By Dan Cross
And just like that, my time as guest Showcase editor has come to a close. It has been my privilege to share with you the works of such talented creative writers over the last few weeks. I hope they have served to kick off your 2023 with inspiration and enjoyment.
I begin this final selection of works with Sad World by Mary Walsh. As the title suggests, it begins by naming some of the hardships in life. But this is actually a poem of hope, and it quickly shifts its tone to remind us how we can find joy and relief in our day-to-day lives.
Starvation and war
Division and strife
It’s not really how
I want to live life
But it’s hard to find joy
With a boot on your back
Killing your mood
Putting you on the rack
So, I will sing songs
Dance a bit too
Laugh when I can
write poems for you
nurture some joy
in the world filled with pain
give thanks each day
And dance in the rain
(c) Mary Walsh, 2022
To follow, we have a poem that honours Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. Der Todeszug, by Gertcha Cowson, is about a train carrying Jews through a war-torn landscape as they are transported to concentration camps. It makes for difficult but necessary reading as we remember this tragic chapter in human history.
This is Der Todeszug crossing borders
Steaming along on Herr Himmler’s orders
Full of the once rich and already poor
Ex-shopkeepers and girls from next door
Pulling out of impoverished Ghetto Quarters
Payments made; 4 pfennig per kilometres
Past steppes and mountainous boulders
Der Verlorene squashed shoulder to shoulder
Snorting stubbornly as she passes
Dead escapees among bloodstained grasses
Free heads turn away in sciolism
Staring into the void of Nazism
Humanity cannot turn its course
Deceiving themselves with fingers across
In the stations it passes no-one’s awake
As the dead passengers gently shake
Sun rises, the journey’s nearly done
Trudging towards Auschwitz it descends,
Towards the factories of Nazi war machine
Towards mass graves and the furnaces
Armed watchtowers stand like giant chessman.
Mass murder and slavery awaits them:
In dark cars, beside barb-wire fences
The forlorn long for news.
Badges of yellow, green for the Kapos,
Red, purple, pink and blue;
badges of brown and black too,
Some were forced, some came by invitations
Some are alone and some with relations,
Prisoners of all situations,
Prisoners of differing nations,
Some circumstantial, some purely financial,
Letters of proof of innocence,
Letters ignored and treated as nonsense,
Airless cars full of uncles, cousins and aunts,
Full of souls from over Europe, some as far as France,
Prisoners who have been segregated;
and told their birth was a disgrace,
Prisoners who don’t fit in the right race,
The silent, the scared violent;
the disparate, all desperate,
The cold and the roasting all fearing their fate,
The clever, non-clever, the short and the long,
No-one to save them from this evil wrong.
Millions peacefully sleep,
Ignorant of Third Reich monsters,
As Der Todeszug pulls up to the buffers.
Alighted at Dachau, alighted at Auschwitz,
Alighted at Bergen-Belsen.
Their nightmares continue,
The horror awakes and hope departs,
Put in the shower queue by a guards nod,
With a fearful quickening of the heart,
We must bear that they are never forgotten.
(c) Gertcha Cowson, 2022
A common cause of sadness among many is to focus on how things were better in ‘The good old days.’ Vic Howard calls upon this in Writing What Is Acceptable but, wisely, also points out that things weren’t always as perfect as we might like to think. And, while the modern world might feel more cynical, it’s still possible to have fun and be merry with our friends and neighbours.
Writing What Is Acceptable
You don’t have to be as ancient as I am to have noticed how attitudes and norms change with time. What was once taboo is now de rigueur.
Lord Reith was head of the BBC back in steam-radio days. He insisted his news readers wear evening dress, black tie and dinner jacket when reading the news on the radio. Women, of course, were not allowed to read the news!
When TV arrived and two female presenters, Mary Malcolm and Sylvia Peters, were allowed before the camera, they were expected to wear wide crinoline dresses. Their male colleague, MacDonald Hobley, appeared in the usual dinner jacket and black bow tie. They all looked as though they were soon off to Covent Garden for a gala performance, and all spoke with perfectly formed RP English vowels. It’s a wonder we were allowed to watch them in our scruffy togs and Cockney accents.
That was a long time ago. I wonder what Lord Reith would have to say today if he were alive, especially if he could witness Ricky Gervais speaking at the Golden Globe awards ceremony?
We’ve come a long way. I approve of Ricky Gervais, though he does make me feel embarrassed sometimes with his outspokenness and I do wish he didn’t swear so often. The pendulum of acceptability never hangs still. It swings violently from one side to the other.
The BBC used to have a list of subjects, which writers, especially comedy writers, were not allowed to write about. They included religious profanity, royalty, race, physical handicap, or sexual orientation. Frank Muir once famously declared in a My Word radio programme that he had a little rhyme he used when writing, to remind himself of these taboos. Times change. We thought it funny when he said it.
Today, I suspect that writers use a similar rhyme to remind themselves of what they ought to include in the next episode of the series they’re writing. When was the last time you saw a recent piece of drama that didn’t include one, or all, of life’s rich deviations? The unusual has become the new normal and there is a sense that we should be ashamed of belonging to the old normal.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m glad we live in the Ricky Gervais era and not Lord Reith’s, though a little moderation now and then would be nice. Though outrageously entertaining, Ricky is unlikely to be invited to read the evening news on TV. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea! People might then take a little more notice of the horrors and catastrophes in the world and of the devious antics of world leaders, to whom we have become indifferent. Imagine an episode of Face To Face with Ricky Gervais interviewing Boris Johnson or Donald Trump: The Irrepressible Meets The Irresponsible.
A brilliant musical satirist called Tom Lehrer, whose other main occupation in life was lecturing in mathematics at Harvard University, denied giving up satire when and because Henry Kissinger was given the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobody really believed him, because he wouldn’t have been the first to find it hard to satirise the already bizarre antics of world leaders.
The world has changed so much in recent times. We’ve become more cynical and suspicious of everything. We communicate via digital media, while ignoring our neighbours. We’re told so many untruths that we become blind to the real truth and are easily manipulated into believing the outrageous conspiracy theories propagated on anti-social media.
Life’s too short to worry about it all. Instead, lie back, laugh and give your neighbour a hug!
(c) Vic Howard, 2022
Lastly, I’m thrilled and honoured to share an excerpt from an upcoming novel with you all. I became acquainted with Gail Kirkpatrick in 2020, when our novels were shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. Since then, Gail has secured a publisher for her historical fiction, Sleepers And Ties, about a woman who returns to her childhood home, only to discover her deceased sister has left her money to repair and revitalise an abandoned railway line. The story is full of contradictions, as the protagonist must confront an ever-changing landscape, both literally and figuratively, while confronting her own relationships and beliefs.
Extract from Sleepers And Ties
Plover Station, June 2007
Yellow wallflowers and purple thistle cover the former Plover railway line, and I wonder why it hasn’t been turned into a walking trail. That way at least, a century-old route carved from the land would have been preserved. Markers could be placed every ten miles or so with illustrations of the meadowlarks and starlings to be found hereabouts, details of the geography, Métis and First Nations Peoples, maybe the names of the workers who helped build this line, perhaps even sacrificed their lives for it, something akin to the scalloped shells of the Camino that mark the route and distance to Santiago de Compostela, not so much to mark a pilgrimage, but comparable here enlightening the traveler on the path that links one part of the country to another. For the briefest moment, I slip into curator mode finding it ever difficult to shed the professional skin and am grateful for the distraction.
Fool’s gold sparkles in the rail bed. The sparrows skulking among the cattails alert with tschip tschip tschip. A few feet in front of me, something glints in the sunlight, and leaning forward I recognize a rusty spike, the once t-shaped silver nail now umber and bent into a U. Someone at the museum might make use of it in one of the displays, maybe place it surreptitiously in a coal-mining or ship-building diorama, or repurposed by some enthusiastic junior, label it a coat hook for the gift shop. Just what the museum needs, more trinkets. I turn away, shade my eyes against the platinum sunshine, and wish that I had remembered to bring my shades.
As if I were cleaning my gardening clogs on the back-door boot-scraper, I brush my sole across the rail, but the polished
surface of the track rejects the Italian leather and my shoe slips away from the steel. I dig my toe into the salt and pepper quarry, the ballast that neither time nor wind has shifted. Sharp-edged flint, ice-coloured quartz, limestone, and shale—rocks of glacial tills and ancient mountains, once tucked between wooden planks meant to keep the rails from shifting. Now, for the chance passerby, merely a collection of weathered boards and silent stones interrupting the plain.
The sun warms to the marrow and there is no need of a suit jacket. Before I can decide whether to drape it across my shoulder, or drop the jacket onto the grass, my bare right foot shakes off the flat I am wearing, and in one smooth, easy motion prints itself on the sun-warmed steel. I teeter right, left. The other shoe falls away, and with the lightness of a tightrope walker I let the railway track lead me through the tangle of pompous and prickly bloom. The pleats of my skirt fan in the careless breeze.
Without stepping off the rail, I crouch, slowly maneuver a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, and heel-toe back towards the
car parked in the field where the railway station had once been. Quackgrass, foxtails, and buffalo beans have taken over the place where our home had once been planted. I scan the horizon for anything that used to be ours. A meadowlark whistles its two-part verse and I tip off the rail.
I look from bulrushes to power lines for the yellow breast and black V-collar. Sturnella neglecta. Eager to flaunt my book
learning, I had recited, ‘Named because it had gone unnoticed as being different from its eastern relative. The emblem bird of six American states.’ My younger sister would simply turn and point to the bird on its pedestal and say, ‘There,’ proving her perception an unequivocal match to my memorized recitations. Oft, superior.
A second call sounds behind me. I spin round, imitate a poor response. No answer comes back to me.
The birthing smell of poplar drifts down the wind, and I breathe in melted snows, muddy cattails, tadpoles, and willow
from the late spring slough. I gather up my skirt between my thighs, place my ear on the rail and listen for a train. In the last three decades of living beside the ocean, the sound of the sea in a shell remains a myth, yet, somewhere deep in these rails, I can hear the scrape and huff of Diesel 1416.
The wind blows around me, the boarded-up buildings of Plover’s main street, and where the hotel and pub stood before
the night of the fire. I retrieve the car keys from my jacket pocket, pull at my watch strap, and turn my head one more time for the meadowlark.
‘Stop daydreaming and wasting time,’ I imagine Shirley whispering. I can’t put it off any longer. The lawyer is waiting to
dismiss the second and final probate of her will.
(c) Gail Kirkpatrick, 2022
Sleepers And Ties is Gail’s first novel. Published by Now Or Never Publishing, it’s currently available for pre-order and will be released 15th April 2023.
Dan is a twice-shortlisted author and the senior editor of The Open Book Editor, providing personal and honest editing and coaching for authors.
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