Tag Archives: Books

Who’s pleasing whom? In search of our own language

Simon_Penning Pleasure_2



When I ask myself the question: WHO IS PLEASING WHOM???

It’s the first part of a pair. What follows is:



This is the theme of my next non-fiction book. It’s a critical analysis of writing in the feminine and of the (still far too) male-dominated nature of academic discourse. Will we ever dare to speak our own language(s) and survive in today’s academic landscape?

I’ve got several bones to pick in this book. I look at what Nicole Brossard calls writing in the feminine and at just how far we may go in calling this style of writing a new language. I look critically at Brossard’s use of the term we, wondering how (and why) a white middle-class lesbian feminist can claim to be the mouthpiece of all women. I look at what language permits and what its gatekeepers will not allow. I also look at language’s gatekeepers and the extent to which even feminists bow to their demands. This leads me to question the situation of  feminist scholars who (must?) continue to speak the ‘old’ patriarchal language. I recall my own experience as a scholar, setting a new accent, being both creative and critical in my writing, only to be told by my feminist tutor and by my feminist examiners that: you don’t do it that way. Why not? Is there really only one way? One language, a single voice, in this day and age where diversity is self-explanatory? When will there ever be change if no one dares? The tension between feminist intentions and the real possibilities of expression within an academic arena become viciously apparent. In this book I also look at the merits of writing in the feminine as, perhaps, a first measure that leads us in a good (I’m not sure that I’m ready to say right) direction. Thought is a journey in language. There can never only be one way. This book is about daring to fly and assessing the risks. I hope you’ll read it when it’s out.


Just so that you know:

The contents of this book are part of my PhD in Creative & Critical Writing. Do you see the joke: if you can’t be creative and critical in a PhD in Creative & Critical Writing, then where? I’ve passed the exam and will receive my diploma by Christmas. Now I can beef up my critique and say it how I mean it.

Free for all



Still ever so pleased with the recent 5-star review of Verses Nature Vol.1 . So pleased that I’m now going to give that book away for FREE on October 29. Make the most of it!

Now  that you can have Verses Nature (In The Beginning Was The Heat) and Verses Nature (The Making Of) for FREE, what more do you want?

What??? Oh, alright then. I’ll give you Long Time Walk on Water (‘Highly, highly recommended’, says a reviewer on Amazon). Free for selected days in November.

What??? Oh, alright then. I’ll also give you Mut@tus (high-brow rumpy-dumpy for you and your friends, but not for your mum!). Free for selected days in November.

Watch this space and kindle promotions on Amazon. Don’t say I’m not nice to you.




The Crocodile Princess (II)


Can you hear that sad sigh? I’ve just finished Ian Gregson’s The Crocodile Princess and I feel it has so much more to give. One excerpt on my blog is not enough. The book’s definitely got its place on one of the  Got To Read Again shelves in my study.  I say shelf but it’s actually a bookcase each time and I have five main categories:

  • a Got To Read Again shelf
  • a To Read shelf (I bought over 30 books one afternoon at a local book fair last year and am still working my way through those tho the Lord knows, my To Read shelf wasn’t empty before that)
  • a Was Good, You Can Pass It On to Someone Else shelf
  • an Academic shelf (books relating to my PhD)
  • a For The Flea Market shelf

And then there’s a whole pile of homeless books wandering around and ending up in the most unlikely places. Librarians across the globe will be rolling their eyes. What do I care.

Here’s another taste of The Crocodile Princess for you.


Ian Gregson THE CROCODILE PRINCESS book cover


Keith thanked the pedaleur but said that he had urgent business to attend to at the moment, but the pedaleur said that he would return later in the day and take him to visit some girls, and all of them would be congenial and lovely, and there would be a choice – there would be some Cambodian ladies, but also some Vietnamese, some Chinese and some French (…)

Keith was suddenly shocked by the thought that such a visit might actually be wise – because sex was an activity he needed to learn and this, when no emotion was involved, might in fact be the wisest place to learn it. He was unnerved by the idea that the wisest course could possibly be so thoroughly the opposite of conventional wisdom. But a woman would certainly expect a man to be confident and competent and he couldn’t be either in a field of action he had never entered. (…)

Keith was made aware of the long silence between them when the pedaleur said that he also knew boys who could be of service to him. When they arrived outside Peter’s apartment, the pedaleur looked Keith solicitously in the eye and said that he, too, could be of service, and Keith registered the man’s gold-capped teeth, and his dark skin, the skin of a rural Cambodian, and his powerful arms and shoulders. With that sudden intensity which Keith had noticed before in Cambodians, the pedaleur said that he and Keith could go to a place he knew where, for half an hour, they could be heureux, and then he would pedal Keith tranquilly along the river, so that he could be quiet and peaceful. And this would cost only one American dollar. Keith remembered it was Sunday morning, and thought how different this was from the church-going Sundays of his Lancastrian upbringing.


(once inside Peter’s apartment, he is surprised to find a married woman there, Edith. Surely those two weren’t… were they??? This is me, Joan, paraphrasing the section I’ve omitted. Keith takes in the compromising scene, then…)


Several desperate words which hated women, which he had heard used mechanically, obsessively, during his national service, and which he had found himself using then, during that time, crowded into his head and shouted.




  • Ian, would you say that every writer is willingly or unwillingly also a politician?

All literature is inevitably political in its implications, but some forms are more explicitly political than others. In lyric poetry the politics is only implicit; the short story also has a tendency to occupy a personal rather than a political space. The novel is the most political of literary forms and the greatest novels (by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Toni Morrison etc) evoke a whole society.


  • some believe that it is impossible to teach creative writing. What’s your stance on this?

I taught creative writing for a long time so I’d have to declare an interest there. It’s certainly possible to teach writing techniques connected eg to narrative voice. I’d also hope that, as you teach such things, you instill a love of literature in general.


  • how do you feel about commissioned writing?

Nice work if you can get it, though these days I wouldn’t want (much) of it.


  • what was the hardest aspect of writing The Crocodile Princess?

Inventing comedy ideas that were appropriate,and good enough, for Peter Cook to speak.


  • to which extent does the final book correspond to the original you had in mind before you started writing?

I had a broad outline in mind which the novel does fulfill, but it developed a lot on the way and that’s one of the most gratifying aspects of writing.


  • where would you place yourself along the continuum of novelist-types: meticulously planned before I sit down to write — start writing then go with the flow?

I’m somewhere in the middle of that – I have a general idea and quite a number of specific ideas about plot and character and individual scenes, and images,etc, but the great joy is moving along through those and finding it expand and acquire its shape.


  • literary criticism: science or art? and why?

It’s a combination of the two. I do think that novelists and poets should be aware of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan etc because that’s among the most important thinking of our time.


  • why Cambodia: what is unique to this setting regarding the requirements of your novel?

It’s fascinating, beautiful place which got caught up in some major political events.


  • Crocodile Princess. two versions of the story; the  Cambodian (princess swallowed up by a crocodile) and the Dagenham version. The theme of secrets/masks, origins, double/parallel identities, public/private faces (Yuri, Dudley, Joe smoking opium to retreat from his mundane life, Edith). Unreliable surfaces, déjà vu, illusions/magic. Dialogical identity. There is a lot antagonism/tension caused by these clashing identities and their individual objectives within the plot; also:pieces of information like poker chips, owned and coveted and passed around by means of your mischievous literary style. No one seems truly happy; all trapped in their own identity crisis. dreams, illusions, nightmares…  is the title of the book symbolic merely of the ‘paranoiac petty-mindedness’ of the diplomatic community,  or of the human condition in general, in your view? To which extent is the novel a mask YOU wear to play beak-a-boo with the reader?

Well these are the bits and pieces we all work with as novelists aren’t they? And the most important thing is that they are ambivalent and polyphonic so that they can say a wide range of things at once and so go some way to evoking the beautiful mess that we live in.


  • in the novel, we hear more than once about the inadequacy of rationalism to do justice to the intricacies of human thought or to bring about some form of inner (dare I use the word: spiritual?) peace. What is your personal take on this issue? how satisfactorily are you able to function and connect to other minds in/of Western culture? Have we been led astray? How does rationalism affect you as a writer AND critic?

I don’t regard rationalism as separable from other kinds of cognition: it’s a label we give artificially to a form of thought that is thoroughly intertwined with other forms and works alongside them to help us understand our experience.


  • humour: Do your students ever get the chance to laugh in your classes?

I’d really want them to laugh but I’m not funny enough to make them laugh as often as I’d like.


  • What’s on your bucket list that you haven’t done yet? Do you have plans to do it yourself or will one of your characters see to it for you?

Really that’s my current project, where I’m combining different literary forms, – poems, short stories, flash fiction, and an essay in a sequence focused on a single subject (in this case about advertising).


The Crocodile Princess. The description on the back cover fits so I won’t try to outdo it, I’ll simply repeat it:

Fast-paced, witty, full of intrigue, misdirection and set in the heart of Phnom Penh in an extraordinary moment of history, The Crocodile Princess is a gripping read from the highly accomplished author of Not Tonight Neil.







The Crocodile Princess

Ian Gregson THE CROCODILE PRINCESS book cover


I got a present the other day; a signed copy of The Crocodile Princess by Ian Gregson; novelist, poet, critic and Oxford Professor of Poetry nominee. I had only ever met Ian once in person before. That was five years ago, when he gave me his personal copy of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and told me to consider writing my next novel in the first person. I did more than consider it, I took up the challenge, one which, for years, was marked more by cursing than by anything I would care to call satisfactory progress. Now the novel is finished. Thank goodness. Now I can get back to reading for pleasure.

A pleasure I wish to share with you. Below is the opening of Ch2 of The Crocodile Princess. I love it for so many reasons. I’m sure you will find your own.




‘No no you’re not going to catch me,’ shouted Joe Keane, the American ambassador in Cambodia. He stared in the face of Norodom Sihanouk looming on a billboard above him, Sihanouk dressed all in white and with a shaved head, saintly Buddhist, his serenity a rebuke to Keane’s desperate, breathless driving forward of his cyclopousse, his bicycle rickshaw, his pedalling ever more frantic because the finishing line was a huge jacaranda tree only forty yards past the billboard, and Peter Cook was gaining on him, now only fifteen yards behind, and calling to him, taunting him with his growing nearness, about how he would imminently overtake, about the superiority of Cook’s own cyclo, about how Joe’s contraption was wonky, about how Joe himself – worst of all, this, as Joe was gasping more and more for breath –   was an old man, was past it… and Joe was dizzy now, standing up on his pedals, then sitting down again, and the cyclo was so unwieldy, and four times heavier than a normal bicycle, and he could feel his head sicken, where dazzling white enormous Sihanouk in the silver of the nearly-full moon was swimming in his eyes above him – or no, too bright for that, because in fact lit from below by a carefully placed lamp, so now, as he approached, Joe could see lizards running all over the god/king… lizards (and he thought this ludicrously, even painfully, given what he needed to concentrate upon) attracted by the insects on Sihanouk that were, in turn, attracted by the lamplight… and then he thought about that thought and knew he was observing his thought self-consciously still because of the opium he had smoked earlier, at Madame Chhum’s, the opium whose pungent taste even now lingered between his teeth and inside his tongue, somehow both sweet and bitter, the opium that made his thoughts wrap themselves around each other, twist inside each other and open passageways that led past tens of doorways which might open at any moment and lead down other passageways… and it was being too deeply inside that thought that led him not to notice he was veering to the right, not to notice so that now he had to wrestle the cyclo leftwards, still half-hoping to go forwards as well, still somehow to win because the tree was only twenty yards ahead, but it was no good, the front wheel was pointing left but the weight of everything behind it, the hooded seat and the wheels and Keane himself, was dragging it still to the right, so that his back right wheel was slipping more and more into a shallow ditch, and he made a final effort, standing on his pedals feeling that his breath was squeezed hard as though his lungs might burst, but no, it was no use, and he slipped further into the ditch and the whole ungainly contraption toppled onto its right side, and he saw Cook go flying past him to the jacaranda where he stopped and jumped out of his cyclo and danced about him with his arms in the air.


I’m not quite halfway through the book but already have loads of questions. Here are a few:


  1. Ian, do you have any personal experience of the diplomatic service? If not, what kind of research did you do in order to portray this particular social group so convincingly?

I’ve never worked as a diplomat, but I think it’s important that the novel tackles political questions and if you focus on a diplomatic community you’re involved in politics straight away. In particular, it’s important for British writers to explore the colonial experience, especially given the extent to which writers in colonized countries have focused on that history from their perspective. So I researched the lives of ambassadors and other Embassy staff, and read memoirs of diplomats, including ones that described that life in the time and place of The Crocodile Princess.


  1. How long did it take you to write the book and did you use any time management software to help you? (What do you think of such software in general?)

It took me three years – some days I only wrote about two hundred words, and I revised the first draft extensively. I’m not even aware, to be honest, of what time management software is!


  1. One of the things I adore when reading The Crocodile Princess is the way you weave in witty observations that make the characters immediately come alive in a line or two. I also have the impression that it is at times a very thin line indeed being drawn between humour and disdain. Why did you decide to give characters this edge and have you personally ever been at the receiving end of such treatment?

The focus on comedy arose from the element of alternative history, where I invented an alternative life for the comedian Peter Cook. I wanted this component to throw a defamiliarising angle on the politics. I love the idea of the novel as a polyphonic form that incorporates multiple voices and languages. So I conceived of the satirical comedy as a language which would be a source of imagery – as in the references to the domino effect, for example. The element of disdain in it might be connected to the class aspect, of Cook’s upper-middle class origins (his father worked for the Foreign Office in Nigeria). And that might also indicate that I wanted some distance from Cook, which was why I invented Waldo Vaughan as an angry left-wing Welsh nationalist comedian as an alternative which unfortunately never occurred.


  1. Another thing I admire: the philosophical remarks which lift the plot beyond the mere happenings within the diplomatic circle yet without rendering the book too high-brow or know-it-all. Are any of these opinions ones you share or were they attributed to your characters much in the way you would choose the colour of their hair or select for them the right spouse?

I agree with some of them and not others. One of the things I wanted to depict was a kind of ideological norm for 1962 – people being racist, sexist, homophobic, and snobbish – but above all casually, as part of a set of unquestioned assumptions. Hector Perch, the left wing journalist, is the character whose views I would most naturally share, but – partly for that reason – I wanted to show him being alarmingly wrong in his political diagnosis of Cambodia. One of the ready resources you can draw upon in a novel set in 1962 is the ironies that arise from having characters have perceptions which readers – from their knowledge of subsequent events – realise are shockingly wide of the mark.


  1. A critic whose name unfortunately escapes me said that a novel in verse is an abomination. You write novels as well as poetry. How useful do you find the distinction between poetry and prose in contemporary literature?

I wouldn’t want to write a verse novel because the form of poetry, to my mind, would be too awkward. But the idea of poetry being dialogic and novelized, as theorized by Bakhtin, is very important to me. And my own poems have always invented characters who speak the poems, and they have overlapping points of view where voices collide. And I like to think that in my fiction I call upon forms of imagery which I’ve learned from writing poems.


  1. Tell me more about the cover.

Adam Craig at Cinnamon designed it. He came up with several alternatives, but I thought that the understated reference to Angkor Wat was cool and laid-back in a way that appealed to me.


  1. What’s something the readers don’t know about one of the protagonists: something you had in mind when writing the book, but which didn’t make it into the final version?

It’s not so much a character thing. A pun on ‘backwater’ haunted me: that word is repeatedly applied to Phnom Penh. It’s important that the city was patronised in that way, because it means that outlandish stuff could happen there that wouldn’t have been tolerated in Paris or Moscow. But I also thought of the word as referring to the astonishing yearly event in the city, when its river reverses its flow. That image was connected for me to the central themes of the novel’s ‘alternative’ nature – its focus on systematic disorientation, of a deep-seated bewilderment which I hoped would express how little in control people are of what is underlyingly shaping their lives.


  1. What are you reading right now and why would you recommend it?

I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, which is a novelised version of the lives of jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk. Based on facts but extending what is known through fictive speculation. I’d recommend it because it does what I most admire – it is beautifully, accessibly written so you feel compelled to keep reading, but it also asks fascinating, complex questions.


The same can be said of The Crocodile Princess. Definitely. Thanks, Ian, for sharing your views with me. Some people think the author doesn’t count and that we should approach the book as an autonomous work of art. I’m not one of them. Ian’s answers allow me to get so much more out of reading his novel. And I hope they make you interested in finding out more.

more ways than one

illustration: L.W.Eden, © copyright, 2015

Miss Virginia Mendes stumbles from the bourgeois bliss of her brittle marriage into the world of virtual romance, convinced that He must be out there, somewhere. Finding instead…

14.01.— Discovery 13:39:28+0100(CET)

I am a woman of my word.

When you send me one of your delicious lines, your sensual reveries, they touch something deep in the centre of me behind my navel. The heat spreads slowly. I think of sunrise. Of a sleepy beast, stirring. At the same time, my nipples, my clitoris, light up like a match. I burn, four hearts pulsating at different rhythms, at different points in my body: my nipples, my heart, my belly, my sex.

My heart is the fastest, fanned by my short, choppy breath. My nipples: throb sonorously, slowly, more than sexual, suffusing me with a gratification I recall from breastfeeding. A rhythmic, timeless tug. My sex tingles, beats like the excited heart of a child about to do something daring. I can’t wait. Desire lubricates me. I want to touch. To savour my own ripeness but I abstain. Pressing myself, hard, against the chair, I imagine it is your hand, your knee, your nose. I lift my skirt, open my legs, which part, making the sound of a kiss… In my mind, I knit your hair with my fingers as you drink me, as you bury into me with the different parts of your body as I squeeze my buttocks together, my rotating hips in barely perceptible movements.

My orgasm starts with my breasts. With a quick series of contractions, pushing down my body, like swallowing; the sensation ejaculating through me in little waterfalls. That my breasts may come alive like this is a revelation. They are not my favourite part of me. I learn, now, to acknowledge them; to take pleasure in the pleasure they give.

Sometimes my orgasm ends here, in my breasts, burnt out before descending further. On other occasions, it continues its  galloping downwards so that when I erupt, I feel like a fruit that has been squashed in the palm of your hand, juice spitting everywhere. And then there are those times I feel as if the floor beneath me has suddenly disappeared; I fly, pulverised into millions of particles. Hours it will take, before I may bring them all back together again; before I may ‘collect’ myself.

My most familiar sexual part of me, my least understood. Strange, that, in the absence of touch, energy and fantasy suffice to make me come alive. Woken up from a long winter sleep — and I’m starving! When my sex comes alive, shows her head, the tantalising warmth she releases spills down my legs. It becomes impossible for me to sit still. The slightest movement magnifies my excitement. I feel how the folds of my flesh fill with liquid desire. I know that if I put my hands there, tease back the lips, my fingers may drown, may slide around on quivering pink flesh. They may dive and probe the ridges of my inner walls. Resurface, stroke the inside of my thighs and be drawn by the obsidian throb of my clitoris. If you touch her, breeze across her, surreptitiously, she will flick a shudder through me like a whip. Do not touch her for too long. Tease her and keep her waiting. Therein lies the secret. What we both prefer is a slow, merciless rise to ecstasy. So when you excite me with your words and my desire is stirred, I do not force her; I let her dance, for I know that patience is all I need to discover the secrets of joy…

Do not misunderstand me. I can be more than satisfied without reaching a climax. An orgasm is not the hallmark of a successful sexual experience. Not for me, at least. Misrecognition of this has caused much unhappiness. When forced to an orgasm, I feel more frustrated than before. Duty, so-called, having been done, I have nonetheless been left behind. I am not a sex beast. I do not need multiple orgasms or to copulate interminably. I do need a good fuck… and I know that you know what I am talking about…

A multiple orgasm is, then, not necessarily one vaginal orgasm after another, but also, and more essentially, the (sometimes simultaneous) eruption of my key zones, of which there remains one to discover, as you know…

In trust, Gini

* *

PS 1.

noluckwiththefu@…: So is it fact or fiction?

GinImE@...: Semi-fiction.

noluckwiththefu@…: Meaning?

* *

PS 2.

noluckwiththefu@…: You get women’s hopes up with all that. You make them dissatisfied with their men. My man’s a good lover but I never had any of those other orgasms you’re talking about. You just made that bit up and that’s mean.

flow.tite.ange@…: Who said she made it up? I’ve had abdominal orgasms. I swear!

(Disbelieving snorts from the others)

kissmy@…: So who’s been giving you those inter-galactic orgasms, hey? Your husband?


* *

PS 3.

sucette.du67@…: I think it was wrong to let her tell her husband. But I like the poetry.

GinImE@...: I’m listening…

sucette.du67@…: He doesn’t need to know all the details. You’re just putting yourself in an unnecessary dilemma. I know I wouldn’t want to know all the details about my man. He comes home with a smile on his face, that’s what counts.

kissmy@….: Even if some other pussy’s putting it there?

(sucette.du67@… sucks her teeth.)

babygirl@…: Shy is right. You’re passing the parcel, if you ask me.

GinImE@...: Go on…

noluckwiththefu@…: Well, you’re absolving yourself by telling your husband, but then you get him to bear the burden. It’s a bit chicken, don’t you think?

kissmy@….: Hell! Men’ve been having their cake and eating it too all along but listen sisters, this millennium’s for the ladies! My life has improved threefold ever since I woke up to this fact, ever since I stopped listening to all those nonsense songs about letting him be king, about just how perfect I would be if only he loved me right. I’m loving myself right — got rid of the complacent swine I had educated him to be ‘oh, don’t do that, honey, I’ll do it for you’. Sign of my love? Sign of my stupidity more like. Of my mis-education. I can have my cake and eat it too, n you know what, you guys are yummy. Yum yum, more of that please, but on my own terms from now on and you all better wrap up well cos the wind is changing.

babygirl@…: C’mon, stop dragging this down…

sucette.du67@…: No, let her have her say. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Why do we belittle ourselves and play coy when a guy says we’re pretty? We behave as though we’re hearing it for the first time, like we don’t deserve the compliment or something, instead of saying, Thank you, I know, which we do. Cos we are. They strut into the room without a shadow of a doubt so why shouldn’t we? Get over him, Gini. You’ve got eyes in the front of your head for a reason. Move on. (Talking more to herself now) you know when you just know it’s over, but all that time it takes you to say it; all that dead time in between knowing and doing? God, I’ve got so many dead years on my account. All gone to waste through cowardice and false loyalty… (wakes up) move on!

( from Mut@tus )

Of all the books I’ve read, this has divided me against myself more than any other.’

‘Don’t know what tablets you’re taking, but do, please, keep taking them. They seem to be working wonders. If you can get them on the NHS, please let me know.’

‘This is an abridgment of a novel which pushes the boundaries of women’s literary fiction to its limits – a D.H. Lawrence type moment (…) I can’t say enough good things about this novel. This is a haunting work which will stay in my head for a long time.’


Cross your heart? 1974

My biggest secret? No. I ain’t telling. If I tell, it’s not a secret anymore. No. No, I can’t. Stop asking or else I’m going to go. My second biggest? You promise you won’t tell? Promise? Cross your heart and hope to die? Well, you know mummy’s got a baby? She used to breastfeed her. Wendy and me were allowed to watch but Derek wasn’t. I think he wanted to but he was never allowed to. Daddy watched sometimes, but Derek never. He always had to leave the room. He’s a boy. It looked funny. Not last night but the night before when daddy started night shift… she’s glad to see the back of him cos he keeps getting on her nerves and they don’t talk to each other half the time… she had Kim and then she put her down and called Wendy and me. You promise you won’t tell? She told us… she told us to suck it but we didn’t want to… she pulled us and made us, but before, Derek had to go out of the room. It was a horrible feeling. Like a dried raisin. It must be horrible being a baby. Then she told us never, never to tell anyone and when I went to bed with Wendy, we were afraid to talk… and I felt really lonely.


(from Long Time Walk on Water)

‘Read everything and anything by Joan Barbara Simon. I promise you will be rewarded. I was’  (Anthony Howarth, Oscar nominee)

‘Weaves love, self-discovery, race, class politics, immigration, and the British postcolonial imaginations into a beautiful tour de force. A moving account of black sojourners’ day-to-day in a new alien land as they tumble forward for a better life and belonging.’ (Amazon)




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LONG TIME: When the weary are worn out… and dinner’s in the oven

Just back in from work that very moment, Jack, standing in the hallway, and although he hadn’t been round the flat yet, hadn’t even taken his jacket off, although the flat was making all the noises it usually made – telly buzzing, fridge wheezing, waterpipes, the lot, he sensed in an instant –

“Nina? Ben, where’s ya mum?”

“Dunno. Said that she was going out n that you’re not the only one who’s got cronies.”

With a sigh, expelled from the caverns of his fed up lungs, Jack:

hung his jacket up next to her empty peg,

pushed his working boots into place along the skirting board next to where her outdoor shoes were missing,

threw himself into a chair in the kitchen.

Them in the flat upstairs, trampling around again. Why couldn’t their kids just



and behave themselves, sit down and watch telly quietly like his kids did.

“Oi! You up there!” One hand cupped over his mouth. An angry voice carries far. Propels saliva. Turns the veins that scale the temple hard, blue.


Pack of anti-social bleeders! What he wouldn’t give to get off that council estate, but it was hopeless; with only two kids? They’d need another three before getting on the list for somewhere bigger. He felt sorry enough as it was that his two had to stay cooped up in the house all evening, all day when they were on school holidays, but he would not have them mixing with the kids round there. A few months back it must have been by now, when Ben had run in crying;   some of the boys on the estate had thrown stones at him. His father had simply tutted with even greater disdain for his son than he had shown for the gratuitous violence impregnating the headlines of his local newspaper, had just said, “Stop crying, you sissy. They’re just jealous. Riff-raff like that don’t know the meaning of the word family. Next time they chuck stones at you, you pick up a couple yourself and pelt them back good and proper.” The following evening, braving the cold, Jack had gone down with Ben to practise pelting, some of them council kids watching at a distance.

“Look at em,” Jack head-butted their way, “gawping like they’ve never seen a son having fun with his dad before.”

Ben pelted, harder, like a cricketer, imagining them council kids yelping every time he slung a stone, every time he got them right where it hurts, egged on by his dad, teaching him the right angle, guiding his pitch. Inside, behind the ostentatious ruffling of hair or vocabular praise, it pained Jack Dunbar to have to teach his son how to pelt other boys, poor little bleeders they were, with all the cards stacked against them no wonder they turned rough. Father and son pelted for ages, till their shoulders ached and them council kids had wandered off, one by one, driven home by hunger and the cold. The next time Ben asked if he could play out, his father still said,



Them in the flat upstairs didn’t stay quiet for long. Jack’s ceiling shuddered as they chased each other up and down, knocking over furniture. What could a man do but sigh?

A slip of paper at the other end of the table. Swallowing down that something inside him which recoiled from the idea of having to make a move, Jack finally managed to pull himself to his feet after a minute. Or two.

I’m fed up with this mess, it said. Need a change. A good one. A bloody long one. Near the bottom: Monica. And below that: dinner is in the oven.

Note gets flung at the window. How long would she be gone this time?  Maybe she’d creep in tonight at four o’clock in the morning by God he’d let her have it this time, whenever she came back!

“Ben, what time did your mother leave, then?”

Telly’s blaring.


“I dunno.”

“What d’you mean you dunno? What time did your bloody mother leave?”

“I don’t know!”

“Come ’ere when I’m talking to you!”

Ben: drags his feet from the sofa, over the carpet, across the lino,   blinks up at his father.

“Sorry, son,” Jack pulls up a trouser leg, bends down to Ben’s level,  tries again, “it’s not your fault… now, try again. Try to think,” he puts his arms around his son, rubbing him gently. “Were you watching telly when your mother left?”


“Thanks, son. You’re magic!” Smack on Ben’s bum.

Boy turns to leave.

It was then that Jack first noticed the pile of dirty dishes in and around the sink. Dinner in the oven was still warm, give her that; fish fingers, potatoes and green peas. From a can. A skin had formed on the gravy.

“You two already eaten?”




            The phone booths were always pissy round here, and the doors too heavy to be kept ajar with your heel. Monica had to leave her overnight bag:

a pair of slippers

a hairbrush

two pairs of nylon tights

a bundle of underwear (her best ones)

a dress (she was wearing one already)

a skirt

two tops

a photo of the children in their school uniform

another one of the two, taken by the door-to-door photographer in August

outside on the pavement. She dialled the number; had wanted to laugh, to sound carefree, yet no sooner had the receiver been picked up at the other end, then shame, rage, helplessness and all sorts of other vehemently felt inarticulations raced in a salty flow from her eyes and nose, so that all she could splutter was thanks, she knew she could count on her. What? Oh, just a couple of days, she said.


( from Long Time Walk on Water)




‘Words dance, breathe, rejoice, titillate, pulsate, quiver in this brilliantly crafted volume of what may be her best-loved novel. Couldn’t put it down.’ (Amazon)

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The first guy I ever kissed was a boy named Tony. I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but we were down an alleyway, somewhere between my home, his home and our school on the corner. He had blue eyes, freckles, veins in his face and swore he’d be a football star one day, Tony. He and his mum lived on the downstairs floor of a maisonette. A red brick house with a green door like all the others. We were down the alley and I was leaning up against the wall when he stuck his tongue down my throat the way grown-ups do. Not touching anything else, mind; we just stood there with our tongue down each other’s throat and I can’t even remember; were we hugging or not? His mum seemed nice enough. Said hello if we happened to meet. Not like most of them. She’d’ve thrown a loopy, though, if she’d known what was going on. Then again, she might’ve been the type to just laugh and say, ‘kids!’

Tony and me we met a few times to stick our tongue down each other’s throat before each went home, but we also met to play table tennis.





he’d squat as though about to sit on a chair in his head and I’d try to keep the ball going over… that…


and when it fell on the floor and I picked it up, I was always surprised by just how light it was. Strange, isn’t it? We were classmates. He was Irish. And we must’ve been around eight years old. And without anyone saying anything one day it was over, we’d just walk past each other and nod, ‘wotcha!’

(from Mut@tus)

Long Time: mother and child

Ruby studied the child but could find no resemblance to anyone she knew. Looked it over. Its feet. Its frail fists. Its scrunched up face. The lungs pumped and pumped, rocking the entire vulnerable frame. Ruby looked over at her daughter lying, exhausted, in a moist pool on the bed, almost asleep, the deep scent of her screaming perforating the thick air. It had lasted for hours, for hours Gertrude had screamed and screamed, her eyes exploding with fear and surprise. She hadn’t given it much thought, what it would be like, having a baby. She knew about the pain, but no-one had told her about the pain; betrayed, her eyes sprang out of their sockets as she screamed, as her hands seemed to want to push her away from that bloated belly grinning up at her as she thrashed around on the hard bed. Ruby had tried to be of assistance to the midwife. It wasn’t in her to hold her daughter’s hand or mop her brow; she had never done it before and failed to see why she should be doing it now, so she said, “Come, now… come, now,” and when Gertrude’s screams ripped into the air, she shouted irritably, “Cho man, yu nat di only person ever give birth, calm yuself down!” and she thought; you want be a woman? Well, now yu know. Yu damn well learn to live wid pain if yu want be a woman, yu hear wat me saying to yu? She wrapped up the child and left the house.

Gertrude saw her mother leave. Watched her through the corner of her eye. Started crying softly; my baby… my baby… The midwife looked over, said, “Hush now. Yu done good. Hush,” as she sat in her chair near the window, looking out into the yard. She only wished the mother would do her business soon and get back home so that she could be on her way. She did not want to get involved. Listened and nodded as Ruby told her the story she was all too familiar with, as Ruby explained how she had had to beat her daughter into seeing reason, that the last thing an intelligent young girl needed was a baby. A baby. No money. No man. Just the baby. Complained how the young people had no self-respect and that when she was young –

then she broke it off.

My baby… my baby… The midwife sat in her chair, looked out of the window and tried to close her ears to the girl’s plea. This child was sensitive; it is not every mother you can take a child away from. Some of them turn, and this child, she could feel Gertrude in the room and her nose was full of the young girl’s motherhood, she had them easy-hurting eyes. Gertrude’s voice rose, expanded, taking on the features of a song. She toned it, nursed it, and at some point beyond naming, where pain takes on some amorous quality that breathes a mysterious beauty, Gertrude, for the first time in her life, found that she was singing. No words, not even really a song, but beyond her control; the secret language, and it wafted over to the midwife in dolorous clouds to smoke a dance before her eyes. It danced of pain. Of shame. Of broken pride. It circled the room in search of promises. Stroked the panes in need of visions. Rose from the girl on the bed who could not have her baby. The girl, taken over by a voice so new it was almost not her own. The midwife was lifted to her feet and carried over to the bed. She looked into Gertrude’s eyes, and knew. Not from this one, oh Lord. Lowered her hand to Gertrude’s hot brow.

Hush now. Hush now.

And at her touch Gertrude fell asleep.


‘Strands of fate magically interwoven to give you a reggae-type experience full of pain, sweat, suffering, pride, poise and grace.’ (Goodreads)


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Long time: first date

She looked away, annoyed that he should have seen her looking up and down the street. Looking for someone. His grin got wider with every step he took, teased by every novelty he was able to detect about her, even from that distance — new hairdo, make-up, nails, new clothes (nice little figure), my God — so that by the time he had reached the bus-stop, James Dunbar was brandishing the irrepressible smile of an admirer.

“Good marning.” She could hardly keep her smile back, either.

After swallowing, “… who’s the lucky man, then?”

“Is wa yu mean?”

“You off to get married, or somefing?”

“Me? Married? Yu too styupid! Yu tink if me going to get married me would stan up here at di bus-stop?”

“That’s right. A Rolls for you… anyhow I’m glad to hear you’re not getting married.” He couldn’t tear his eyes off her.

“So am I.”

“Emily… you… you look absolutely stunning. Took my breff away when I saw you just then.”

She chose to say nothing.

“I think about you quite a lot, you know, Emily. I know I don’t stand a chance, but I like to think about you.”

She remained silent.

Jack: We’ve been meeting all these months, and I really look forward ta seeing you every time. Seeing you warms me up so much, it makes me start the day on a good note, know wot I mean? Anyone who had you for a girlfriend should think himself lucky…

He’d been practising for ages, all the things he might say, he could say to get her to go out with him. He had worked out how he would stand and what he would do with his legs, with his hands and that. And now that she was standing there before him like some beauty queen, he could feel himself bursting to say something, but dammit, he couldn’t remember his lines.

Jack: There’s a mixed couple round where I live they look so good together. They’re the other way round, mind. She’s white and he’s –

He’d never actually said the word black to a black person before. He didn’t know if she would like it.

Jack: Well, they’re the other way round. Not like –

and that word us got stuck in his throat.

Jack: Always holding hands, they are. Real in love, like. (sigh) Lovely, innit?

Then, wetting his lips,

Jack: Emily…

Jack’s inner voice: Go on, Jack! Get it out. Now or never!

Jack: It’d be so nice if I could just take you out one afternoon. You know, we could go for a walk somewhere nice and have a nice meal somewhere… the summer’s over, we won’t have that many sunny days left n it’s already getting darker quicker in the evenings…

Jack’s inner voice: There! You see! Weren’t that hard, was it? Give yourself a pat on the back, mate (laughing proudly). A whacking great pat on the back!

Jack: Emily, what do you say?

Emily (in a no hurry): I’m a very busy person. Me don’t have no time for tings like dat.

Jack (panting): Whenever you’re free, I’m free. What about weekends?

Emily: You tink me gwine go out wid some white man me know notting ’bout part from him name Jack?

Jack: What about a Sunday afternoon?

Jack’s inner voice: She hadn’t said no outright, had she? She hadn’t said no…

Emily: Must tink me no have someting better to do wid me time…

Jack (persisting): Nobody works on a Sunday afternoon…

Emily: … tink we let go and loose like fi unnu woman dem.

Jack: Emily?

Their bus chugged its way up to them he ignored it they could catch the next one –

Jack: Emily?

Emily (irritated): Cho man, me ears deh eat grass! (shrugs her shoulders at some botheration)

Jack: Beg you pardon?

Emily: Say me fed up a hear about it!

Ding ding! The conductor rang the bell twice. The bus, obedient, tame, pulled away. Jack hopped round to the other side of her.

Jack: Wot is it you’re afraid of, tell me. You afraid you might actually like it, perhaps?

Emily: Me nat afraid a anyting you can do me. Me got me Protector.

Jack: Then why don’t you come! (imploring) Emily!

Couldn’t she see what she was doing to him, couldn’t she feel that he would walk the earth for her – could she really not?

Jack: It would do us both the world of good…

He could think of nothing more to say as he stood beside her, staring ahead sullenly, irked by the mindless chatter of the people around him why the hell didn’t they just shut their traps!

Battle break out on Emily Thompson face but she keep her mouth tight shut, yaa. The next bus just turn the corner and she can’t afford to miss it –

Emily: When?

Jack: Shall we meet at one?

Emily: One is too early, man!

Jack: What about at two?

Emily (brief pause): Where?

Jack: Wot’s wrong wiv ’ere, at the bus-stop?

Emily: Good.

Ding ding!

“Two please, mate.” He held his hand out for the tickets, “Taa, mate.”

Both stared straight ahead, their bodies erect, not saying a word to each other, like a couple after a quarrel trying to play it down in public.

“Pollard’s is the next but one,” he said, still smiling. “Shall I get off here?” his head inclined a trace in her direction. Red fingernails, she had. Just like a lady.

“Not if yu don’t want to.”

“Oh, right,” he whispered.

Rose tug on the cord and it go Ting-ting!

Jack scurried to his feet, holding his unbuttoned jacket against his chest, out of her way, his eyes on her the whole time.

Rose looked down at him, wanted to say –

then made her way to the back of the bus.


‘when I fell into an armchair at my gran’s place after work, in her over-heated, over-furnished council house where the telly was almost always on, and in between my gran would tell stories, I started looking at her anew. I discovered a singer. I looked closer. Saw the warrior. Looked closer still, and there she was; the heroine. Once she told me about this English man at the bus-stop who fancied her. It was out of the question. She never mentioned it again. But my mind seized upon the potential of a Rose Thompson, Emily to her friends, and a James Dunbar (they call him Jack, from the 7th floor) unimpeded by the values transmitted by their respective cultural backgrounds. Long Time Walk on Water was born.’

(Joan Barbara Simon, interviewed by Lucy Walton for Female First)

‘Words dance, breathe, rejoice, titillate, pulsate, quiver in this brilliantly crafted volume of what may be her best-loved novel. Couldn’t put it down.’ (Amazon)

From Long Time Walk on Water


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