Time to Read Blog

I will feel these things: a review of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Posted Thursday 4 October 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

NightwoodBritish-American poet Sarah Fletcher reveals the book that most affected her, as part of an ongoing series of reviews by members of the Writing Squad.

"A drunk, trans-sexual faux-doctor in drag starts to cry in a 1920’s Parisian bar. He is overwhelmed by the increasingly damaging secrets he’s become privy too. Starting to spill each stream of salacious gossip into the sozzled crowd, he sobs, as he breaks every confidence he can, ‘Oh, it’s a grand bad story, and who says I’m a betrayer? I say, tell the story of the world to the world!’”

This is the sort of moment in the swirling, strange universe of Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel Nightwood that becomes normal throughout this glittering book. Written in a luscious, High Modernist style, Nightwood is surreal in the most genuine meaning of the word: marked by the intense irrationality of a dream that is utterly believed by the dreamer nonetheless. Nonsensical, grotesque and fantastic.

People fall in love with the wrong people; then in wrong with the loved people, ad infinitum.

Djuna BarnesThe gut of the story is the dithering and pathetic love of Nora Flood for her party-loving girlfriend Robin Vote, who leaves Nora each night in search of a new cocktail, a new social scene, a new set of arms to sleep in. Berlin, Paris, London and Vienna become almost interchangeable in their flapperish glamour and dangerous character. 

"The gut of the story is the dithering and pathetic love of Nora Flood for her party-loving girlfriend Robin Vote, who leaves Nora each night in search of a new cocktail ..."

If love-gone-toxic is the guts of this story, its heart is the delicate, spellbinding language that weaves the plot together. When Robin passes out after a drunken night, Nora describes her flesh as having “the texture of plant life…sleep-worn as if sleep were a decaying fish”.

It’s these startling turns of phrase and beautiful descriptions throughout the novel that make the sordid plot palatable.

"Championed by T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, Nightwood is often marketed as a lesbian love story for its portrayal of vicious, triangular relationships between women."

Championed by T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, Nightwood is often marketed as a lesbian love story for its portrayal of vicious, triangular relationships between women. While this is an important aspect, I still return to the faux-doctor’s cry of telling “the story of the world to the world”.

Nightwood is an imminently human story, that beautifully expresses the complex sorrows and desires that make up human relationships. For as peculiar its plot is, a reader may not be left thinking that this could happen to me but, in all its intensity, a reader will surely know that this could be felt by me, and, one day, I will feel these things.

About the reviewer

Sarah FletcherSarah Fletcher is a British-American poet living in London and studying for a postgraduate at Royal Holloway. Her poetry has been published in Poetry London, The Rialto and the London Magazine. She was named a 2012 Foyle Young Poet of the Year, has received the 2012 and 2013 Christopher Tower Poetry Prizes, and has been shortlisted for the Stephen Spender Prize and Bridport Prize. Her debut pamphlet Kissing Angles was published with Dead Ink Books in 2015 and her pamphlet Typhoid August with Smith|Doorstop in 2018 as part of the New Poets Scheme.

Transcription of an author event: Kate Atkinson at Bolton Central Library

Posted Tuesday 18 September 2018 by Ian Anstice in Events, Opinion

Bolton CentralA sunny, warm but windy day in Bolton. Outside, people were sat watching an talking on the steps but the town hall. Just round the back is the beautiful old Central Library with the newly refurbished combined museum just about to be opened on the asaturday after.

Bolton Libraries must have been delighted to get someone of the stature of Kate Atkinson. She’s been doing big bookshops and big cities otherwise in her tour, and been all over local and national radio and podcasts and book reviews. It turned out that she'd spent all that morning doing local radio interviews.

I can see why she came to Bolton though. It's a beautiful library and the auditorium can fit 150. In addition, tickets to attend were free and, not just that, but a free coffee and biscuit at the beginning. And it was clear people were using that money to saved to buy books. Choosing a seat at the back of the big semi-circular auditorium, I got chatting to a local bookseller who was looking on somewhat remorsefully at Waterstones doing a roaring trade in selling hardbacks.

Over 100 came for the difficult lunchtime weekday slot, never the best, in the beautiful meeting room at Bolton Central Library. Others had booked but not turned up (always a challenge with free events) but so many booked it didn't matter. The audience was what one would expect:  audience 90% female and largely retired. I'd recommend attend a weekday author visit to anyone approaching 50; Its a great way to feel young again.

"I'd recommend attend a weekday author visit to anyone approaching 50; Its a great way to feel young again."

Mel Kate Atkinson BoltonAfter a short intro from librarian Mel Graaf, which raised a laugh, it was over to Alison Barrow from Transworld who interviewed Kate Atkinson on her new book "Transcription" about espionage in the phoney war period at World War Two. "Sounds good doesn't it?" Said Kate in a happy voice which set the tone for what came after.

The author read a selection from the book. It was a Good audience, smiling and laughing at asides, such as observing that the lead character "is a pathological liar".

Then the questions came. Did Kate want to write a war story? No.

"I didn't want to write a war story but because I wanted to write this story, I had to. They don't know there's six years ahead of attrition. People are paranoid at the time which fits in well as the book is about paranoia and suspicion. MI5 are concentrating on mopping up the fifth column of Fascists, whose membership ran a very large gamut from the working class to the aristocracy.

She then apologised (no need) saying she’d be doing  local radio all morning and so if she repeated herself to let her know.

Kate used the National Archives to research story. It turns out that MI5 make periodical releases to NA when they're no longer sensitive and, seventy years after the events, they've recently released who one of the key characters in the book - Jack King = actually was, including transcriptions of his conversations. He infiltrated  fascist circles and was known socially to them. It's amazing to think that a bank clerk working for secret agency infiltrating fascists. Someone who looks so normal but whose work led to a whole web of people being revealed.

"It's amazing to think that a bank clerk working for secret agency infiltrating fascists. Someone who looks so normal but whose work led to a whole web of people being revealed."

There was some fun for a minute as the microphones were swapped due to a few people not being able to hear and the comment that "Kate is a writer, not a sound technician".

So, how much was made up? The plot and the characters are fictional but the background facts are facts. “ I then forget what I've made up: I can't remember what is real and what is not, which is quite appropriate"

There’s a lot about identity and deception in the book. You never find out with some people who they are. It's a book about ambivalence but not enough that readers throw down the book in disgust.

“If I knew everything that was going to happen I’d be bored” say Kate. “One things come out of another, always. I'm the early days I though one had to plan novels but the second I start typing it changes completely. It's only then that I understand what I'm writing. I like to have structure, a clear skeleton then you put the flesh on. I can't write without a title. I need to know that, how it begins and how it ends. And almost without fail I do get where I want to go at the end of writing.”

"If I knew everything that was going to happen I’d be bored”

I don't have the fear of a blank page because if you have the title then you don't have a blank page. The title bears little relation to the actual story but my thoughts unconsciously congregate around the title. I want to write a book with that title and when I finish it, I realise why I called it that.

For example, the book “Started Early Took My Dog”. Well, that means, the protagonist had to have a dog and an unlikely liking for Emily Dickinson, where the quote comes from originally. Therefore the book almost starts to write itself. On the subject of canines “Every book has a dog in it but I don't actually have a dog, of which more later.” One audience got very excited about what dog Kate should get. “A dog would be very important to dog owners and so should appear more in stories.

Characters in Transcription are quite isolated. This is deliberate. In the war, people left family, especially young women. Not isolated ... But liberated. Starting anew. Most of them had a whale of a time socially. Start of a huge shift of attitude about women.

"She sometimes catches herself thinking “What Would Gloria Think Of That?”

Individual characters are a big thing with Kate. Is she had to pick a favourite, then it'd be Teddy from Life after Life. Or Gloria in A God In Ruins. Or all of the dogs, especially Lilly in this current book. She went on to say that some characters just stayed with her. She sometimes catches herself thinking “What Would Gloria Think Of That?”.

She used to be offended when everyone thought Museum was autobiographical. “No, I'm a writer. But now I think that all of it came from my head so it must all be me, one way or another. Especially if you live inside a head of the character, you can see the similarity. But I'm not putting across a message or as a sounding board for my own opinions. “

“I think I would make an excellent spy. But in reality I'm not very good at keeping secrets. If I had my time again, I'd do something secret, Mi5 or GCHQ ... And be in charge of things. “

"I think I would make an excellent spy. But in reality I'm not very good at keeping secrets"

When would you travel back in time was asked. To the war as it was a time of heightened living,  was the answer. But only with a guarantee that I would come back. Imagine going back to Shakespeare’s time? No, there'd be no tea or good lighting or laundry.

kate questionAfter 50 minutes, the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions. And of course one of the first was about how Kate writes. She writes mostly chronologically. She reads the beginning every day as that makes her remember why she’s writing that book.

Some book ideas last forever with no book actually happening. She’s  been planning a book on the Antarctic for years and years. Kate is (a very young looking) 66 and frets some of her ideas will never get around to being written. Maybe if she lives to 150 and then get it all done.

“If I gather enough thoughts then I write it. The next two books I'm planning are relatively recent ideas. One is an exhibition I saw, one is an idea that just came to e. I've been putting together a book of short stories forever. Writing the book you want to write is the gift you give yourself.”

"Characters are often described as breeds of dogs in Kate’s books. What dog are you was the cheeky questions:  “I'd like to be a dog I'm planning to get - a border collie"

Characters are often described as breeds of dogs in Kate’s books. What dog are you was the cheeky question?  “I'd like to be a dog I'm planning to get - a border collie. Because they're more intelligent than me, or my best bet in that direction.”

Did you always want to write? “No. I was a reader. I was an only child so started reading at three. Did a degree and doctorate at English, and then failed at it. I was bereft. I treated academic writing as a creative thing. Then I started writing creatively almost immediately. I got rid of all the biographical crud in shoot stories. First story I ever wrote won a women's magazine award, which gave me permission to do more. Studying gave me the time to read so much. A winding reading base is the basis of writing.”

kate Atkinson queueWhat are your favourite writers? She was most influenced by her reading when she was a child. Real classics like Lewis Carroll and Nesbit. There was not this vast library of children's books then like there are now.

And now for I think what may be news to many. Her next one will be a Jackson Brodie one. Not sure she should have said that by the look of her publicist.

And, then, all too soon, it was time for book signing. 35 books were sold at £20 per time. Not too shabby. Kate showed tremendous patience signing so many books, laughing and thanking everyone.

I'm glad too, Lemn

Posted Tuesday 11 September 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

As a young poet my tastes in poetry and the choice of anthologies that I read shifts and changes as easily as the wind. Throughout my poetic career however, there has been one constant; the works of Lemn Sissay whom I first discovered reading the poem ‘Going Places’ in a collection of modern British poetry. That particular poem ends with a simple, abstract thought:

‘I think I'll paint roads on my front room walls to convince myself that I'm going places.’

This simple combination of a surreal idea with relatable imagery has defined my style as a writer and continues to inspire my work.

Tender fingersAlthough "Going Places" is not within it, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist is one of my most prized possessions. It was the first collection published by Lemn and was released as a small print run in 1988 while he was just twenty-one years of age.  The copy I have is a somewhat battered first edition paperback, bought from a library in Bradford which was forced to close due to lack of funding. But this somehow makes the book all the more special, within the peeling, creased exterior of the book sits Lemn’s youthful, raw emotion, a lone angry voice in the crowd telling anyone who cares to listen that he is done with all of this bullshit. Though Tender Fingers is not as formed or polished as Sissay’s later work, it is a priceless insight into the mind of a young writer on the verge of becoming one of most important poetic voices in modern day Britain.

One more thing makes my addition special; I had the fortune of meeting Lemn at an event in Sheffield and told him how much he has inspired me and now on the inside page, scribbled in black sharpie above his signature, he has written ‘Dan, I am so glad that you found this book’ I’m glad too Lemn.

"Dan, I am so glad that you found this book’ I’m glad too Lemn."


Dan WhittakerDan’s poetry is a reflection of the Yorkshire landscapes that raised him. The coherent playfulness of his work allows the reader to easily become lost in the unembellished but fantastic world that is conjured around them.

He is currently working on writing/editing a larger collection of poetry titled ‘Sea Glass for Eyes’ which chronicles his personal experience of losing an older brother at a young age. The poems use simple language and a deliberately small vocabulary to frame, with often striking and uncomfortable imagery, the idea of loss through the eyes of a child.

His pamphlet Know-it-all is available from Half Moon Books.

28 tales for 28 days

Posted Tuesday 4 September 2018 by Ian Anstice in Latest Libraries News

Refugee Tales and Comma Press are launching ’28 Tales for 28 Days’ (#28for28 ) on 11 September.

Rooted in the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group,  and supported by the University of Kent, Refugee Tales shares the tales of those who have been indefinitely detained in immigration detention. The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely for administrative purposes without judicial oversight. To highlight the call for a 28 day time limit for immigration detention, Refugee Tales is releasing 28 tales online – one each day over 28 days on the website www.28for28.org.

Events for the book which have taken place across Manchester and the North West at various festivals and have always been well supported, and a number of the tales recorded for this project were recorded in Manchester with local actors such as Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh.

Tales are collaborations between people who have experienced detention, or people who have worked with those detained, by writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Ali Smith, Neel Mukherjee, Jackie Kay, Marina Warner, Inua Ellams and Patrick Gale. They are read on film by actors such as Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Zoe Wanamaker, Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake making a call for an end to indefinite detention to a new audience. Crucially, at the end of 28 Tales for 28 Days, a tale will be read in Westminster taking the tales to parliamentarians who have the power to bring about legislative change and end the injustice of immigration detention.

North West Libraries

Librarians in the North West have pioneered partnership working to encourage new readers into libraries. Time To Read is a partnership of librarians engaged in reader development activity in public library authorities in the North West Region. 22 public library authorities in the region currently support Time To Read.

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