-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney–
The Leeds Writers Circle Anthology is a collection of poetry and prose, memoir, fiction and non-fiction. All of the works feature Leeds and its environs. There are obvious pitfalls in such an undertaking, and the pieces that work best show Leeds without bias, without sentimentality, and with a certain humour.
I was impressed by nearly all the memoir pieces, in particular the two that opened up a world beyond the immediacy of Leeds. Asher Drapkin’s ‘They Settled in Leeds’ takes the reader back to turn-of-twentieth-century Ukraine, Russia and Poland, where the upheavals of the times forced the author’s ancestors into a refugee trail that ended with a welcome in Leeds. Ruby Tovet’s ‘The Big City’ traces similar journeys to Leeds – sparked this time by the Second World War and the Cold War – and looks at its new population of Eastern Europeans:
‘Sunday was old home day for all the exiles in the area, who came with nameless and colourless alcoholic beverages, sat on what they could find and ate, drank and sang all afternoon.’
I like the way Tovet uses few words to show these people’s new lives. She also displays great skill in her characterisations and voices, which makes her tale appear sometimes as memoir, sometimes as fiction, both quite convincingly. I can see a lot of the one-mention characters, too – a difficult task for a writer to pull off – such as the raw-meat-eating athlete, and the miserable man who covets his goods in his secondhand shop. In these memoirs, the selection, in my opinion, was bang on: just enough information to tell the story, chosen from what must be a wealth of detail.
Dennis Clarkson’s ‘Chumping’ – about rival gangs of boys scavenging combustible stuff for Bonfire Night – is a memoir, which the author has chosen to tell as a short story. It has all the good qualities of one: convincing dialogue, believable and sympathetic characters, even the enemy gang, and a story that moves swiftly to a satisfying conclusion as it shows us a vanished world, and also how the protagonist in the story has moved on.
‘The First Moving Picture Show’ has a very cosmopolitan feel, achieved, as in the best writing, with as few words as necessary: a foreign railway station, the mention of the US Patents Office, and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While based on the disappearance of Louis Le Prince, considered by many to be the true inventor of motion pictures, Eric Chadwick’s story adopts the feel of a Victorian thriller. It rightly places Chadwick, and his important discoveries, in Leeds, but doesn’t hold him there. It pulls no punches when it comes to the stop-at-nothing ambitions of inventors, aided by the machinations of lawyers. There is a wonderful scene in it, centring on Le Prince’s daughter Marie. I won’t spoil it by describing it here, but it puts across, all the magic of invention and discovery, and also encapsulates the essential tragedy of Le Prince.
I can’t really describe Rob Nicholls’, ‘Fog in the Posterior of the Day’ only to say that I liked it very much. It’s an attempt at surrealism – a successful one, probably (you never can tell with surrealism) – and made me laugh out loud.
Peter R White’s ‘Best Served Cold’, while set on a train, is not about railway sandwiches. Centring on a seemingly trivial incident, it is a pure short story with no ambiguities, and no visible attempts at style; the style is assumed as the story, like a train, rattles along. Superb storytelling, as the writer brings the tale down to a last-line punchline extremely skilfully.
The non-fiction pieces are, mostly, well-written (though I thought one, with its wealth of detail, was going to be a parody of a Christmas round robin letter) but I wasn’t quite so engaged with them. I think this is possibly because of their local interest, which, no matter the writers’ intentions, cannot be globalised in the same way as good fiction or poetry.
I’m no expert on poetry, I confess, and rely on what grabs me immediately. So I enjoyed the melancholy in Anne Watson’s ‘Travelling to the LGI’ – about a visit to a mother in hospital. Why? Is enjoy the right word? I don’t know: good poetry allows you to get a glimpse at a feeling you may not know you had. Similarly, Ian Harker’s ‘Mary’ tells a sad story, of Mary Bateman, the ‘Yorkshire Witch’. The macabre details make it cartoonish, but at the same time make it come alive, and visible – an admirable talent, to be able to show this panoramic view of a historical incident in seven short verses. Deidre McGarry’s two poems focusing on the psychiatric unit are social comment – the two words would normally put me off a poem – but are confident, drily detached, and expertly managed. A comparison of the unit’s cases with politicians and bankers could have been obvious and groan-inducing, but the poet pulls it off in fine, discreet style. I was obviously impressed by Anne Watson; her ‘In Town Tonight’ complements the psychiatric unit poems in its own way. It’s another picture of contrasts in night-time Leeds, and features the clever device of a recurring character. I didn’t quite understand what Diane Myers’ ‘Beating the Bounds’ was about, exactly, but that didn’t take away the sheer pleasure of the words. It opens:
‘Where armies gathered at Shire Oak
Now, once a year, the residents of Leeds
Assert their ancient rights and carry sticks
As in the past, they caned protesting boys
To fix their memories of the parish bounds.’
It’s an exciting view of traditions, and of the people of Leeds and their beliefs, with images of sticks and stones, animals and trees, streets and gardens, and, in the boundaries, a firm sense of place. As such, it’s representative of the Leeds Writers Circle Anthology as a whole.
[Ed: The Leeds Writers Circle Anthology 2011 is available now from the Valley Press website]