. Characters are intense and as believable as your own relatives, the accuracy in the detail of the period took me back to my teenage years, and the language gave me goosebumps.

This book may not showcase Wales's outstanding natural beauty, but it smacks you in the face with the power of its people, its heritage, its pride and its passion.

Kit Habianic

Alexander Cordell - Rape of the Fair Country

Rape of the Fair Country is a book I came to as a teenager, the first in Alexander Cordell’s trilogy set in the mid-nineteenth century about the Mortymers - the story of an ironworking family from Blaenavon during the industrial revolution. 

It was the first book I encountered that engaged with the Wales of the sweat and toil of my forebears, perhaps the first book I ever read that foregrounded working-class lives. The storytelling was visceral and the characters leapt off the page. I devoured all three books in quick succession.  
But has Rape of the Fair Country stood the test of time? I recently unearthed a battered compendium of all three Mortymer books in a dusty bookshop in Inverness. I’m steeling myself to find out...

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A Day in the Life of... A Cover Designer

In the first of a new series, JJ Marsh finds out about a typical day in the life of a publishing professional. Today, meet Henry Hyde, cover designer.

What do I tackle first, the pile of admin, or the mountain of creative work awaiting my Monday morning attention? I’m a freelancer, so the invoices come first. Three today, which is good. A day without an invoice to issue is a bad day.

A quick check of the emails. Junk, junk, boring, junk… Hang on, what’s this? A referral? Lovely.

It’s just an initial enquiry, so direct them to the page on my website where I explain in detail the procedures involved in a book jacket design from start to finish, and the likely costs involved.

More email. Aha, another potential client who has decided to go ahead. I need to set up a Skype meeting with them – they’re in Australia, so I need to check my international clock and ensure we link up when both of us are actually awake. It’s always best to start with a proper chat; however brief, it creates a bond and gets the creative juices flowing, as well as ensuring that the client understands everything involved and the likely timescale.

Okay, that’s enough email for now – I’ll quickly check the ALLi Facebook group to see if there are any interesting discussions going on. There are a couple, but I’ll just skim for now. The same with Twitter, another useful tool but massive time-suck. A couple of likes and retweets, then I’ll check back later.

Right, proper work. Let’s start with this one, initial visuals for a fantasy novelist who wants something unusual, to mimic books from a bygone age that had gold embossed hard covers, with elaborate patterns.

I spend some time researching old book jackets on Google, and I can see what she’s getting at. I even have a couple on my own bookshelves. My love of calligraphy and period typography helps here – I know just the kind of elaborate swashes and swirls she’s after, and I soon unearth some good examples in high quality vector art libraries. These will be taken into Adobe Illustrator, tweaked and modified and enhanced, resulting in a unique border for the jacket. Combined with a classic font like Trajan for the title and author name, it starts to look very elegant indeed. The illustrator work is then imported into Photoshop for some subtle background effects, before exporting in TIFF format to InDesign where a document has been created with the correct ‘bleed’ for print. Then PDF proofs are emailed to the client. Done. 

That’s the morning over, so now it’s another quick email and social media check, before doing some of my own tweets and retweets, and posting something on one of my Facebook pages. I also grab a few minutes to watch a video on the Adobe site to get to grips with their latest software update. This is a crucial aspect of the modern designer’s life – software and operating systems are being updated almost daily, and you need to stay abreast of the changes or you can be caught out. The same is true of the publishing methods used by Amazon, IngramSpark, Apple’s iTunes and so on – authors rely on their designer to understand and explain the technical specifications, especially when they are starting out. We often act as publishing consultants as much as designers. 

Okay, now it’s on to a more conventional book jacket, a business thriller. Here, we’re relying much more on appropriate stock photography and punchy typography. We start with Pixabay, which is a free stock art resource, but an extensive trawl reveals little of use, though there are a couple of images I’ll download as ‘reserves’. Shutterstock is my online library of choice – they have a huge range of images, covering most subjects imaginable, and they do good deals for designers who use many images over the course of a year, which means we can pass on that saving to clients who otherwise might be paying much higher rates for just one or two images a year. This is especially important when the final image might need to be a composite of several originals – for example, a queue of refugees posed in front of a striking nighttime riverscape, with another element (in this case, a burning boat on the river) superimposed on that.

The typeface choice is much bolder for this job. Typically, designers have thousands of fonts in their collections, ranging from cheap or free fonts found on the internet to expensive, classic font families from big-name font foundries. Adobe now has a brilliant system called Typekit, which enables those who have a regular subscription to their software to make use of hundreds of their beautiful fonts. For this job, I can’t quite make up my mind between Gill Sans and Geometric, so I’ll show the client versions of the design featuring both for them to choose.

The work of combining the various image elements in pleasing ways is very much a matter of trial and error, and will require feedback from the client to let me know whether I have interpreted their brief correctly – only the author can say whether it’s the refugees, or the burning boat or the specific landscape that needs to be emphasised. In addition, I’ve managed to find the precise view they mention in the brief – but all the images are bathed in daylight! So, some highly advanced photomanipulation follows to change day into night, and make all the other image elements match. Oh, and yes, Henry, don’t forget a full moon!

After an intense afternoon’s work, I send four options to the client, playing with the image combinations and with the title and author name in different positions. All of them look great at the crucial postage-stamp size too. Tick.

Crikey, it’s 7pm already! What about my own creative time? It’ll be at least 9pm before I’m able to sit down, open Scrivener and chip away at my own writing rockface. Oh, and that article about a typical design day I promised Jill, I’d better bash that out double-quick too!

© Henry Hyde February 2018

Monday, 19 February 2018

Short Story Competition 2017 - THE WINNERS

We are delighted to announce the winners of our Short Story Competition 2017, which has been judged by Charlie Maclean

The longlist:

Annie is Sleeping by Sherri Turner
Blarney by Philippa Scannell
Genteel Tuesday by Sharon Boyle
Good Funerals by Chris Connolly
Learning to Fly by Catherine Hokin
Pink Lipstick by Jay Fejer
A Set of Brass Fire Irons by Catherine Edmunds
Spitting Image by Gwenda Major
Wednesday Highlights by Carol McKay
White Cube by Joy Manne
The Starlings Sing by Bryan Marshall

The shortlist:

A Dog Walker's Family by David N Martin
A Stroke of Fortune by Judy Hodgetts
Alone in the Dark by Christopher Joyce
Bon Bon and Marguerite by Clare Palmer
Every Second Saturday by Robin Bailes
High Whimsy by Rachel McHale
Life Form by Keith Sheppard
Other Half by Janet Hancock
Rarer Gifts than Gold by Alice Herve
The 96th Meeting by Bruce Louis Dodson
The Legacy by Anita Goodfellow
The Quickest Way Back by Antony Dandy
The Walk to the Sandwich Station by Margaret Goddard

And the winning entries are:

1st Prize £500
The Walker by David N Martin

2nd Prize £100
Three Sides of the Story by Dr Charles Knightley

3rd Prize £50
What About My Heart? by Christina Sanders

Judge's Report by Charlie Maclean

Judging the Words With JAM competition has been a great pleasure and immense privilege. There is so much to praise in the originality of ideas and quality of writing contained in the shortlisted entries.

It has been such an enjoyable experience, diving into the different worlds evoked in this collection of stories: ‘Every Second Saturday’, a heartfelt tale of unrequited love; ‘The Legacy’, a potent family drama; ‘The Walk to the Sandwich Station’, a poignant story of realisation and change; ‘The 96th Meeting’, set in San Francisco in the 1960s, with punchy dialogue and larger-than-life characters; ‘Rarer Gifts Than Gold’, a quirky tale overflowing with gastronomic detail; ‘Other Half’, a moving story set in rural France; ‘The Quickest Way Back’, about a bicycle, a youthful mistake and the chance of a satisfying redemption; the colourful and atmospheric ‘Bon Bon and Marguerite; ‘High Whimsy’, full of inventive names and unexpected turns; the fantastical and powerful ‘Alone in the Dark’; ‘A Stroke of Fortune’, an uplifting story of recovery and second chances; ‘A Dog Walker’s Family’, an escalating drama of revelations; and, finally, the mysterious and energetic ‘Life Form’.

Choosing three finalists from the shortlist has been extremely hard, but three stories particularly stood out for me and chose their places in my mind and heart.

In third place: ‘What About My Heart?’, a dreamlike first-person narrative full of vivid detail, strong scenes with great dialogue, and possessing a sense of the surreal.

In second place: ‘Three Sides of the Story’, a tale of life, death, marriage and payback. A compelling story with strong characterisation that, despite its dark subject matter, has a playful energy. I also enjoyed its bittersweet twist of an ending.

In first place: ‘The Walker’, about a man criss-crossing the countryside in search of his shadow – an intriguing story that, for me, read like a modern-day folklore yarn. As the protagonist walked on in his journey, I followed, drawn along by the hypnotic passages of this captivating tale.

All the stories have stayed with me, and I congratulate every writer on their excellently crafted and inspiring creations. Bravo!

First Prize Winner: The Walker by David N Martin

You are a walker. You walk, its rhythm the rhythm of your thoughts.

In rain, cloud or sun, your feet step out. On Woodland paths, old Drovers’ trails, the tracks of hills and mountains, railway lines left bare by Dr Beeching, your mind winds through its gears. You escape your body to some place other, better, best.

Once, you remember, you were an athlete, the gazelle, an urban hero. You ran, but in that last fall, your knee popped out. The surgeon said, “No more free running for you, young man.” You had run your last rooftop, slid your last handrail, made your last leap from building to balcony.

You moved back home. Walking became therapy. Walking was some way back to something. A yard or two, then to the end of your parents’ garden. You leaned on a tree, hunched double, choking as your heaving chest protested. The spring air smelt of wisteria.

A girlfriend drove you out and put you on your first canal towpath, introduced the smells of boats and water and the sound of country silence.

By summer, you could walk a mile without pain. You loved it. For a while, you confused it with love for her.

"Let's do The Roaches," your friend said. Her name was Marion, her smile persuasive. ‘The Roaches’ sounded as illicit as the weed she bought that fetched the aches from your joints.

The Roaches were high. Their tangled rock escarpments, towering summits, and bleak moorland rinsed all petty concerns from your head. You walked them. Rushing on in front, forgetting your companion.

No one, it seemed, understood what walking meant. As strength returned, you tackled the northern lakes, the Lapworth Circuit, Rhossili Bay, Mousehole to Lamarna.

In the holidays, you walked the Tennyson Trail on the Isle of Wight, fourteen miles up and down in the heat of August. Here, a walker caught in the moment thinks the thoughts of poets passed. Rhythms and rhymes seep into your steps.

Then, at journey’s end, Carisbrooke Castle bursts the horizon. King Charles once sat imprisoned here.

But less of death and more of life. You walked Brightstone Down, Alum Bay, The Needles. These you remember. When you left your holiday, Marion was gone. Her, you forgot.

You had the habit now. You walked on alone through the ochre shades of autumn, stopping to talk to walkers along the way.

“Are you here for a day out?” they'd ask.

“We're here with the Essex Ramblers,” they’d say, or name some other distant club. “We all came for the gardens.”

Or perhaps, “For the view.”

Or, “The lake.”

“The hills.”

After a while, you realised, they don't feel it. No one else does. It's not about being here to be somewhere or with someone, it's just about being.

They’d just hoist their backpacks onto their shoulders. Carry on.

“You talk like that guy,” one woman said when you told them. “Doesn't he talk like him?” She turned to her husband, a nodding parcel-shelf dog for everything she said.

“Wait a moment, what guy?” you asked.

“Him,” they said in chorus. “Haven’t you heard? The Walker.”

As soon as you heard the name, you knew he'd understand. You asked for details. They had none. Only the rumour.

November snows closed the season. You sat impatient, wandering virtual chat rooms in your father’s study, listening for his presence, hoping that someone would know. But no. The Walker remained a title and a whisper. And Christmas came.


Weeks in your parents’ house, smoking for medicinal purposes, wondering about the mystery man. The winter fired you for the New Year, charged your determination, rested your knee.

You peeped out on the softening world like something reborn. I’m a walker, you said. You forgot the runner-past. If anyone asked, you’d deny it.

With the first march, you vowed you’d meet this man. You started along the Pennine Way, 250 miles from the north to south. The wrong way to do it! The guidebooks told you, walk with the wind at your back, but also said the last section over the Cheviots was wild; you wanted to do that first. It was where you’d meet the scattered walkers coming north.

You told them about your obsession. They were impressed. Unlike the old heroism, it was enough that you inspired their efforts. You showed the surgeon’s scars on your knee, but shared no story how they came there.

“Good luck,” they said, “good luck. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

On Good Friday, skirting Hadrian's Wall, you met a couple who said they'd been rambling 30 years. In three decades, you'd think they’d have met the Walker several times.

“Son, what are the odds? There are 175,000 miles of public walkways,” the crusty husband told you.

“I'll walk them all,” you said.

The wife lent her iPhone and you Googled for the latest sightings. There were none. You sprinkled questions in your favourite chat rooms. Everything was about last year. You wondered if, like you, the Walker walked in seasons, not rising until the spring.

The Pennines were conquered by May, but that wast but a fraction of the walkways to which you'd sworn. The South West Coast Path runs 630 waymarked miles from Minehead to Poole Harbour. It is but a nibble at the task, yet still the biggest bite you could take. With all its climbs and falls, you’d scale the height of Everest four times, cross 302 bridges, top 920 styles. You started in June. In July, you were done.

Meeting weekenders became commonplace. You talked of walks you’d done and why you’d done them. You were full-time on their part-time journey. They started to treat you with an arm’s length awe.

But a swelling came with the summer, ballooning in your weakest joint as the honeysuckle and lavender took the harvest air. Your knee filled with fluid. You knew you ought to stop, but you didn’t. You couldn’t.

You met two girls at a campsite, students from Stuttgart. You cooked on the fire in front of their tent. You dunked a wash towel into boiling water, hoping to use its heat on the swelling. You rolled a marijuana cigarette and offered them a drag.

“Sure, I know someone, this guy, who met him,” said the doe-eyed girl. Her friend had refused the dope in favour of sleep. “In Scotland, I think. I don't know quite where. It is not my country to know. He has a wooden leg, this guy said. All those kilometres on a wooden leg. It is a miracle.”

This special someone settled in your mellow brain, the barb of his hook bit the core. You smoked so much the night turned purple. You built thoughts and thoughts around the idea. Someone had walked farther than you on even less, continued with greater scars.

In the morning, you woke up next to the doe-eyed girl. Your leg had locked solid.

After the hospital, you walked no more until December and then you were confined to your parents’ treadmill, the one your father bought when his BMI broke thirty. Yet still your mind kept flying.

Come Christmas, you looked again for online mentions. You asked questions. You began to get detail in reply. It seemed he'd drifted south. Some Cornish campsites reoccurred, places with names you recognised.

He talked now not just to ramblers and walkers, but to the coast-bound campers, surfers and kiteboarders too, addressing the wandering youth.

“He'll share a smoke without prejudice,” they said. “He always has a word or two to give.”


So now, the winter thaws and you unfreeze. Your knee bends and unbends. You dream of the outdoor paths, mirrored lakes, bluebell trails and lowering boughs of forest trees. The Walker draws your thoughts from the shadows of your pain.

You're ready now to tell everyone everything you stand for, louder than before. You’ll tell them how you made it back. Walking defines you.

Renewed, you walk the Cotswold Way, Pembroke's Coastal Path, the line of the Thames.

Somewhere near Cricklade, a young woman screams. You take a rowing boat onto the river and pull her struggling dog to the side. You untangle the weeds from its legs.

In Windsor, a few days later, you come across a gaggle of ambulances and police cars. A boy has fallen into the waters. You are too late. Nothing to be done, but catch a glance of pale skin before they cover him, smeared with the river grime, the mother comforted by an arm in a high-visibility jacket.

As walker, you see life and death. You see everything. You tell campers you meet about the dog. If you hadn’t saved the dog, you’d feel worse about the boy, but still, thinking about the boy is bad enough. You tread it under the rhythm. You drop the boy from your conversation after the sleepless nights. You talk about the dog instead.

In four months, you walk two thousand miles.


“You need to stop this madness,” the surgeon says. He’s showing you what science says about your knee. “Look at it.”

You look at it. All you see is limitation.

“I may have to go in again.”

“No,” you say.

“You’re not listening, are you?” he says.

Your mind is on the road somewhere in the endless paces that repeat and repeat, where thought loses sense of time. And breaks free. Second and minute lead to hours and days. They give the illusion that change is all, but what comes after today has no hold. The truth does not lie in chronology. Creation bathes in something greater.

With the next new spring, you are across the water. Ireland. Walks in a green and wilder country. You walk. It rains. You walk. The wind blows. On Errigal Mountain. On Dingle Way and Diamond Hill.

You stop to rest your leg, but pain sets in when you do not move.

“’Tis God’s own country, so it is,” the wayside rambler tells you. She is young and lost. You tell her about walking. She offers you the comfort of her body.

“Have you heard of the Walker?” you ask.

“Everyone has.”

“He’s been here?”

“He’s been everywhere.”

In the morning, you walk on, your knee as pain free as your heart. You have no doubt left this girl with more than wisdom. There will be others. They swarm like bees to sweetness. The aura of your walking draws them, young and old. You can favour but a few.

In a sawdust pub on the banks of the Shannon, you spend a night. You hear a music other than the windblown silence. You are no longer the spiritless stumbler, choking on wisteria scent. You have mastered your art. Your mind is your own.

Back in England, the news that greets you seems impossible. Halfway along the Snowdonia Path, you camp with ramblers from competing tribes. One claims, the Walker is now in the Hebrides; another, citing clashing dates, swears he saw him in the flesh not a week ago, as close as this hand before your face, but on Exmoor.

“Maybe he flies,” a third suggested.

“In planes?”


“Or walks on water.”

Their idle talk astounds you. They say he trod the surface of a river, came down the tributaries to London, and raised a dead child who’d fallen from the towpath.

Two days more, you walk alone. Aside Llyn Llydaw, your hard-won silence breaks. One misplaced twist and a skeletal ‘crack!’ sends you crashing to the ground. You look down and see your leg turned backwards. Pain splits your head.

They give you morphine. Now you have no idea what occurs. That fug that comes with stillness drags you into darkness. You dream bad dreams of a white hospital. You dream the freedom you had was stolen. You wake to your mother’s face, your father’s stern expression.

“Oh, my son,” she wails. “There was no way to save it.”

“You had your warnings,” your father says.

They tell you to take it a day at a time, but they don’t understand. You don’t want to wait. You want to fit your stump with the carbon contraption on offer, the mechanical knee and ankle. You want to be gone. To walk again.


This time you will not stop for winter. It rains. It blows like Ireland, but colder this time. You’re soaked through before the snow. The noise of weather makes it harder to think, but you walk anyway, unsure if it’s the clattering hail or the limp in your step. It interferes with the mental rhythm you used to find in the first mile. Now it takes two or three, and as many rolled cigarette papers of shredded Mary-Jane.

Your stump comes bloody from its socket every night. Your back holds onto pain. Your body betrays you and your answer is to reach harder for a truth beyond.

Lame as you go, crippled, walkers tell you of the hope you give them. You are an icon, even with a limp, or maybe because of it. There’s nothing like someone who has suffered to inspire the suffering.

Back to The Roaches, where you walked with Marion, you make camp another Thursday night. Someone gives you a waxed box of supermarket wine, a Chilean red. The couple from the next tent come with French sticks and cheese triangles. You thank them before you notice you’ve met them before. The husband quoted you the length of British walkways. You said you’d walk them all. Remember that? Three years ago almost to the day.

People from other tents creep over. You seem to gather a particular crowd. They ask about your journeys, your meetings with the Walker, the sacrifice of your leg.

You tell them your leg is no sacrifice. You have been saved by the silence of those miles, the harder the sweeter. You did it for yourself, but now you say you did it for them. And when they press you for more, you don’t want to disappoint.

“Are you him?” a young man asks.

“If that’s what you need,” you reply. You remember being the younger man.

The gathered drink your wine and eat your bread with cheese. It does for anyone who comes.


That night, the midnight hour will light the bandwidth of the on-line world. Twitter and Tweet. A GPS to the Great One’s location. The Walker is found.

You will not know until morning, when TV crews and crowds crush together at the gate of your camp. A young woman will come. She will be with child and she will kiss your cheek and name you.

You will stand, one-legged, and think. You’ll look out on a trail of faces, like a snake down the winding path of the slope. You’ll stare over their heads. You’ll have nothing to give them. He is out there, still.

Second Prize Winner: Three Sides of the Story by Dr Charles Knightley

Donna released the brake. Gravity moved her wheelchair down the hill, slowly. She helped it along by turning the rear wheels with her hands. There was a sparkle in her eyes coupled with a mischievous grin on her face. The chair accelerated down the slope towards the canal. Chris stared incredulously as he yelled, “What are you doing?” Donna didn’t answer. Was it her idea of a joke? He laughed and shouted out, “Very funny, now stop messing about.” But the wheelchair with occupant continued its perilous journey.

An aged couple, Peter and Marilyn, resting on a nearby bench witnessed the antics. Peter gulped and asked his wife, “Did you see that?” He pointed his walking cane towards the wheelchair.

“Pardon?” Marilyn asked.

Peter repeated his question in a louder voice.

“No need to shout,” she replied in a trembling voice as she fiddled with her hearing aid. “Yes, I can see. I'm not blind.” She adjusted her glasses and began to wave her walking stick pointing between Chris and the runaway wheelchair. “He pushed her. That man pushed the wheelchair.”

"Did he say it was funny?"

“Funny? Yes, yes,” she answered, “he said it was funny. And he laughed.” Her wrinkled mouth remained open.

Meanwhile Chris was running after the wheelchair, but it was getting further and further away, closer and closer to the water’s edge. He shouted, “Donna. Stop.” But the vehicle didn’t stop, it continued its dangerous trip downhill towards the water. In the loudest voice he could muster he shouted, “Donna, stop.”

“Did I hear right, Peter? Was he telling her don't stop?”

Peter, his blood flecked eyes open wide, said, “Yes, he shouted, don't stop. He doesn't want her to stop. The bastard.”

“Bastard.” Marilyn's mouth closed with an audible snap.

The left rear wheel of the chair hit a protruding stone and the chair tilted to the right continuing its run on two wheels. Chris was still in pursuit.

Peter said, “She's going to topple.” He placed a hand on Marilyn's and held it tight.

Marilyn closed her eyes, “I can't look.”

The chair was close to its tipping point when Donna leant towards the left and the chair returned to a stable position.

Peter announced, “Phew, she didn't fall.” Marilyn opened her eyes.

Chris sighed with relief but his look soon turned to fright, the wheelchair was continuing its journey downhill fast approaching the water’s edge. There was nothing to stop Donna and the wheelchair; they plunged into the water. Donna still had a grin on her face and just before the splash she shouted something. Chris watched, open mouthed, as she disappeared into the water. Plumes of water shot into the air and water rippled. The torrent and waves soon abated, replaced by air bubbles on the water surface.

The onlookers gasped as they watched Donna disappear.

“She’s going to drown.”

“We’d better go and help.”

Peter looked at his overweight wife and then at his own frail body, “I don't think we'll be much help.”

She sniggered. “I’m a good swimmer.”

“Darling, you were a very good swimmer, but that was several decades ago.”

“Yes, dear. You don't need to remind me.”

Peter stood up and helped his wife up from the bench. They walked cautiously towards the site. “Not too fast,” Marilyn complained.

Chris stared, watching the bubbles in the water, waiting for Donna to rise to the surface. Nothing. No sign. To rescue Donna he had to enter the canal. Without thinking he stepped into the water. Instantly his thoughts turned to his clothes, Donna would be so mad. He imagined her saying, “Those are your new clothes, look how wet and dirty you've made them.” He was brought to reality by the cold water. As he shivered, he wrinkled his nose. The smell was unpleasant, a mix of stale fish and sewerage. It was also deeper than he’d imagined and panic set in; he couldn’t swim. He thrashed around trying to keep himself afloat.

“What’s he doing?” Peter asked. “Why isn't he helping her?”

“Oh my god, he’s stopping her getting out.”

Chris felt something solid nearby and climbed onto it. He stabled himself and spat water from his mouth. He looked down. The water was relatively clear near the surface. He saw he was kneeling on the back of the wheelchair.

Marilyn, witnessing Chris’s behaviour, had difficulty speaking. She took a choking swallow. “Peter, he’s standing on her.”

“He’s trying to kill her,” Peter said. “We’d better not get any closer; we don’t know what he’ll do to us.” They went behind a bush where they had a good vantage position.

Marilyn complained as she knelt, “My knees aren't so good.”

Peter helped her down. “Where's the phone?”

“In your pocket.”

He fumbled around in his left pocket, no phone. He tried his right, still no phone. “Are you sure it's not in your handbag?”

She sighed as she rummaged through her bag. “Oh yes, here it is,” she exclaimed proudly.

“Phone the police,” Peter said.

She passed the phone to him. “Can you call them? I can't see with these glasses.”

Chris realised he was preventing Donna from getting out of the wheelchair. He moved to one side, immediately sank and was immersed up to his mouth in the water. His feet touched the bottom of the canal. It felt squidgy and he had the sensation he was slowly sinking. He stood on tip-toes but continued to steadily sink into the mud. When he stopped sinking, his nose was just above the water level. One of his nostrils was blocked but he could still draw air into his lungs through the other. He knew what he had to do, took a deep breath and went underwater. He could make out Donna’s body, lifeless and still attached to the overturned wheelchair. She had a fixed grin on her face. He grabbed hold of her head and tried to lift her up. Donna and the wheelchair were too heavy and they didn’t budge. He was desperate to breath and rose to the surface for air.

The couple watched Chris’s antics. “He’s making sure she stays under,” Marilyn moaned.

Peter said, “I hope the police arrive soon.” He stared at the phone in his hand. “How do you take pictures with this thing?”

“I don't know!”

“We should've listened to our daughter.”

“I think you have to press something that looks like a camera.”

“Here it is.” He pressed the camera icon and an image appeared. He pointed at Chris and pressed some of the buttons. An affirmative sound made him realise he'd managed to take a photograph. “That was easy,” he proudly proclaimed.

After a quick gulp of air, Chris made another attempt to rescue Donna. Once again he submerged himself. That fixed grin was still there on her face. Was she enjoying the torment she was putting him through? He grabbed hold of her long auburn coloured hair and pulled on it. She didn’t budge. And neither did that smile disappear. He was still clutching some hair when he surfaced and shuddered as he rinsed his hands.

“Why's he pulling her hair out?” Peter asked.

“Could it be a wig?”

“No, it's definitely hair.”

“He must really hate her.”

On the third occasion that Chris tried to rescue his wife he placed his hands around her neck. He tugged and heaved but she wasn’t going anywhere. He gave up and attempted to get out of the water. He crawled onto the back of the wheelchair and stretched out to reach the dry land with his hands. He couldn’t reach; he kicked his feet against something solid. When he realised it was Donna’s head, he felt awful and said out aloud, “Oh god, I’ve kicked her head.” His hands reached the canal side and he scampered onto solid ground.

Peter continued to take photographs. “What a beast. Did you see him jumping on her to make sure she wouldn’t surface?”

“He’s a maniac,” Marilyn said. “Did you hear what he said?”

Peter looked grim, “He said it was good that he kicked her head.” He shook his head.

“What a bastard.”

Chris lay on the ground coughing and spitting water. It was a few seconds before he could sit up. He reached for his man-bag which he’d dropped earlier on, thankful he kept his phone in the bag rather than his pocket. He rang the emergency services.

It took several minutes for divers to pull Donna and the wheelchair out of the water. Paramedics attempted to revive Donna but it was futile, she was pronounced dead.

Chris related his version of the incident to the police. “I can’t understand why she did it. I’m sure she went in on purpose. I tried to get her out but I couldn’t move her.”

The watching couple explained what they saw.

“I’m sure he pushed her in.”

“Yes, I’m sure he pushed her in.”

“And then he shouted, don't stop, as she was going down the hill.”

“He was laughing when she hit the water.”

“He was demented, jumping all over her.”

“He said he was glad he kicked her head.”

The police took statements from all concerned as well as Peter’s phone with the photographs.

When a friend of Donna’s heard about the drowning she immediately went to the police and showed them copies of emails she’d received from Donna.

“I think he’s planning to kill me.”

“He’s after my compensation money.”

“He keeps taking me to the canal.”

“He’s going to drown me in the canal. You must tell the police if he succeeds.”

She was convinced that Chris had murdered his wife. “Donna was such a lovely woman. She loved life. I don’t think he was happy with her. He was always yelling at her when he was pushing the wheelchair.” She shook her head slowly and frowned, “Never any PDA.”


“Public display of affection.”

At the trial the prosecution brought up the fact that Donna was strapped securely into the wheelchair. “Was this your normal practice?”

“No,” Chris answered as he shook his head. “She must have strapped herself in.”

An expert stated, “If she hadn’t been strapped to the wheelchair she would have easily surfaced.” He gave a slow, disbelieving shake of his head. “That was a callous act.”

The pathologist reported bruise marks on the victim’s neck and stated, “This indicates strangulation.” He also said there were bruises on the head together with excessive hair loss, both indicative of the victim being hit several times.

Chris sat with his eyes closed, hands covering his face. Everything was going against him.

Three years previously, Chris and Donna had been returning from a dancing competition. A contest which they should have won, according to Donna. She was driving faster than usual and her speech was fast and venomous. “It’s your bloody fault we came second. You had too much of wine.”

“Come on darling, I only drank after the contest, and only because we lost.” He waved his hands dismissively, not that she could see. “You always blame me.”

“Of course it was your fault,” she shouted. “You were so drunk you kept missing your steps.”

“I wasn’t drunk. It was you that kept missing your steps.”

“I was perfect,” she insisted, looked towards him and turned the steering wheel away. The car veered to the opposite side of the road.

“Careful,” he shouted as Donna straightened the car, “you’ll kill us both.”

“You know I don’t like driving at night,” she said. “You shouldn’t have got yourself drunk.” She raised her voice, “If I wasn’t driving I'd punch you.”

“Calm down,” he replied.

“Don't you tell me to calm down,” she spat out. “Flirting with that judge didn’t help.”

“I wasn’t flirting.”

“Hah,” she laughed. “Well excuse me, but brushing your chest against her breasts and pinching her bottom is flirting in my book.”

He laughed, “It wasn’t me, it was her. I couldn't stop her, she kept sidling up next to me. Anyway, I'm sure it was innocent.”

“Innocent, no it wasn’t,” she shouted.

A car with full headlights on approached them; Donna panicked and steered away from the lights. She screamed, “Oh shit,” as the car careered off the road, down a slope and crashed into a large oak tree. The airbags went off.

Chris saw the airbag inflate as he was wrenched forward, the airbag deflated rapidly and he was cushioned into a gentle impact. Within a few seconds he looked towards Donna, she was slumped across the steering wheel. There was blood on her head. “Are you alright?” he asked. She answered with moans and groans. “Donna, are you alright?” More moans and groans. Chris retrieved his phone and called the emergency services.

Donna spent two months in hospital with serious injuries including a damaged spine. She was unable to walk again and was confined to a wheelchair.

Chris suffered friction burns on his neck and chest which remained sore for several days. He also had a bruise from his shoulder down across his chest from the seat belt. But these injuries were minor. His real suffering began after the incident.

It was rare for a day to pass without Donna saying, “You've ruined my life.”

“It wasn't my fault.”

“Yes it bloody well was. You know I don't like driving in the dark.”

Chris remained silent. He knew what was coming next.

“It’s your fault I can’t walk. It’s your fault I can’t dance.”

He sighed, letting out a long drawn out breath.

“I was going to be a dancing star, and you robbed me of my dream, my destiny.”

There was no point in arguing with her, he lived with her ranting. He loved her but at the same time he hated her. If only she'd left him as she'd threatened, before the accident. He'd have missed her but then he wouldn't have had to live with the evil hateful woman she'd become. But with the accident it was too late, much too late, Chris was stuck with Donna. There was no way she would leave him.

Chris recalled that a few days before she died she said, “My life is over, there’s no point living.”

Much as he loved her, he wished she would die, saying under his breath, “Why don’t you just go and kill yourself?”

She might have heard his remark because she said, “One day I’ll get my own back. Just you wait and see.”

He laughed at the suggestion.

Chris stared with a vacant expression as he sat in the dock listening to all the evidence. All he could do was sit and wait for the judgement. But he realised Donna had indeed got her own back. Her version of what happened was untold but he recalled what Donna had said as she splashed into the canal. It was quite prophetic, she shouted, “Goodbye, this is it. It’s payback time.”

Third Prize Winner: What About My Heart? by Christina Sanders

We are not angels, we are travellers, salt tongued, sweet breathed, our limbs barrel hitched, bait looped, two sailors resting in a storm. His name is Jianyu. My daughter Elaine pronounces it Gee On You.

I don’t try.

It means building the universe, Jianyu tells me, pulsing his fingers along the ridge of my spine. I think of my Willow pattern plates, stacked in the sideboard, Sunday best; blue pagodas and watery gardens, swallows swooping over steepled terraces.

On Friday nights, Elaine lingers in the hall, slicking her lips with Revlon Fire & Ice. She lifts her oversized T shirt to squirt Anais Anais in her armpits, the pale pink cotton sags between her hands. She’s waiting for Jianyu to pull up in his Honda, to ring the bell and push the white plastic bag, heavy with her order of Crispy Won Ton, Pork Dumplings, Singapore Rice Noodles and Pak Choy into her hands.

Elaine is an Actuary. She measures risk and predicts longevity with algorithms, her fat fingers curling over the keyboard. According to her calculations, I have already lived five eights of my life (0.625 decimal). ‘You can’t argue with the facts,’ she says, watching me rub Clarins into the webs of fine lines under my eyes.

When we hear Jianyu’s car pull up, Frank nudges Elaine, ‘Go on,’ he says, ‘go and say hello to your boyfriend. Don’t want to starve do you?’ And he laughs. Seventeen stone four of him, a hulk of sagging curves and fleshy pockets. Father and daughter: it’s the Thompson gene, a suety clot in the DNA, swelling their flesh, kinking their gallbladder with craving. He is a man who moves slowly, chewing days like a cow at the cud. Some nights I hear his jaw moving in his sleep. You do not make love to a fat man, you sit astride and close your eyes, ride crab style, reverse cowgirl, or doggy fashion, and pitch your dreams elsewhere. Dr Kennedy worries about their hearts - atherosclerosis, strokes, cholesterol, diabetes. ‘Elaine,’ he’s said to her for years, ‘there’s a beautiful girl inside there, struggling to get out, why won’t you let her?’

On Monday at the drycleaners, Loretta pulls a frothy white wedding dress from a rail, drapes it across her body, ‘Imagine getting married in this?’ She stretches yards of synthetic satin between her latex gloves, bends her head to inspect a crusty stain, ‘Jesus,’ she says, ‘is that jizz?’ and throws it into the machine. A few minutes later she’s shaking out a black Tux when a mini iPod falls out of the pocket and skids across the floor. ‘You know, you should be wearing gloves when you’re loading up the perc,’ she says, picking up the iPod, pocketing it in her pink overall.

Two weeks ago, Elaine went to Weightwatchers at the Methodist Church on Elim Street. She made Frank go too. Now every Wednesday they come home with menus and dayglow charts, points plus calculations they discuss for hours at the kitchen table, counting syns, weighing up ways to optimize each food point. The fridge is full of watercress, strawberries, celery, turkey breast, cucumber, spinach, skimmed milk, low fat yoghurt, cottage cheese, kale, smoked salmon and lettuce.

At night I run along the front to the pink rocks rising round as shoulders from the waves. I love the sound of my trainers slapping the tarmac, wind gusting up the channel, whistling between rocks. How can you not love rocks? A man with a tripod stands on the harbour arm staring at the sky.

‘Mrs Thompson,’ he shouts, waving his arm, black silky hair flopping over his forehead. ‘It’s me Jianyu, look at the moon, it’s a full perigee moon, only in sixty years... I’m filming it.’

His car smells sweet and salty, steamy and sour. I watch him collapse the tripod into a bag. He’s filming life, he says, all of life as he finds it, here. His fingers deftly unscrew the lens, place it in a soft sponge case. The dark body of the Canon rests between his legs. Long before he bends towards me, I sense his kiss as an intention, invisible atoms vibrating towards me, and without thinking, I turn to meet his lips.

‘Mrs Thompson,’ Jianyu whispers, running his fingers along the downy hairs of my neck, under the hem of my cotton T shirt as we lower ourselves onto the nubbled upholstery of the back seat My eyes are wide open. My heart swells with something I know but cannot name.

‘This must never happen again,’ I say.

He grins, a mock salute, pushing two fingers to his temple.


When Elaine was a baby, she cried, awake and asleep, bunching her little fists, jerking her knees to her tummy.

‘What is it? What is it you want?’ I used to whisper, hooking and unhooking her from my breasts, jiggling her over my shoulder, burping her, patting her, pacing up and down the living room, unable to satisfy or give comfort. Frank was better. He cradled her to his belly, sucked her fingers and toes, blowing raspberries on her cheeks to make her gurgle, ‘My little starfish baby,’ he cooed, ‘watch out, here comes daddy whale.’

After work, Frank sits at the kitchen table working out points on his laminated menu planner, totting up columns of numbers with a little blue pencil. I put the shopping down on the counter, pull out tins of tomatoes, stack them in the larder. Elaine’s making a sandwich, slicing cucumber and tomato, overlaying squares of ham, pink and pliant as silk. She squirts low fat mayo in a spiral, opens the fridge, spoons mustard on the bread, spreading it slowly with her knife the same way a painter may prime a canvas, covering every inch. Her attention to detail moves me. A lump, love or pity, craws my throat. I snap open a bag of Doritos. A cheesy tang fills the kitchen. ‘Look what I bought you, your favourite!’

Elaine squeezes her eyes tight,

‘A few won’t hurt.’

‘For Godsake.’ Frank shakes his head.


Elaine shakes her head, hair slapping in her eyes. She wears the same pained expression she wore when we refused to pay for her tummy tuck or a down payment on her new Fiesta, or a hundred other million things beginning with the word No - though, we’ve paid for plenty over the years: Madame Tussauds, Whipsnade, Wookey Hole. We dressed her in gingham, white socks, black patent Mary Janes. We bought her mollies and angel fish, a long haired kitten; paid for tennis lessons, school trips to Gstaad then Venice, a sweet sixteen party with a pink stretched limo...I could go on.

‘What?’ I say, ‘What have I done now?’

Her feet thunder on the stairs. ‘Elaine,’ I shout after her, ‘Why can’t we just be friends?’


Jianyu shows me how to work his Canon, to slow the shutter speed, click through F stops, slicing time to still frames. Birch leaves fly, silver discs of light tumble over his denim jacket, carpeting and cushioning the pavement.

‘Did you catch that?’ he says, ‘is the film still running?’
Later, in his room on the eleventh floor, with one bed, one chair and no curtains, my hips rise to meet the hollows of his belly, every nerve cell alive with a pleasure so sharp, it renders me mute. Out of the window, a three quarter moon follows us all the way.


I’m steaming ink stains, stooped over the spotting board in the backroom in the drycleaners, reciting dishes I’ve learnt like poems to stave off boredom: ‘Kuong Po King Prawns; Soft Shell Sesame Crab; Steamed Lotus Dumplings; Crispy Fried Seaweed. Green chrysanthemum leaf tea’

Loretta says: ‘Stop, you’re making me hungry.’ She takes a mauve velvet jacket from its polythene sleeve, and hooks it over her shoulders, angling herself in front of the mirror. ‘What?’ She says, ‘I’m just borrowing it, no one will know.’

On Friday night, Elaine comes downstairs, Fire & Ice lips, her hair teased and stiff, the peachy reek of her perfume fills the hall. She checks her face in the mirror, and without saying a word, closes the front door softly behind her. Frank snaps the Venetian blinds, watching her melt into darkness. ‘Do you think it’s a boy?

I pick up a magazine Elaine left on the chair, skim an article on juicing. ‘Who could say?’

‘I saw her, Frank says, his hand still holding the slat of the blind, ‘in the Golden Grill, she was sitting at the counter eating a kebab,’ his voice wavers, ‘by herself.’

There are facts I do not need to know, which I can evade or side-step. Now, there is a picture of Elaine, sharply focused, in full colour, sitting alone, wiping flecks of onion or blobs of mayonnaise from her chin as she eats with her head low to avoid her reflection in the mirror, while the little Afghani men behind the counter with their slicked back hair exchange glances. The air feels too thin, too shallow in my lungs.

Frank lets the slats fall. ‘That was a few weeks ago…perhaps there is a boy now?

He hooks his thumbs inside the waistband of his jeans and walks towards me, stretching the loose denim away from his belly, ‘Eleven pounds in two weeks, can you notice the difference?’

I want to say no. I want to say give up Frank, it’s too late. I want to say what about my heart Dr Kennedy?

All night I ache, sick in my bones. I dream of the monkeys at Whipsnade Zoo; little wizened men with sagging balls who change into logs, misshapen, cursing from toothless mouths. It is a sign. On the way to work the next morning I stop in town to buy Elaine a cashmere cardigan I saw in the sales, new pajamas, rose scented bath oil, the turquoise Kat Kitson purse she’s craved. At the drycleaners, I tell Loretta the ‘borrowing’ has to stop. I find a piece of white card in the back office and write in blue felt pen: ‘Collect within three weeks or we will give the clothes to charity.’

‘Good idea,’ she says, ‘We can sell them on e-bay.’

‘No, I say, ‘No, we will not. My voice carries a weight, an urgency, which makes her sneer, but she doesn’t answer back.

Jianyu – one last time, that is all I ask. I have never said his name out loud, not once, not even to myself, or in the moment we return to our binary nature, when the room around us opens up, and he lays back on the pillow, hands behind his head. Laying together, I shyly shape the sounds on my tongue, waiting for his name to acquire harmony or gravity. He pushes back the sheets, hooks his leg over the bed, looking for cigarette. I go to the bathroom, stand at his cracked porcelain sink and splash water over my face. I reach for the towel hanging on the back of the door, bury my face in its scratchy fabric. The scent is unmistakable: sweet and peachy. The towel falls, tumbling in slo-mo to a twist and fold on the pitted green lino .

‘Mrs. Thompson,’ Jianyu calls, ‘What you doing in there?’

If I could find the point of divergence. If there was a way to start again.


All afternoon I work in the kitchen, grinding cumin, cardamom, coriander, chopping olives and dates, blanching almonds. I check the planner, count calories - 380 including rice. Elaine’s lost weight, her lovely chin tilts like a tea cup, her hair falls softly over her shoulders.

‘We just need a few figs and we’ll have cooked the whole damn Bible.’ I say, throwing onions into the pan.

She doesn’t laugh. I pour in the cardamoms, watch them soak up oil.

‘I saw you,’ she says, ‘getting out of Jianyu’s car.’ Her voice is sly, slowly provoking. Heat flushes my neck. Spots of oil splatter the steel. The lemons I scraped earlier have left speckles of zest stuck to my fingers. If I lifted them to my mouth they would taste sharp and bitter. I wipe my hands on my apron. ‘Elaine,’ I say, ‘I can explain...really I can...’ I walk towards her, wanting to kiss her hair, melt her scowl, to find the little girl with the fake alligator purse full of plastic beads who shuffled around the bedroom in my patent sling-backs, clinging to the dressing table for balance, but she laughs – loudly, the sound rippling down her throat, heaving over her breasts, and belly in shudders and gasps. ‘Oh my God, you really think you could be mistaken for his girlfriend don’t you? That is sooooooo......funny...’

In the frying pan the cardamoms pop.

If Jianyu was here he’d point his Canon at the dancing seeds, at the mother browning onions, at the daughter crying with laughter.

‘All of life,’ Mrs. Thompson he’d say, ‘all of life is here.’

Congratulations to all the winners, we will be in contact soon.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Cosmic Coupling and Sextrology - In Conversation with Starsky and Cox

Stella Starsky and Quinn Cox, a real-life married couple, are modern metaphysicians, cultural commentators and astrological consultants with an international private clientele. They are the best-selling authors of Sextrology: The Astrology of Sex and the Sexes (Harper, 2004) and Cosmic Coupling: The Sextrology of Relationships (Crown, 2009), and have contributed columns and features to myriad publications and sites worldwide, including Vogue, Allure, Cosmopolitan, The Daily Beast, Elle and Glamour.

Photo by Ric Ide

 To celebrate Valentine's Day, JJ Marsh finds out more.

People have reactions across the spectrum to their astrological sign, from fascination to disbelief. But everyone is interested in sex. You’ve combined a knowledge of the zodiac with a curiosity as to behavioural patterns. That seems to come from an understanding of people and a knowledge of archetypes.

We like to watch. Seriously, our shared interest and ultimate immersion in astrology all began with observation. Beginning in our student days, we noticed that men and women of the same sign were often very different from each other. Such that, as an expression of our own brand of humanistic astrology, we consider the Zodiac to have twenty-four gender signs. Still, unlike work with private individual clients, successfully writing on the subject of general sun-sign astrology requires exposing specific elements of truth about each of the signs.
Over decades of observation we have discerned twenty-four distinct archetypes, under which we all in turn fall, and wherein we share, with others of our sign, more than meets the eye. Obvious traits in appearance and behavior unite folks under the aegis of their sign; while there are deeper, more metaphysical motivators at play. You can't escape your archetype, we say, and we credit the symbolically rich Zodiac with offering infinite insights into we the people born under them. And our archetypes don't get checked at the bedroom door: Sex and sexuality are important elements of personhood and so, in our philosophy, our signs likewise determine our intimate predispositions and proclivities.

Sextrology, your exceptional bestseller, is far more than A-goes-with-B-but-leave-C-well-alone. It is erudite, witty and draws on a range of concepts, examples, mythology, symbols and well-known icons. It feels full of stories.

We conceived Sextrology to function on a number of levels simultaneously. The Sex- in the title was meant to signify gender first and sexuality second. We definitely wanted to get our original philosophy out there, and really build an argument. But we wanted to temper those more academic suppositions with a supple, straightfoward style. It isn't your granny's astrology. We like to think we read like lively, heady dinner party conversation, at turns serious and sophisticated and funny, comparative in sociology, religion and literature, weaving myths and fairy tales and pop references into something approaching seamless. We want to tickle funny bones as well as challenge minds on the subject. Not to mention have a little stylistic fun with the erotic bits.

We are all full of stories. And, for some reason we can't fully understand, those born under the same sign do share a similar plot. Be it real, metaphorical or metaphysical. As we continue to trace the myths and legends of multiple archetypal figures associated with any particular sign, these stories do serve, in many ways, as parables for those born under it.

In addition to the book, you have written regular astrological columns and advised some A-list celebrities: Mario Testino and Scarlett Johansson are among your purported fans. Everyone seems in awe of your accuracy and insight. How did you develop your expertise?

Through constant practice of our craft and continued exercise of our intuition. Yes, a substantial majority of our clients are in the entertainment, art and fashion industries. As a team we bring different talents to the table. Astrology is a language of symbols and the distinct arrangements of the planets in the various signs and astrological houses. The overall pattern they form, in a person's astrological charts, speaks volumes. There are upwards of eighty-four schools of astrology. We are humanistic astrologers. And we center on helping clients make the most of their potential, providing them tools for negotiating their would-be patterns and pitfalls. We all have them. We work on our craft and the technique of interpretation, focusing on the here and now with our clients; while allowing for occasional, as we say, "off the page" flashes of intuitive insight.

Dividing the Zodiac into 24 signs was groundbreaking. You have a different take on Virgo Man and Virgo Woman, for example, whereas previously one size fit all. When it comes to sexuality, you cover straight and gay males/females of each sign, but how does someone who is transgender or identifies as non-binary read this?

When Sextrology was published in 2004, we unfortunately weren't having the same conversation about transgenderism as we are today. There are many meaningful transgender myths and archetypes —Hermaphrodite, Tierisias and Caenis to name a few—that we dig into, and from whose cosmic power and inspiration individuals can draw.

Most friends who've transitioned have done so in the years since we first published Sextrology. As it was, we had to petition publishers for equal measure of gay and straight content. In Cosmic Coupling, hetero couples are dedicated two pages while gay and lesbian chapters only get one. Cue soundtrack about book size, the cost of paper and affordability.

The upshot is we've come a long way in the fifteen years hence. Now, no sociological conversation can disclude the transgender movement and the stunning effect it's having.

While some astrological partnerships seem better starred than others, your emphasis seems to be on awareness of our own and each other’s habits and tendencies. It’s eye-opening in some ways and familiar in others.

We can only change ourselves. And while, yes, reading the chapters in Sextrology pertaining to loved ones will offer an insider's guide to that individual in many ways, the main tenet of our work is personal development, you doing you, to use the vernacular. In Cosmic Coupling, which treats all possible 300 gay and straight combinations, the character of the relationships become the focus. Two people may form any relationship, still the relationship itself becomes this third entity. There are actually twenty-four relationship-chapters pertaining to any one reader of Cosmic Coupling, while the voyeuristic possibilities are endless in exploring what makes other relationships tick. Cosmic Coupling is a conversation starter for sure.

Self-identification/determination can be positive, yet not always. Is there a concern that typifying a kind of behaviour associated to a birth date could be counter-productive? Eg, I’m a Piscean, I just can’t help myself.

Our brand of astrology is necessarily plastic in its application to people, be they clients or a wider readership. Our astrology is pinioned on potential, optimizing gifts and opportunities while negotiating all negatives, by nature or nurture. We can "see" a client's specific story in their individual charts . While, on the full-populus level, too, the Sun placement presents us with overall themes, which run through the lives of people of one sign versus another. Our Sun placement is our identity—and people do tend to identify quite fiercely with their sign.

We can't tell anyone why astrology, in its myriad forms and applications, works so accurately. But there are a lot of things we can't explain. It would seem that, just as a rose blooms in June and a chrysanthemum in December, so too do people born at a certain time reflect, or literally personify, the energy of that time. One could say the Zodiac, like life, is hinged on paradox, the culmination being the last yin-yang sign of Pisces with its opposite facing fish. And yes, counting Christ and Blanche Dubois among their archetypal order, Pisces people are prone to temptation; but, for the Fish, that's always a two-way street.

Photo by Ric Ide

Let’s talk about examples. Here on your examination couch is a Capricorn female in her thirties. What can you tell us about her?

If this were a client coming to us, she would provide us her birth day, time and place. From that we generate a number of charts that reveal endless things about her, individually. What we have to tell all Capricorn women may be more sweeping, and in more umbrella terms, but it also, paradoxically, gets to the essence of what all Capricorn woman share. As any Capricorn woman, whose archetypes include Mary Poppins, will tell you: It's sensible to have an umbrella (under which any Capricorn woman's unique details still thematically fall).

To call herself a Capricorn means that her Sun placement is in Capricorn; but we don't know anything about the placement of her other planets. So we focus fully on the Sun placement and go deep into the archetype of the sign of Capricorn to increasingly extract fundamentals and every facet, really, of her character. We delve all the crannies of the Capricorn "estate"—its elaborate cosmology and symbology, all associative myths and godheads, the energetic make-up of the sign and its planetary rulership, numerology of the sign, on and on.

There is untold logic in the Zodiac. One might suspect that it is indeed an ancient system. Or as we like to call it: the original twelve-step program.

One element that surprised me is how certain star signs tend to share physical attributes. Just briefly, what would you expect to see in a Gemini man? And a Taurean woman?

It says in Sextrology, written in 2004, that Gemini man has small hands. (The current American president was born on June 14.) That aside, Gemini men tend toward the impish. They are animated, lit up. They typically fire off questions, often driving conversation. They are often slight and agile and retain a boyishness into old age. They are given to juvenile humor if not antics. There's something of the lad and au courant about them. They make endless attempts at jokes. You can often feel their need to be liked. Or that might be their artfully dodging way of charming you. Or manipulating you.

Taurus women prize themselves. Though an enviable quality, they can give off an air of innocent reluctance or reistance. They tend to boast childlike features and large, wide-set eyes. Given to softly colored and textured clothing and comfortable, quality trappings, Taurus likewise avoids brash or stressful environments or people. One of the femmier femmes on the astrological block, she tends to love her girly potions and notions. Taurus has a creamy look to her complexion and she often wears a center part, letting her hair flop curl or feather. Chances are she'll smell of quality, floral-note perfume.

Your Haute Astrology series of twelve books covers the entire year, week by week, for each sign. How did that come about?

Long before the books, we wrote columns and features for magazines, under our present astrological handles, if you will. Then, the books brought us more print and online work, culminating in a weekly column for The Daily Beast. An unlikely place for a horoscope. After, we decided to self-publish, weekly, on our website; and we did this for about five years before putting all the sign's horoscopes into their own yearly books under the same aegis as the original column: Haute Astrology.

Thanks so much for your time and Happy Valentine’s Day!

The pleasure is ours. Good to know that Valentine's Day falls into February, which is "Self-Love" Month.

Sextrology and Cosmic Coupling are available in paperback and ebook formats.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Violence against women in thrillers - In Conversation with Bridget Lawless

Bridget Lawless, founder of The Staunch Prize, talks to JJ Marsh.

The inaugural Staunch Book Prize will be awarded to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.

JJ: Tedious tropes of violence against women in crime fiction is an issue I’ve argued against for years but you are tackling this in a far more effective way: a prize for a crime novel work that doesn’t rely on abuse of females as a given. What triggered this initiative?

BL: It’s been a long time brewing I suppose. I’ve written about violence for schools, fought for women’s equality, safety, the right to be treated with respect, etc. But the idea for the prize came out of a moment – my own exasperation with violence against women in books and on screen, coinciding with the Me Too movement, Times Up, real life women expressing their experiences, where fictional accounts suddenly seem tacky and exploitative.

JJ: Yes, we’re experiencing an exceptional cultural shift via the movements you mention. Women and men are finding a platform to name and shame their abusers and the systems which enable them. Is the time right to shake off the mantle of ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ and take control of the narrative?

BL: I think people who have experienced abuse should be the ones to decide how they deal with it. It’s probably not helpful to have ‘supporters’ shouting from the sidelines telling them when and how to voice it, or how it should be labelled, or to hurry up! It feels like a tipping point, but exciting though these moments are, they can be fragile and collapse. Cause fatigue can set in. Or factions form, then divisions. Disagreements about the way forward. Most of all, we should listen to each other.

JJ: The announcement of The Staunch Prize has met with some resistance. Some see your prize as a ‘ban’ on writing which views gender abuse as a part of our society. Sample quote: “I won’t stop writing about violence against women while it still exists.” 

BL: The prize is not a ban, or censorship. The language around this resistance has been quite florid! Some have said ‘if we’re not allowed to write about violence against women…’ No one is saying people aren’t allowed to write about this or whatever else they want. I’d march for the right for people to write what they wish – but that doesn’t mean I like it, or admire it, or would give it a prize.

But there’s a strange tone to some of the naysayers – as if they have some duty to report (through fiction) things that happen to women in the real world. Or a role as educators. Really? They defend it as ‘telling women’s stories’. But women’s stories don’t wrap up nicely in 400 pages. And those of us who care about what happens to women don’t pick up our information from crime novels. Incidentally, the resistance has only been from crime novel writers, which is one sub-genre of thrillers – though obviously a huge one. I haven’t heard a peep of complaint from elsewhere. And you have to remember, those writers make their living from it.

JJ: Such a prize, in my view, acts as a provocation. Much like Kamila Shamsie’s call for a year of publishing only women, it starts a conversation. But unlike Shamsie, you are not excluding anyone but championing a new approach.

BL: It certainly has started a conversation – more than one – but the people having those conversations aren’t communicating with each other! The crime writers and readers are in their bubble, agreeing with themselves, while over here, my inbox is full of messages of joy, relief, congratulations, good lucks and thanks. I’m championing more original writing which could shake up the thriller genre, and find new stories to tell that don’t involve women as victims. That’s all!

JJ: Power and those who hold it is always a concern. While the hitherto voiceless now have a megaphone, is there a danger in trying the accused by social media? Does Margaret Atwood have a point in reminding us of the systems of law?

BL: Definitely the trial by social media is underway – but it’s also social media pointing out that so far, the accused seem to be getting away with it scot free. Why hasn’t Harvey Weinstein been arrested and brought in for questioning? With so many accusations against him, all in a similar vein, he must be a person of interest. Yet today his lawyers claimed they were deciding whether to sue Uma Thurman for accusing him. He’s still threatening her! Until something gets moving, the law gets moving, social media is going to be the place where those questions are asked.

JJ: Back to fiction. In addition to all the ‘dead prostitute’ as victims, many authors/readers resent the ‘feisty’ heroine detective who overcame abuse in her youth. Do you see this as part of the pattern?

BL: Yep! A woman can’t be empowered unless she’s been abused as a child or raped and seeking redress. Jodie Foster (who played a young rape victim in The Accused) is on record pointing out that rape and abuse are the go-to motivators of female characters. It’s quite possible to have a sense of justice, energy and drive, and be quick thinking without having personal anger and revenge in your tank. It’s like saying women can’t be effective unless really goaded.

JJ: Naomi Alderman’s book, The Power, contains a disturbing scene in which women use their new-found dominance in exactly the same way as some men did in the past. Must the pendulum swing so far in the other direction to correct the imbalance?

BL: Should we fight violence with violence? I don’t believe so. There would be no overall gain if women just emulated the mistakes men made – that makes us followers, with none of the empathy and insights I think we have. I guess it worked for Alderman’s story. But it seems to be true that power corrupts, so it wouldn’t be correcting the imbalance if women used their power to hurt each other or others. But nothing says they’re not susceptible to being corrupted by power. They’re human!

JJ: Fast forward to 2028. What do you hope The Staunch Prize has achieved?

BL: 10 years! It’s hard to think even about this year! I don’t expect the prize to change the world. But I hope in 10 years it wouldn’t be needed. I think people will tire of all this graphic violence in fiction. Through the changes happening now, I think women will feel able to refuse parts in which they’re subjected to physical and sexual violence in adaptations, and hopefully, the genre will move on and evolve, so that this intense focus of women getting hurt, raped, murdered, will be something people want to read or indeed write less and less.

My hope is that it will balance itself out naturally, as it sits oddly alongside the real battles women are fighting, the real violence we face, and to many, many women, reading such fiction, watching such movies, either already isn’t, or soon won’t be something they want to do. I’m not prescribing that in any way, I just think tastes are changing.