More pictures from ConFab Cabaret recently


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The Upside Down Jesus and other stories

Karen Jones launches her short story collection, The Upside Down Jesus and other stories today so I’m delighted to be able to blog it on FoxTales. The title story was a Mslexia winner and she has won or been shortlisted for numerous other awards. Karen was one of the first people I met in the online writing a decade ago and since then we’ve met in “real’” life quite a few times, even though she’s based up in Glasgow and I’m in the West Midlands. (Karen, with a bunch of other kind writers, nurtured and mentored me through my novel attempts and they are probably rather relived I’ve been concentrating on poetry lately.)
About the book:

The Upside-Down Jesus and other stories is a collection of published and prize-winning short stories, flash fiction and micro-fiction giving voice to a variety of different characters.

A child struggles to overcome her fear of the upside-down Jesus, a man dons his “egg-stealing coat” once a week, a teenager becomes obsessed with the colour purple, an old man keeps his wife closer than others would like, a psychiatrist considers the folly of his patients, and a little girl watches her neighbour slowly disappear.
Tracy Chevalier, judge of the 2010 Mslexia Short Story Competition, on “The Upside-Down Jesus”:

“ … a heartbreaker leavened by a gorgeous young Scottish narrator … the girl’s voice is beautifully sustained and so we feel we really know her by the end.”
Annemarie Neary, judge of the first quarter 2013 Flash 500 Competition, on “When No One Is Looking”:

“… close to perfect … expert writing – tight and rhythmical … deft evocation of the childish sense of impotence, of no one listening … excellent work.”



The Upside Down Jesus and other stories is available as a paperback from Lulu at £6.99 HERE. It will be available from Amazon soon. You can buy it direct from Karen for just £6 plus pp: email her at for details.

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ConFab Cabaret’s first anniversary PARTY

On Wednesday night Malvern’s ConFab Cabaret celebrated its first year. Named partly for its original venue, ReCon (RIP) it’s been peripatetic since that venue closed. Last night’s party was hosted in the fiery red of Oliver’s Bar, Belle Vue Terrace. If unfamiliar performance surroundings might be stressful ConFab’s for organisers, Amy Rainbow and Catherine Crosswell, they gave no hint of it during the show.

The open mic – “Prepare to Share” – two minute slots were a good mixture, as always, kicked off by a party visit from Spoz at his ranty-filthy-est best. The main acts were Birmingham’s quartet of superb Decadent Divas (a diva down but performing extra decadence to make up) and then finished with the wickedly funny five-piece acapella group Men In General.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been to all the ConFabs Cabarets, and to have been doing Fox Pops – “some kind of audience involvement” – since the second. Since I am also naturally lazy, these days I just hand out paper and get the audience to write a poem – well, a line or two each that can be sticky-taped to together. I start as I mean to go on, by making the audience decide its subject for the night. “Parties” came out tops last night for some reason. Though someone in the Brum contingent was apparently yelling “Benedict Cumberbatch’s arse” and I missed it. Consequently, there were a few rebel couplets on that subject. I can only apologise in advance to Mr Cumberbatch should he come upon them here.


Roll up! Roll up!
it’s party time:
ConFab Cabaret
quite sublime.
Energising atmosphere in the red room
as the party swings into full bloom.
Various poppers and balloons;
pop, pop as banners festoon;
young and old imbibe the tunes
while neighbours decry their intruded rooms.
Cars parked across my drive.
lots of noise as people arrive.
Laughing, chatting, full and hearty:
they all are off to someone’s party.
Gate-crashing the party
with my friend Marty.
Party party party woop woop!

My daughter said a party MUST be good,
I wish that I could square that with the BNP
or UKIP.
Labour, whig – couldn’t give a fig.

And Jasper says you’re wearing no knickers.

Chips, dips and chicks with whips;
pills, thrills and players with grillz;
all paid for with dollar bills.
Cameron’s a twat
George Osbourne is a pillock.
The Tory party’s fucked
and Labour are not much better.

And I’ll cry if I want to…

Party me hard and draw me out
make me roar with a full throat shout.
Birthday, present, tense…
all tomorrow’s parties, spent.
Vicars and Tarts for a hearty party.
I don’t want to get there too late
but I don’t want to peak too soon;
I’m making no apologies for
the wrong choice of pants
but I can blame them if I swoon.
Dance on the table
with Aunty mabel.

It’s an Elgar Party Knicker:
it makes you go real quicker.
Sitting on the toilet with
my boobs out
Something wobbles on the laundry
bags and bundles.
Crooked floors, smiles and wobbly walls.
Cake up the wall, bodies in the lo;
what will it be like when they’re two?!
I like cake far too much.
Wine and cheese?
Oh yes please!

I’m such a tarty-farty
when at an arty-party.
Benedict Cumberbatch,
if I was a chicken,
all my eggs you would hatch;
I am the cottage, you are the thatch,
Benedict, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Oh beautiful Benedict Cumberbatch
you could tempt me away from “snatch”;
some men are fit but you are fitter –
I’d gladly take you up my [at this point
Fox Pops was overcome with emotion;
a brief pause while the audience calmed]

Is a party to do with parting?
Because I gotta!
One for the road with this party.
On my way to Castlemorton Common – a road
– I took a wrong-un … and ended up in Bath
– instead.


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I trudge the last steep reach of Wearyall:
at my feet puddles double as a county,
a map I cannot fathom.

Still Levels rising, horizon rain-close
where eels feed in easy streets
and sticklebacks the size of whales
might lek on village cricket pitches.


Another ‘52‘ poem, this time on last week’s theme of ‘weather’.

Scale as in scaling a hill, fish scales, scale of maps and plans … and a nod to the ubiquitous ‘area the size of Wales’ (and Father Ted, perhaps, ‘small … far away’; hard to resist).

Born and bred in the West Country (Wearyall Hill is close to Glastonbury Tor, looking over the Somerset Levels), now living near Worcester and the River Severn, the scale of inland flooding is almost mind-boggling, let alone storm damage to coastal areas of Britain and beyond.

Meanwhile, apparently California has a drought, Australia is still counting the cost of its heatwave / bush fires and central-northern America is frozen solid. Climate change – whether man made or not – is happening. We will have to cope with it’s capricious uncertainties.

Cameron’s ‘money is no object’ suggests that even Tory slashers now realise that infrastructure is vital so there is a tiny gleam of hope from all this. Perhaps we’ll invest in creating, building, mending instead of the wealthy becoming wealthier as everything else withers. Perhaps.

Here are some pictures of Upton Upon Severn at dusk last week. The Malvern Hills are in the distance in the first:


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Spring Sunshine

Four weeks into 52 and there are some amazing poems in the group. Meanwhile, here’s  my attempt to tackle week 4′s theme, Invitation.


Invitation to Spring Sunshine

Please come soon.
You can’t be too quick –
surprise me.

I’ll welcome you,
fling open doors,
shuck off vesty layers,

dance on the hilltop
naked, receptive
to your deft touch.

Children may shriek;
neighbours may blink,
blinded by skin’s albedo,

but, with you, I’ll be fearless
careless of exposure –
“I love you!” I will sing.

My mood will soar;
dreary bickering
brighten to cheery banter;

smiles will include eyes,
backs will be straighter.
Everyone will shine.



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A Journey with Dragons’ Breath

When I discussed Jo Bell’s poem Hoary Alison a few days ago, I should also have mentioned her New Year-launched project, “52”, a website to encourage poets – of whatever ability/experience – to WRITE at least one poem for every week of this coming year. Being as it’s Jo’s initiative, the themes are well worth pursuing and the sample/prompt poems are a fabulous mix of thought-provoking poetry.

There is a 52 FaceBook group for FaceBook-using poets to join if they wish. It’s a “closed” group, which means than non-members cannot see what is posted there and nor can Google searches find anything (so contents are “unpublished” if you might want to polish and submit your poems to magazines or competitions). However, at the moment, there are more than 250 members in the group; at one poem per week each (even if not everyone participates), that’s a lot of poems to assimilate.

Week 2’s theme was to look at a journey; so many possibilities in response.

I went for a walk up and around the Malvern’s North Hill. I’ve been contemplating writing something about the brothel that may or may not have existed in Happy Valley but, looking out over the frosty vale, my “dragon breath” steaming in the chill air, I thought of the poem below.

I give you two versions: yesterday’s immediate response to my walk and then today’s edited revision so you can decide if I have improved or spoiled the poem. It’s still not quite what I intend but, now it is technically published – visible to anyone here – it’ll do.


Rampaging dragons don’t
exist, except in hills’

mythology. Yet quantum,
existential beasts persist,

aestivating beneath beech
tree roots, in broken concrete

gaps or capped colliery shafts
until snapped awake

by biting cold. Overnight
they stretch shrivelled wings –

hear grey scales slip-scritch
through holly thickets;

hot claws whisper-sizzle
in tarnished puddles;

hiss of close breath
misting this indigo dawn.



Dragons don’t exist,
except in hills’
mythology. Yet quantum,
existential beasts persist,
aestivating beneath beech
tree roots, in broken concrete
gaps or capped colliery shafts
until snapped awake
by brittle cold.

they stretch shrivelled wings:
grey scales slip-scritch
through holly thickets.
Listen, shh: hot claws sizzle,
in burnished puddles,
with a whispered hiss
of close breath
misting this indigo dawn.

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Hoary Alison by Jo Bell

In my last post I mentioned Hoary Alison, a poem by Jo Bell, recently published in the Morning Star.

When I emailed Jo to say I’d like to look at Hoary Alison here, she emailed me straight back to say “of course” (because she’s kind like that) and to send me a new version of the poem, edited with help from her friend “the hawk-eyed” Alan Buckley. She added that the poem was some years old and had been reworked over time before finding publication now.

Compare the Morning Star published version to what I might call “the Alan Buckley 2014 Mix”, below. I shall look at the specific details of the latter, rather than the newspaper version.

Hoary Alison uses what some might describe as invading, foreign plant species as metaphor for the recent furore over the impending Slavalanche* when “the entire population of Transylvania” would arrive to “pitch their tents” in The City as London Mayor Boris Johnson rabble-roused a few weeks ago.

The poem title is superb: the play on the plant’s common name: “Hoary” sounding like “Whore-y”; reminding us of prurient media interest in women trafficked for the sex trade.

Denigrated, feared, blamed by some for all our ills, refugees and, now, legal Eastern Europeans are pushed into the cracks of society, surviving as best they can.

Hoary Alison is structured partly as a found poem: the italics are purportedly from a botanical scientific paper. Googling “Hoary Alison [images]”, the plants are exactly as described. (I should say here I struggled through a field botany course as part of my degree; the biological lingo is just as I recall – but this is the first time I’ve enjoyed it.)

I have a friend who thinks found poetry is cheating. I disagree. Noticing the way a found text can be sampled askance to make something completely new is just as much poetry as finding a poem in fingernails. (Besides, one of my own poems was found in a LinkedIn CV and I am rather fond of it.)

“Precision has no gallantry” Hoary Alison opens, warning us that the dry, exact specifications of botanic jargon will not be kind – or unkind; “disinterested”, might sum it up, in the same way that Government agencies are disinterested – to any humanity offered by the additional narration linking the botany.

“[O]ur heroine” defines Alison as the central character in this drama but she is “An extremely common weed” and “Casual of waste ground, docks, rubbish heaps”: outcast, desperate and rough, more hints at how she might survive “as she can”; more oblique references to the sex trade: “often introduced with foreign seed”, “Behaves in Britain as in Europe.”

Determined to survive – who isn’t? – she “throws down roots like gauntlets, settles…”. The is excellent dark humour in: “…the British climate may be / sub-optimal to long-term survival.

The same sort of fuss was made when the Windrush docked, and long before that when starving Irish arrived. The Celts weren’t keen on the Saxons and the Romans, Vikings and French have all invaded in the proper sense of the world. (“What have the Romans ever done for us?” in the words of Monty Python.) We are a mongrel nation and always have been. “We must all start somewhere.” “[T]here is no reason why populations should not be part of our cultural heritage.” But she will have to start with, “our gutters, bitter earth.”

Hoary Alison is in neat, spare (like the botanical information) three-line stanzas. Easy on the eye, easy to read (useful for publication in a non-poetry-specialist outlet). There is no overt rhyme nor meter but the language is understated, deliberately non-“poetic”, in keeping with the botany script (and, perhaps, accessibility, again).

How many people have read about Hoary Alison over the years? It’s taken Jo Bell’s poem to take her out of botany (and undergraduate sniggers) and bring her to life.

[edit: the next morning] I missed a line from my notes. That’s what comes of hurrying to post when tired:

“Hoary” brings us back to the “Hoary (old/thorny) question” of immigration; a debate as old as these British hills and vales.
[end of edit]

*Slavalanche – a portmanteau neologism seen on FaceBook shortly after Borris Johnson’s recent Rivers of Blood (= invading vampyrs) speech. If the owner would care to step forward I would be glad to credit them.

Hoary Alison by Jo Bell

Geographical and Temporal Distributions
of Alyssum Alyssoides and Berteroa Incana
– Karran and Rich, 2003

Precision has no gallantry. Medium,
grey with hairs, sometimes obscurely
An extremely common weed;

our heroine is often found on roads
and railways.
Casual of waste ground,
docks, rubbish heaps, etc.

To be fair, the derelict simply offered
habitats in which she could establish
We all must start somewhere.

She thrives in bare places, takes hold
as she can. Sometimes casual
for one year only: sometimes persistent.

She moves on, little noticed; Eastern,
often introduced with foreign seed.
Behaves in Britain as in Europe.

She throws down roots like gauntlets,
settles with a degree of permanence
in some cultivated areas;
seeks better habitat.

We understand the British climate may be
sub-optimal to long-term survival.
Given its historical occurrence here,

there is no reason why populations
should not be part of our cultural heritage.

Welcome to our gutters, bitter earth.

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