Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last – Book Review

The Heart Goes Last is set in an almost contemporary America where the distribution of wealth has become so unequal that large numbers of people are falling out of society.

The book follows a couple who, without steady jobs and a home, are living out of their car and at constant threat from thieves, druggies and mad people. They’re trapped in a downward spiral that’s almost certainly going to end badly. So when they see a television advert recruiting people for a newly formed utopian society sealed off from the rest of the world, they ignore the rumours and sign up, believing that it can’t be any worse than the life they are living. After a promising start, of course things begin to go bad.
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Independent Bookshops

On Saturday, Mrs Literarylad and I went for a long walk along the Beacons Way which, as the name suggests, is in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Our walk started in Crickhowell, described on the information centre website as a ‘picturesque town nestling in the beautiful Usk valley, to the south of the Black Mountains’. I don’t think they’re overselling the place. We saw this independent bookshop, called Book-ish’ and couldn’t resist going in for a browse. The signage and window displays were so enticing it would have been difficult for us to walk past without going in, but when we saw it had a cafe downstairs, that settled the matter.

I find all bookshops a draw, but the independents are generally the most interesting, and have more focussed selections of books than the chains, which tend to cram in the standard range of three-for-two’s that are thrown at them by the big publishers.

Book-ish is a lovely shop, with a great selection of books. They focus on their location on the edge of the Brecon Becons by stocking a good range of walking books (that’s books about walking – the books themselves don’t walk) and maps, as well as some tasteful Crickhowell themed merchandise, like bookmarks and mugs. I dream about one day having the time to browse for as long as I like, to buy books, to start reading them, over one, then maybe another coffee, to browse some more and finally come out with an armful of books. And then to have the time to read them. One day. When I’m retired. The Spanish for ‘retired’ is ‘jubilado’, which is a fabulous word, describing retirement as a time to celebrate. I love the idea of joyously embracing retirement as a time of endless possibilities (reading being one of them).

The coffee was pretty good too, and set us up for a long, tiring but ultimately enjoyable walk through some lovely countryside. Books, coffee, a good walk, and some beautiful, scenery, all in the same day. I needed a sit down after that!

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The Rabbit that decided the Election

It’s still not clear how a rabbit got into the cabinet room. And in fairness to the then Prime Minister, it had been a difficult meeting. Her ministers didn’t like the new policies they had been made to announce, as the election drew close. She could understand this. Building council houses, capping energy prices and, worst of all, giving workers more rights, were the kind of ideas they would have expected from the opposition. She could understand their discomfort, but winning the election wasn’t enough. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The PM wanted to win big. Being able to mobilise ninety percent of the media as her own personal propaganda machine wasn’t enough. That ten percent of dissenting voices niggled her, chipping away at the size of her majority.

That was why she’d come up with these new measures. For Mrs May, it wasn’t enough simply to have the right-wing press tell the ordinary people she was the best choice for them. She needed to prove it, with policies that would take away what little remaining claim the opposition had to the votes of the little people. That was the way to really clean up. This had all been explained to her ministers, on a one-to-one basis (in private, of course). Did they have so little trust for her that they imagined she would actually implement these new, rather socialist policies after the election; after she’d achieved her record-breaking majority?

On reflection, it had perhaps been a mistake to let the cameras in for the last section of the cabinet meeting. She was angry with herself, realising – too late – that she hadn’t sufficiently prepared her ministers. None of them had shown outright dissent, but it hadn’t been the stylish showcase of a group of ministers, at the top of their game and working together as one, that she had planned it to be. Mrs May could barely control her anger. There was no question of the party failing to win the election, and with a big majority – that was in the bag – but her colleagues’ behaviour, in front of the media, may well have compromised the size of that majority.

When the meeting closed, the PM knew that she would be expected to smile – not to do so would be a public relations disaster. But however much she tried, her face just wouldn’t respond; she was too angry. And this inability to produce a smile that she was confident would be convincing, only served to increase her rage. She stood up, moved her chair out from the table and began to make her way to the door, her face fixed in a twisted parody of a smile.

It was at precisely this moment that the rabbit decided to break cover from the piece of furniture under which it had been hiding, and set off across the room. Concentrating on her attempted smile, the PM didn’t see the bundle of fur that ran across her path, until she caught her foot on it, tripped and nearly fell. The rabbit, confused, dazed, but apparently unharmed, froze. The PM’s face, never having quite achieved an expression of jollity, flipped suddenly to a fearsome embodiment of rage that would have sent permanent secretaries running for cover. And in a momentary and catastrophic loss of control, she swung a designer-heeled foot at the offending animal.

The rabbit, fortunately, hopped out of the way just in time, so there was no contact, but it hardly mattered. In a single moment, Mrs May went from a strong and stable leader, lauded by the media, to that evil woman who kicked a bunny. Her reputation was destroyed. As if that wasn’t enough to bring about an unprecedented reversal of fortunes, the Home Secretary had been seen to laugh openly at the woeful action, and several other cabinet ministers had covered their faces, or turned away to hide their amusement.

What was a disaster for the Conservative Party in general, and for Mrs May in particular, didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing for the rest of us. The rabbit survived, unscathed. The Labour government hasn’t proved to be the catastrophe the right-wing media told us it would be. And the photograph of Jeremy Corbyn stroking a docile white rabbit, which was sitting on his lap, has become an icon of the age.


Text and graphic copyright © Graham Wright 2017

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The Short Story as Abstract Art

They say that in art, it’s impossible to be truly original. There can be nothing new, because everything has been done before. But in the world of fiction writing, some people are going to extreme lengths to make their writing different. Maybe their approach to writing needs a name. Abstract Literature, or Ab-Lit, might fit the bill.

I had some emails recently reminding me about a couple of short story competitions. One, an Australian competition, particularly caught my eye, partly because it appears to be quite prestigious, and partly because the prize money is substantial (although the entry fee is large too). It made me think I should really be entering some competitions this year. For that, I would obviously have to write some more short stories. It’s difficult to find the time, whilst working on the final edit of my latest novel (now completed) and keeping the blog up-to-date, as well as setting up a new blog, on gardening ( But I’ve made a start. I found some inspiration, and I’ve written one story so far.

I thought perhaps I should research the kind of thing the organisers are looking for, rather than just send them my story and hope for the best. In fact I entered this competition last year, with a not very short, short story (just under 5,000 words) called Drop Bear. Part parable, part fantasy, it’s an anthropomorphic, dark, adult fairy tale. I think it’s quite original – I don’t think I’ve read (or written) anything like it before, so I thought the Aussies might take to it, particularly as it centres on everyone’s favourite irascible marsupial.

The organisers were kind enough to put the three winning stories from last year on their website for all to read. I did. And now I know why I didn’t get anywhere. My storylines might be unusual, but my writing style is almost certainly too conventional. Unlike the winners, whose writing is anything but. For instance, they’re not big on punctuation. Two of the stories don’t have any full stops. One apparently marks the end of each sentence with a blank line. Initial caps don’t figure greatly. One uses a lot of questions, but no question marks. The sentences (if that’s what they are) get longer and longer, and ever more unintelligible as the story goes on. Another apparently uses initial caps to mark each new sentence (but there are no full stops to end them).
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Climate Change at Kew Gardens

Twenty-Two degrees in March – it can’t be right,
This could be Lisbon rather than London,
Kuwait instead of Kew,
Richmond Jamaica.

The tropical plants photosynthesise joyfully
In the humid hothouses,
Where menopausal women pull at their blouses,
Complaining about the heat,
Saying how they wished they’d worn a skirt or a dress,
Instead of trousers,
If only they’d known it would be twenty-two at Kew.
It’s unseasonal.

Obese dogs pant more than usual
As they waddle along beside their perspiring owners.
The daffodils can’t take the heat
The snowdrops have all melted,
Cherry blossom falls like summer snow
And tulips, thinking that they’re late,
Strive to grow and bloom before spring has gone
And larger plants emerge to steal the light.

Meanwhile, on TV and radio, weather forecasters enthuse
About records broken, each year hotter than the one just past,
And smile and laugh, happy to pass on the news
That we shouldn’t get used to it;
The good weather isn’t due to last.
But for now, it’s twenty-two at Kew.
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Airbrushing Easter

Apparently some church people have accused the National Trust of airbrushing Easter. I wondered what they were worried about – after all, airbrushes do give a nice smooth effect. Maybe, I thought, they don’t want the NT to use airbrushes because they weren’t around when the bible was invented.
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Fool’s Gold?

There’s a particular advert in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – a book that I’ve been making good use of recently – that I can’t seem to keep from seeing, because the book rather annoyingly falls open on that page. It’s for a company who offer editing services to writers, and it uses the analogy of gold mining. I’m not sure what annoys me about it most, the smug arrogance with which they assert that manuscripts are ‘low value material’ (good way to start – by insulting your potential clients) from which they can ‘extract precious potential’, or the obvious inappropriateness of the analogy.
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