Wednesday, 26 June 2013

From Heavy Metal to Shrewsbury Folk

Alan & Sandra Surtees in the Lion Hotel
It was the Severn Valley Railway that first brought Alan and Sandra Surtees to Bridgnorth and it was Bridgnorth that first housed what now is known as the Shrewsbury Folk Festival.  It opened for the first time in Bridgnorth on the weekend of Princess Diana’s death.  Dancers had to be pulled off the streets, out of respect.  A small gathering of folkies was expected to arrive, but seven hundred happy campers turned up for an event in a school, camping on its playing field.

Right from the start, the Bridgnorth Folk Festival really took off.  By the time that Robert Plant headlined on the fourth year, it had outgrown its site and taken on another school as well.

‘The Robert Plant thing,’ says Alan Surtees, sitting in the lounge of the Lion Hotel, ‘was a big secret. Right until he went on stage, only the smallest handful of people knew he was appearing.’   ‘He was great,’ Sandra recollects. ‘He wore shorts. He had lovely legs.’

There had been no way Alan and Sandra could have let people know that Robert Plant intended to perform. The crowd for their other main attraction, Steel Eye Span, was already big enough.  ‘The Band was billed as the Priory of Bryan,’ Alan said.  ‘Nobody knew who they were.  On they came – and then the penny dropped.’ It was a great moment, Alan and Sandra both agree. Robert Plant - knees and all - for one hundred quid.  What a thing to have pulled off.

Dancers photographed by David Woodfall
Neither Alan nor Sandra are musicians themselves.  But then they don’t need to be - they play a different sort of tune.  Festivals were in their blood long before setting up their own.  ‘Bromyard Festival is where we first met,’ Alan says. ‘I was there because that’s what my friends wanted to do,’ Sandra adds. ‘It was a social thing. But then an Irish band came on, complete with uillean pipes – and   fell in love with the pipes. I was hooked.’

Sandra does the work, Alan says, and he gets the accolades [or was it Sandra who said that?]. Certainly they both agree that Alan’s the one for thinking big - the ideas merchant of the two of them - and Sandra scales them down until they’re do-able, and then makes them work.  In other words, he’s the dreamer, she’s the practical one.

‘There’s never a point,’ she says, ‘where at the end of a festival we sit down and say that was good this year, haven’t we done well?  We always question everything.  What worked, what didn’t, what needs changing, what should we do next?

Kids' Show photographed by Mike Dean
I want to know what’s so special about the festival. I’ve read the glowing reviews for it online and want to know what makes the difference. At Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Alan says, if you dropped your wallet, you’d get it back.  Strangers would talk to each other.  Children could play and learn in safety.  People who saw themselves as ‘different’ could find a place to fit in.

‘Mostly people nowadays are under forty,’ Sandra says.  ‘But the Festival attracts babies to eighty year olds.  We try to cater for everyone.  We have quiet venues, places for dancing, lots of cross-over attractions for non-folkies, aiming to educate them, I guess, into folkiness.  All age ranges, and a wide range of musical tastes are catered for. You'll find world music at our festival as well as folk, and traditional dancing too.’ 

The Main Marquee photographed by Mike Dean
What started out as a seven hundred person event - which seemed enormous at the time - now attracts seven thousand.  What they get, Alan says, is a West End production.  ‘Lighting.  Sound. Latest kit.  We have it all.  Everybody’s needs, musical and otherwise, are catered for.  There’s a food village, camping areas, a craft fair. And the music is really varied.  To attract the bigger audiences we need to cater for all sorts of musical tastes.  And not just with the big names either. People come to the Shrewsbury Folk Festival knowing that they’ll discover new favourite artists every time.’

The Folk Festival has been in Shrewsbury since 2006.  The first year in the Quarry was an interesting experience, but not one to be repeated.  It was great to be in the heart of the town, but the Quarry’s layout and facilities weren’t quite up to the job.  Running the Festival there, with so many people involved, really didn’t work.

Village Stage photographed by Derek Houghton
However, the current location at Shrewsbury’s West Midland Showground is ideal.  It’s a great site, both Alan and Sandra agree - a place where a happy atmosphere can be created. Not that they have much time for picking up the atmosphere themselves.  For the four days of the Festival, Alan and Sandra work flat out.  They don’t even get to see many of the bands they’ve been so excited to book.  Even so, there’s always an emotional edge to the Festival for them.  ‘Seeing a hundred and fifty people of all ages, for example, most of whom were strangers to each other until a couple of days ago, playing  in ‘their band’, which they’ve put together in Tuneworks, is an incredible experience,’ says Alan.  ‘This is really a festival which means something to people.’

Alan with festival patron, JohnJones
of Oysterband
The Festival is manned by four hundred stewards.  Sandra describes them as a happy gang.  They respect  their stewards, she says.  In the week leading up to the Festival they all work hard together, and there is always an opportunity for stewards to make comments and say what they think.  ‘We listen to our stewards,’ she says.  Their take on things counts.

So where did the love of music begin?  For Sandra it was those uillean pipes, for Alan it was as early as childhood, his sister a piano teacher [not the best way to learn yourself], his parents listening to classical music and jazz.  He always loved music, he says. By the age of sixteen he was into modern jazz and going off to gigs.

‘For a man who loves music, I’m now living the dream,’ he says.  ‘Every year we have a good laugh, we have a good cry and we get to pick the acts we like. The thing about us is that we’re not scared of trying something new.  We like experimenting.  We’re not risk averse.’

This year not being risk averse includes booking the comedy duo Doyle & Debbie, whom Alan and Sandra first heard in Nashville, making fun of the country music scene in the heart of the country music scene – and the country music aficionados were lapping it up.  ‘Not one for the kiddies, though,’ Sandra says.  ‘Adult humour most definitely.’

Be Good Tanyas, courtesy
They’ve also booked big name bands, the Afro Celt Sound System, and Capercaillie with its thrilling Gaelic vocalist, Karen Matheson.  They’re delighted, too, to have secured a rare performance from Canada’s Be Good Tanyas [for them alone, I reckon it’s worth going to the Festival]. Then there are the Oysterband, Eddi Reader, Heidi Talbot, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, providing that it's not only whizzened old white men from the Blue Ridge Mountains who can play real country, but blacks can play it as well as some whites play the blues.

Who are the bands that people might not know about, I ask, who should be listened out for?  Alan names Nidi d’Arac from southern Italy, with their blend of traditional Italian folk music and electronica, the Blue Rose Code and the Tom Wait Tribute, fronted by Jon Boden, lead singer of Bellowhead.  What he’s looking forward to most, however - if he gets the time to see it - is Tim O Brien playing with John McCusker – a combination that’s never been heard in public before for the simple reason that they’ve never played together before.

‘Artists get plenty of feedback from us when they perform at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, ‘ Alan says.  ‘In some festivals they get changed in the loos, go on stage, play, come off again and go home.   Here we talk to them.  We treat them well.  We have a lovely reception area for them.  We make them comfortable.’

Lantern Workshop photographed by Danny Beath
Making people comfortable is a key to what makes the Festival work. Talking about it to people who attend the Festival every year, the comfort factor comes up again and again.  Children being safe. Facilities being good.  These things matter, and they’re all there.  A whole separate children’s festival goes on at the same time as the main festival, with a huge marquee for children,  providing workshops where they’ll make things like lanterns which they’ll parade with at night.  

What is the worst thing that has ever gone wrong, I want to know.  Sandra remembers one headline band that dropped out at only a day’s notice, for unforeseen and perfectly legitimate reasons.  Mercifully, she says, by pooling resources and manning phones, they managed to find a replacement just in time.  The worse example of this, however, was when K.T. Tunstall’s father died and she had to drop out on the day.  No alternative headliners could be found, so they put together a super group and had a folk slam instead. 

Artists who’d never played together before piled onto the stage – and brought down the house.  Somebody had seen Maddy Prior about the festival dressed in a yellow jacket with black polkadot spots - and the hunt was on to find that the woman in yellow and black.  Fortunately they found her, and she fronted the band.  Before the concert began, the excitement outside Marquee 2 was palpable.  When the doors opened, people literally ran in.  In thirty seconds the whole marquee was filled.

Circus Skills Tent photographed by Mike Dean
How do you top that?  Alan doesn’t know about topping it, but he says they’ll be doing folk slams again.  You try something once and it’s a huge success, so of course you do it again. The musical director for this year’s Folk Slam will be Jim Moray.  It will happen on the last day, Monday, in the afternoon.

Do Alan and Sandra have breaks between festivals, I wonder.  They’re already working on next year, they say.  Seamlessly they move from one festival to the next.

It’s obvious that Sandra and Alan live, breath and sleep the Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It’s become their life.  Sandra’s been working on it full time now ever since 1999.  Alan retired from business three years ago, and is now full time too. What sort of business, I want to know.  ‘I had a steel fabrication company,’  he says.  ‘From heavy metal to Shrewsbury Folk,’ I think.  ‘Not a bad move.’

Panorama photographed by Clive Padden

Alan and Sandra Surtees

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Shrewsbury's First Marathon Run III [And a Marathon Write for My Tonight From Shrewsbury]: 11.00am-1.30pm

So leaving Castle Street behind, I head up to Kingsland to see what's going on at the marathon's turn-around point.  This involves cutting across town, passing from one cheering street to another with areas of quietness sandwiched in between. By the time I reach Town Walls it's raining, but I still find it busy.  People are really getting into the spirit of the thing, clapping and cheering on the runners, telling them they can do it. In the distance I see a small terrier, which I recognise.  I look up at there's its owner, Councillor Andrew Bannerman, and his wife Annie.   We nod to each other across a street packed with runners.

I cross Kingsland Bridge, which has runners passing both ways beneath it [three ways when I come back].  Everybody's walking in the other direction to me, and I seem to be leaving the cheering behind.  Am I making a mistake here regarding the route? Should I be turning back?

It turns out not, because when I arrive at Kennedy Road runners are going up and down and round about and balloons are hanging from trees in people's gardens, and music playing loudly. A real party atmosphere has been generated to keep up the runners' spirits - and it's working on the rain-sodden crowd as well. 

I walk up as far as the gates of Shrewsbury School, where things seem far more sedate, then turn back.  A lady in a fold-up chair sits under an umbrella.  She's made herself very comfortable.  I'm in my shorts [trying to be empathetic] and sandals and am getting wetter by the minute.  Why hadn't I thought to bring a chair, flask and nice warm clothes with me?

I head back into town against the flow of people running the other [lovely pic of girl with water bottle by Nathalie Hildegarde Liege]. On Town Walls I pass the Girls' High School and Wingfield's Tower, then saunter along the Walls towards the English Bridge.  A crowd is gathered at the bottom of Wyle Cop and runners heading back over the bridge are going to be mighty glad, I guess, that they haven't got to run up the steep road on the Cop.  Instead they head down towards Greyfriars Bridge, where another group of supporters awaits them. All over town you can hear clapping and cheering.  Given that Shrewsbury's never done this before, and most of us, I guess, had no idea what to expect, the atmosphere in town is really quite amazing.

I follow the runners down to the river [or back along the river if you happen to be running on one of the three other laps of this marathon]  and we all make our way at our various paces beneath an avenue of stately trees that I'm guessing has never seen anything quite like it.  Music's blasting out of the Crown pub on the far bank, jollying on the runners, and me too.   

The rain has stopped, but some of the runners are still looking wet [many dripping with sweat] and some seem really weary.  A penguin plods past.  An older looking gentlemen with terrible feet limps by.  A woman drags herself along clutching a water bottle. 'You're looking comfortable,' one of the more able runners encourages her.  'You can do it.'

A man with a Shrewsbury Food Bank trolley runs by [see photo below by Nathalie Hildegarde Liege]. By now I'm under the Kingsland Bridge and heading into the Quarry.  I begin to see runners with medals sauntering about.  These, I'm guessing, are the ones who have completed the half-marathon, not the full one.  Nobody could have run a full marathon in this short amount of time.     

An ambulance goes by.  People make way for it.   Down by the Start, which has been transformed into the Finish, Shrewsbury Mayor Jon Tandy, accompanied by the Mayoress, is preparing to present cups to the winners of the Women's Half Marathon, Hilary Mott, running for the League of Friends, Nicola Davies and Lizzie Liver.  I may not have got those names right.  The rain's back, and running down my page making it hard for me to read what I've written.   

I walk away from the thick of the crowd.  All around me I can hear stories of triumph.  How was it for you?  You made it - well done!  For some people, however, the stories of are of fatigue and pain. Wounded runners wrapped in silver foil are having their limbs, ligaments, muscles and joints pulled, stroked and soothed by attendant physiotherapists.  A woman is carried off the course.  People make way for another ambulance to go by.

I pass a lady whom I saw running a couple of times in different places, each time looking as if she didn't know how to go on.  Now she's finished.  I have to stop to congratulate her.  She looks so pleased with herself.  I don't know your name, lady, because I didn't ask, but if you ran the Marathon today and happen to live on Wenlock Road this might be you. 

Down by the river, there's a great crowd of runners now queueing up for their medals and t-shirts. The proudest t-shirt to be wearing this summer without doubt is going to be the Shrewsbury Marathon and Half-Marathon.  I pass coffee stalls, a bouncy castle, cage football courtesy of the Barnabas Community Church.  One of the runners told me before the race began that a time for the front runners was likely to be about three hours.  Surely, I reckon, that means that some of them will soon be coming in.

No sooner have I thought that, however, than the winners of the main event, the full marathon itself, are called up onto the stage.  They're back already.  Mayor Tandy does the honours again.  Edward Hardy has come in third at 2 hours 54 minutes and 08 seconds.  Tyson Dunning is was just ahead of him at an amazing 2 hours 52 minutes and  40 seconds.  But Wayne Dashper was even more amazing at 2 hrs 52 minutes and 40 seconds - which makes Tyson and Wayne almost [but not quite] joint first.  

Well done to them and all the other winnners whose names I haven't mentioned. And well done to the town for putting on such a brilliant show.  Against a backdrop of our scenic river walks and fine old buildings Shrewsbury is a fantastic place to have a marathon and it's been great to see Shrewsbury people out and about cheering on all the runners.

What do I take away from all of this? What will I remember most?  I'll tell you.  Almost every person running bore a name beyond their own name on their t-shirt. In some cases it was the name of a charity - the Macmillan nurses, the Shrewsbury Food Bank, Cancer Research.  In other cases, people were running on behalf of individuals - Georgia Williams and Adam  Fewtrell to name just two. Yet behind that great crowd of runners packed into our town today, there was a crowd of people who couldn't be there, who couldn't run, who were no longer with us, in many cases - but were remembered all the same.  A crowd of unseen witnesses, cheering the runners on to greater and greater feats.  So in one great burst of life and optimism and generosity, literally thousands of people were represented, and in some cases commemorated, here today in Shrewsbury.  That's what I'll remember most. 

Castle Street

Bottom of Pride Hill


Kennedy Road

Town Walls

The English Bridge

Avenue into Quarry

Runner Up, Tyson Dunning

Winner, Wayne Dashper 

Shrewsbury's First Marathon Run II [And a Marathon Write for My Tonight From Shrewsbury]: 8.30-10.30am

I'm heading on foot up Claremont Bank in the direction of the main gates of the Quarry.  The closer I get the more I can hear.  The town isn't silent any more.  There's music in the distance, and a hum of voices.

Hum? By the time I reach the Quarry, it's turning into a muffled roar.  8.30pm and the Quarry's full of people.  There are booths, marquees and runners everywhere.  All the runners are numbered and bear evidence of origin or intent.  I see a little group for the Wrexham AC, another for Cancer Research UK. 

Here's a group running for the Teenage Cancer Trust.  Sophie and Amy Fewtrell lost their brother Adam to cancer two years ago.  He was only twenty.  Today Sophie and Amy, along with another Amy and Tilli are running in his memory and to raise awareness of the Teenage Cancer Trust. Adam spent much time in Birmingham's Teenage Unit, but the Teenage Cancer Trust would like to see a teenage ward in every hospital in every town and region.  I wish the girls well with their run. They're doing it for the best of all possible causes.  HERE'S the link to the Teenage Cancer Trust if you want to donate.

Waiting for the starting pistol, I find Kait Weston, part of Shrewsbury School's fifty-odd marathon team.  They're running as part of Medic Malawi, a Shrewsbury based charity run by ex-Head of Wrekin College, Stephen Drew.  They're raising funds for a hospital in Malawi, which is the seventh poorest country in the world.  In particular they're involved in a large project to prevent blindness in the country - not congenital blindness, but brought about by a pernicous bug. 

Everybody's lining up to go.  Down near the start line, I see the police team running in memory of Georgia Williams, the teenage girl who was murdered in Wellington last month.  I also find a couple of Mexican peasants, but the Shropshire Star has got to them first and the best that I can do is get in the way of their photograph.

By now there's a crowd all around me.  Music is booming out of massive speakers, courtesy of Radio Shropshire.  People are queuing frantically for last minute loo-calls.  The race is ready to go.  All the organisers are waiting for now is the all-clear from the cones-men in town who are having a few last minute adjustments to make. 

I get talking to the runners next to me, who'll be lining up for the half-marathon which starts thirty minutes after the main one.  Anna Hughes and Emily Hunt.  They're sisters of the Radio Shropshire presenter Johnty O'Donto [Donnell], who does the Sunday morning Treasure Hunt.  One of them is living in Shrewsbury, running with the Shrewsbury Road Runners, the other trains on the Peaks outside Sheffield, where she lives [but she reckons she'll come back to Shrewsbury one day - it has such a pull, she says].  Writing this down, I can't remember which is which, but I say I'll see them later up on Castle Street [and I do]. 

It's time for the off.  The crowd chants, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1.... Led by a team of cyclists, the massive crowd of runners chunters past.  I film them.  I think that's very clever of me.  It'll be good to get a bit of film on My Tonight From Shrewsbury.  I charge through the town [yes, running part of the way, up alleys where I hope nobody can see me], passing the first few runners in the High Street, the nice young man with the electric mandolin outside the Loggerheads pub, the nice ladies from the Dogs Trust in their fold-up chairs at the top of Castle Street, and finally home - to find that my film hasn't come out!

Here are some more pics, anyway [including a couple of me in action blogging, taken by a friend, Susan Davies, from her upstair window]. And more to follow later on.  I'm up to Shrewsbury School to see what's going on up there.  

Shrewsbury's First Marathon Run I [And a Marathon Write for My Tonight From Shrewsbury]: 7.00am

It's 7.00am, and I'm awake and limbering my writing muscles.  Two hours to the start of Shrewsbury's first marathon, and am I going to have the stamina to stay the course?  According to the Shropshire Star, thousands of people are going to be lining the streets, including the one just outside my own front door, to cheer on more people than joined up for the first year of the Edinburgh Marathon.  Is that possible? 2,750 people running past my front door in only two hours time on a sleepy Sunday morning with the town silent because no cars are allowed through?

The first of something is really exciting.  Nobody knows quite what to expect.   The town is told to prepare for a party atmosphere. There's going to be a brass band jollying things along in the Quarry, and music in the Square, hosted by Radio Shropshire.  The Hive Arts Centre is hosting a marathon party up at Belmont, and Shrewsbury School is organising some form of entertainment too.

Well, I've got to get round all of that - though maybe not at jogging pace. [I'm not running - my dedication to this site doesn't go that  far.] So, I'd better get up.  No more lying around in bed.   The first thing I want to know is why people run marathons, and in the case of this one in particular, who they're running for.  So I better get down to the Quarry with the My Tonight From Shrewsbury Semi-Live Outside Broadcast Team to find out.  

Friday, 21 June 2013

Midsummer Night on Beck's Field

There has to be a Midsummer post.  I’m as tired as hell, but it has to be written up and posted before I go home to bed.  It's been such a lovely Midsummer day. A lovely evening, too.  I remember one Midsummer night in South Shropshhire, climbing a hill and finding fox cubs playing in a hayfield under a full moon. That was pretty special, but this Midsummer has been special too, even though half my day has been spent on a writing marathon and the other half in pulling up weeds on the allotment, part of the time in the rain.

When I left the house this morning, it was raining. However I'd spent so much time indoors over the last week  that I was determined to get out. On the way to the allotment, I called in on Chris and Jessicah, proud parents of Baby Austin.  She was the tiniest, most delicate little baby I think I've ever seen.  Even eight days into night feeding, Jessicah managed to look radiant [though fairly tired as well, it has to be said].  Today’s her birthday.  How great must it be to have Midsummer as your birthday? Austin was celebrating it by being asleep.

On the allotment, I found roses in bloom.  Here they are.  I wish you could smell them.  I wish you could smell the whole allotment.  It was probably the rain that did it, but I could smell flowers and herbs everywhere I went.   I spent a happy few hours crawling around the soil on my knees pulling up weeds, then an even happier hour filling a cardbox with gooseberries and picking armfuls of rhubarb.  

By this time the sun had come out.  I strolled back home along the river at a leisurely pace, certain that I could smell roses everywhere I went.  Back in Shrewsbury town centre, I bought a vanilla ice cream from the bicycle man at the bottom of Pride Hill which I took home to eat whilst catching up on the latest news in the Shropshire Star and Shrewsbury Chronicle.  Once I'd read them, however, I was unable to relax.  There are some days, aren't there, when you've just got to be outside. I lounged about. I tried weaving. I tried cleaning up my kitchen.  I tried writing at my desk. 

In the end, however, I went again, heading for my favourite restaurant, The Golden Cross, where I treated myself to a dinner-for-one whilst listening to happy tourists laughing to each other at the table next to me, singing snatches of songs and taking each other’s photographs.

During my main course, I read Robert McFarlane’s new book, ‘The Old Ways’, downloaded onto my Kindle. For dessert I ate yet more vanilla ice cream. There’s a lot of vanilla ice cream in my life these days, for reasons that are too boring to explain, which means that I’ve become a vanilla connoisseur, which in turn means that I can tell you with confidence that the Golden Cross’s version is good, and it’s served just right too -   wonderfully creamy on the outside, but its interior is as cold as ice.

I came out afterwards to find the sun so bright that I still couldn't go home.  So I cut up College Hill instead, along Swan Hill, past the Coach & Horses pub, over Town Walls, past the Girls’ High School where athletic tracks ran around the green orb of their playing field. I crossed the Kingsland Bridge, caught a snatch of music coming from the Quarry, saw boys and girls sitting on the grass [still in the sunshine at nine o’clock at night], saw the river flowing past, as dark and ruffled as  a silk scarf [though when I returned later it was like mirror glass].

Finally I made it up here, to where I am now - Beck’s Field, where the grass is long and all tangled up with buttercups.  Beneath me I can see weeping willows along the river bank, and the tree-lined paths of the Quarry. Behind them lies the bandstand and behind that the dome of St Chad’s Church. 

I love it up here. This is the place to come if you want to see the rooftops, spires and towers of our town.  This is where you'll find me on Shrewsbury Flower Show nights when the fireworks go up. And this is where I came the last time Shrewsbury witnessed a total eclipse of the sun.  What better place to watch the wind drop and listen to the birds fall silent, to see light bleaching out of the sky and the shadows of night appearing as the sun turns black? 

And what better place, here and now, to watch the wind drop again and the birds fall silent, even though the sun stays up like a naughty child refusing to go to bed? On the far side of the world the winter equinox is happening right here and now, black upon black. And yet here I am in Shrewsbury, basking in this glorious light whilst the school bell tolls behind me, and St Chad's rings out the hour in front of me, and kids go by on bikes in the Quarry, and mums with push-chairs, and across the river are the Shrewsbury rooftops and on this Midsummer’s Night I can’t think of another place I’d want to be.

There's a path cutting through Beck’s Field, weaving its way through the long grass until it reaches the River Severn. ‘I have walked paths for years,’ I read in Robert McFarlane's book over dinner in the Golden Cross, ‘and for years I have read about them. The literature of wayfaring is long.’   

The compact between writing and walking, he reckoned, was almost as old as literature – ‘a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.’ I love that quote.  I know exactly what McFarlane means. When we moved to Shrewsbury from South Shropshire, it wasn’t leaving our house that broke my heart [although it almost did].  It was leaving my walks.  But here in Shrewsbury I’ve made new walks, and I walk them all the time. I have my special places, and to find me on them, more often than not, is to find me deep in thought.

‘I can only meditate when I’m walking,’ Rousseau wrote.  ‘When I stop, I cease to think.’  His mind worked with his legs.  And Wordsworth, an indefatigable wanderer, described himself in his journal as being so overwhelmed with ideas when he was out rambling that he could scarcely walk.

Well, I’ve certainly had my fair share of walking today.  I’ve had my computer along with me too, and in between walking, weeding, smelling roses, shopping, forgetting things and finding them again [I haven’t told you about that bit], I’ve been writing.  Here in Shrewsbury, as much as Wordsworth in the Lake District, Rousseau round Lake Geneva and Robert McFarlane on his hidden highways, it’s my way of making sense of the world.   

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Flash Fiction Shrewsbury

Last night in the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, National Flash Fiction Day was celebrated with an Open Mic and pieces of short, short fiction – very short and often very sharp too.  This is a great writing – and reading – form for a busy world.  If you haven’t the time to read a book, you’ve still got time for a couple of pieces of flash.  That’s the idea at any rate.  You can read a piece of flash in the time it takes you to wait for your bus to come along.  A couple of pieces, if it’s late.  And if you haven’t got time to write that novel you always reckoned you’d got in you, then you’ve got the time to write a story in five hundred words.

'Flash fiction is fiction with its teeth bared and its claws extended...'  'It's a machine of compression, the hugest of things in the tiniest of spaces, flash freakin' fiction...'   'It can be prose poetry, a whole story, a slice of sharp light illuminating a life...'

Three quotes amongst many on what is flash fiction.  The name's believed to have been coined back in 1992 as the title to an anthology of very short stories, and it's a name that's stuck. Short, short stories have been written for a long time.  Kafka did it, so did Chekov, and Hemingway's 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn' has been quoted to death.  

However, in recent years, with the growth of the internet, more people reading on e-readers and mobile phones, and the sheer pace of life, the very short story has taken on a whole new life. People don't have much time for reading - or for writing - and the short short story has really come into its own.

Today flash fiction as a phenomenon is being written, and read, all over the world. People have different ideas about how long flash should be. 1,000 words? 50? 10? Ten's pushing it, I reckon. The good people who met at the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse last night have settled for 500.

Last year, Shrewsbury had the honour of launching the first National Flash Fiction Day on May 15th, Flash Fiction Eve.   This year the town was several days in advance.  Last year just a handful of people turned up with stories, and much of the evening was taken up with writing - people collaborating together, in many cases as strangers, but through the medium of writing becoming friends.  ‘I haven’t written a story since I was in primary school,’ somebody said.  And she and many others were back this year, raring to write more. The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse was packed.

This year there was still writing on the tables covered with rolls of lining paper for just that purpose, but where only six people turned up with stories to read, this time the running order had seventeen.  At one point it looked hard to see how they’d all be fitted into one short evening, but by the end of the night when the Muse departed, everybody had read.

In just one evening, we heard about Gabriel Rosetti’s obsession with exotic animals [which he buried in his garden]; window-cleaners encountering ghosts from the past; a new annunciation for a new Virgin Queen; a couple of murder mysteries, one told from the point of view of the corpse; the experience of trench life in the First World War, the experience of being mum to a dysfunctional family, running away to join the Foreign Legion and much, much more. The stories were as diverse as the people who were there.  

The names on the running order are Caroline Bucknall, Carol Caffrey, Carol Forrester, Adrian Perks, Matt James, Liz Lefroy, Barry Tench, Lisa Oliver, Katherine Dixon-Miller, Catherine Redfern, Annie Wilson, Ivan Jones, Mal Jones, Steven Lovejoy, Rosemary [you didn't leave a surname, but I loved your story], Faiza Islam [and her sister, who needs thanks for reading with a heavy head cold] and Pauline Fisk. All of these people made the evening special, and need special thanks.

Also during the evening, the Flash Fiction Shrewsbury website was launched. The town already has its own Flash Fiction Shrewsbury Facebook page, but now there’s a place for the people of Shrewsbury to post their stories.  In just the couple of days the website had been up, it had been read by over fifty people in the UK, twenty-six in the US, and one each in Russia, the Netherlands and Singapore.  ‘Here’s a chance for the people of Shrewsbury to put their writing on the map,’ said the MC of the night, who happened to be me. 

At the end of the evening, 'Snow' by Julia Alvarez was read from the book 'Flash Fiction - 72 Very Short Stories', edited by James and Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka.  Here was a true master of flash at work.  An inspiration to us all. 'Each snowflake was different,' the story ends up, 'like a person, irreplaceable and beautiful.' And that spoke for the whole evening.  All those people, all those different takes on life. Shrewsbury has so much talent to offer.  

Hopefully over the next few days and weeks the stories that were read last night will go up on the new website.  Here's the link for it. Here's a lovely short, short film of last year's Flash Fiction event made by Richard Foot and Aaron Fowler of R & A Collaborations.  And here's Flash Fiction Shrewsbury's Facebook page