Colin Sargent describes crafting Red Hands, his latest novel about Iordana Ceausescu, like salvaging scattered crystals from a shattered chandelier. For her, telling this past is not unlike shattering into a thousand shards all over again. Sargent’s depiction restores her as a luminescent and resilient whole set against a turbulent background.
Ceausescu grew up in Romania’s Nomenclature (communist party). Both her parents had high positions in the government. As her father and his colleague Nicholas Ceausescu conflicted over Romania’s direction, Iordana’s infatuation with Valentin Ceausescu tempted her teenage rebellion. But the thrill of taking risks turned into fear after their clandestine marriage. The Ceausescu family disavowed her and she, in turn, rejected many of their lavish gifts. She kept Valentin’s baby despite the family’s disapproval. She and Valentin divorced amidst political unrest sweeping communist countries in the late 1980s. She and her son fled the country when the Ceausescus came under attack.
The dangers Ceausescu faces become all the more convincing in Sargent’s depictions of their interviews in which information leaks out bit by painstaking bit. In contrast, she comes across in the rest of the story as a confident and principled woman. The novel focuses on the actions she takes to protect herself, her son, and fellow citizens. “The people were free without Communism and the Ceausescus but they were desperate without someone to blame” (254). With elegance and journalistic precision, this novel speaks to the timeless struggle of individuals up against powerful collectives.
Terrific early models of LGBT+ publishing came from the likes of Gay Men’s Press and Naiad Press. Other houses, such as Peter Owen who brought James Purdy and Paul and Jane Bowles to the UK, or St Martin’s Press in the States, folded powerful LGBT+ writing into wider lists.
Barbican Press takes on that model. Here’s a look at our LGBT+ titles.
Two Polari Prize books first. Sarah Walton’s Rufius was longlisted for that prize. Rufius is a powerful Roman exiled to run the library of Alexandria. His penchant is taking a passive role with boys found on the street. Steven Saylor loved the book, but said it could not have been published in the USA. It breaks so many bounds. And it’s wonderful and ultimately very moving.
We first heard of Paul Harfleet’s gorgeous Pansy Boy when it was in draft. The Guardian featured it, a work of beauty looking for a home. It tells of a boy tackling homophobia by planting pansies, and includes lovingly drawn field guides to flowers and birds. One for children, but a beauteous book for adults too.
Maggie Hamand’s Virgin & Child, a wild and bold story of the first Irish Pope, explores a unique trans world. To say more is to give you spoilers. Colin W. Sargent’s The Boston Castrato gives a unique trans perspective too, looking at the life of the last castrato. Set in 1920s Boston this also takes us deep inside the lesbian world and circle of the poet Amy Howell.
For gay poetry, explore James Thornton’s Notes from a Mountain Village. A Pyrenean village gave shelter when James was forced from his country to be the way he loved, and the collection reflects this. You’ll find striking gay poetry from among the writing of ex-offenders too, Hope Walks By Me.
In Martin Goodman’s Ectopia, Steve is gay, sixteen, nicknamed Bender, and the twin of the last girl born on Earth. The world of that book is a London dystopia. High up in Andes, in a variant SF realm, the lead character of Martin Vopenka’s The Fifth Dimension explores his bisexual nature.
Coming up is Richard Zimler’s The Lost Gospel of Lazarus, which depicts the intimate bons between Lazarus and Jesus.
The Polari Prize shortlists used to be dominated by independent presses. Last year mainstream houses led the way – a cause for celebration, as it’s always good to have the mainstream behind you. We stay glad to be an independent home, a barbican, for LGBT+ work with an extra edge.
The successful memoir sets out to reveal the intimate details of an author’s life, the lessons learned and key moments that shaped who they are. Chris Westoby’s The Fear Talking is that rare thing that manages to use the form to explore the highs and lows, (mostly lows), of a teenager living with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder that quickly spirals out of control to dominate his every thought and action. It also serves as a manual to help identify young people suffering in this specific way and what might be done to help them—or at least come to understand them a little more.
The narrative opens with a family holiday in Florida and the dramatic image of the Discovery space shuttle rising into a cloudless sky. Although, sixteen year old Chris is preoccupied with an “empty Coke beaker”, wondering if it is large enough to contain the vomit he expects to appear any second and ruin his family’s special day. The catalogue of events that follows this initial episode are expertly handled and are always presented with a searing honesty that is introduced here and maintained to the final page.
The fact that this is about an otherwise ordinary boy from an ordinary working-class family, enrolled in ordinary college in an ordinary town, means the story will resonate with many readers. Chris is yearning to blend in, be a good mate, attentive boyfriend and dutiful son, mirrors most people’s lives at this notoriously difficult age and forces the reader to reflect on their own complex journeys to adulthood. In fact, Chris’s running commentary of fairly prosaic events provides some of the memoir’s standout comedic moments, covering everything from drunken parties to awkward sex, mammoth X-box sessions and Internet porn. But it is the quieter moments where the memoir could be said to achieve its true power and the need for the narrator to always be within a short distance of the toilet or his “Immodium tablets”, imbues the text with an almost rhythmic quality. Vibrant natural settings also punctuate the urban decay and are symbolic of Chris’s need to escape but also, ironically, fuel his mounting feelings of isolation and despair. Even away from everyone and everything, anxiety manages to track him down. “When I touch the gate,” Chris notes, “I make a note to wash my hands. I use as small a surface of skin as possible to do the latch. The very tips of my fingers on only one hand.”
After reading, I came away enlightened and richer for the experience, particularly as I have been in education for twenty-five years and was a secondary school teacher for much of that time. This account helped put a story to the empty seat in my English literature class and the growing string of absences in my form register. But Westoby’s talent as a writer lies not just in giving a voice to teenagers who find themselves unable to cope with everyday life, it is also the way that even when presenting moments of apparent utter futility, his prose bristles with hope. Suddenly there is light enough for Chris to navigate the darkness and find a way out for himself and others like him—and for anyone interested in witnessing this daring feat alone, The Fear Talking is an essential read.
Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney
Thanks for giving us the freedom to bring it to our website, Paul!
Wonderful novels, some of the wonders of our first ten years of publishing, still shining BRIGHT and now only 99p on ebook. Check them out! Buy them for yourselves! Gift your friends a surprise!
Martin Vopenka’s THE FIFTH DIMENSION. The Czech novelist unravels mysteries in the Andes. ‘Absorbing, haunting and intellectually engaging throughout.’ – The Financial Times
James Thornton’s astounding SPHINX: The Second Coming. ‘Intelligent, inspiring and innovative’- Manda Scott,
Martin Goodman’s ECTOPIA, vision of a baked London where girls stopped being born. ‘A terrific novel with excellent characterisation, world-building, narration and dialogue’ – Interzone.
Kate Horsley’s Frankenstein sequel THE MONSTER’S WIFE. Shortlisted for Scottish First Book of the Year.
D.D.Johnston’s THE SECRET BABY ROOM. A Northern Soul Pick of the Year: ‘the unputdownable type of book, the one where you are loathed to finish, loathe to leave those characters behind, disappointed that reaching the last page means you have to leave their world and go back to your own.’
Sarah Walton’s wild gay Roman love story from 4th Century Alexandria, RUFIUS. ‘Remarkable adriot. Highly recommended.’ – The Morning Star.
HOPE WALKS BY ME, prose and poetry from ex-offenders in Hull. A Financial Times Book of the Year.
THE MYSTERY OF BRIONY LODGE, David Bagchi’s delightful mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Three Men in a Boat.
THE BOSTON CASTRATO – Colin W. Sargent takes us to 1920s Boston and the tale of a great castrato.
AND!!! Three PLAYS by Sarah Jane Dickenson:
CBA – a digital thriller for children
REF! – the life of a pioneering woman rugby league referee
THAT BERLIN MOMENT, an identity thriller.
This is a HARD book to grapple with in a short piece, but we’re impressed how well reviewers have taken to the task. Simon Ings grapples with Vopenka’s reputation as ‘the new Kundera’ – and of course, just to debate such a question is good. Ings concludes that My Brother the Messiah ‘weaves a gloomy, gripping, spiritual spell all of its own’.
And here’s something else that’s striking. Reviewers for utterly different readerships all come out with huge positives for the book. None could be more different than The Morning Star (‘This is an Acts of the Apostles for a post-Christian Europe’) and The Lady (‘Vopenka creates a thought-provoking narrative exploring religion, politics and democracy. The author’s distinctive voice and vision are well worth exploring.’)
Here’s Aurealis from out in Australia: ‘Czech author Martin Vopenka tackles complex contemporary issues in his writing. My Brother the Messiah is no exception—a quietly profound story that moves slowly at a deliberate pace and stays compelling. It presents a subtle and provocative meditation on the nature of faith and hope in the face of despair and chaos.’
And Jewish Renaissance: ‘Vopenka’s voice is Czech yet global and his prose compelling.’
We cherish the care the reviewers have put in to their reading, and letting others know that this book is there and waiting. Is this a world classic just making its first baby steps in the world? We think so. Please try it for yourself!
Writing fiction about a real person is a big responsibility. As I researched my novel about the painter Angelica Kauffmann (1741 – 1807) I worried that I wasn’t bringing her to life vividly enough. During the fifteen years she lived in London she was so successful that a word was coined: Angelicamad. I’m a Londoner, so it was easy to stare at the site of her house in Golden Square and visit Kenwood House in Highgate where there are five of her paintings. As Catholics, she and her Italian husband were traumatised by the violently anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780 and she spent the rest of her life in Italy.
In Rome she had a beautiful house, now demolished, at the top of the Spanish Steps. I was lucky enough to be given a grant by the Authors’ Foundation to revisit Rome, a city I love and where I lived for three years in my twenties. My research wasn’t formal; it involved wandering around the city, which has changed less than most capitals since the eigh
teenth century. I had a very expensive cappuccino in the luxury hotel that has replaced her house and, with the aid of a floorplan, tried to imagine it as it was when she lived there. Revisiting the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, I shut my eyes and tried to see them as they were in her day, before Mussolini tidied them up; wild ruins overgrown with wild flowers and olive trees where sheep and cows grazed.
One of the most important characters in my novel is the brilliant polymath, poet and statesman Goethe. During the year he spent in Rome as a kind of celebrity student of art I believe that Angelica was unrequitedly in love with him. In pursuit of him I got the train to Weimar where Goethe, influenced by that year in Italy, built himself an Italianate palace which is now a museum dedicated to his life and work.
One of the many fascinating things about Angelica is that she was a true European. Her mother was Swiss, her father was Austrian, and she spoke German, Italian, English and French. Her father came from a village called Schwarzenberg in the Bregenz Woods where there is now an Angelica Kauffmann museum which I’m looking forward to visiting in some sweet post-Covid days.
For 25 years James Thornton has spent a good portion of each year nestled in a Pyrenean mountain village. Like the house martins that flock to the valley, it was part of his migratory journey. Each year, he observed the flow of villagers and the natural world and wrote what he felt and saw into poems.
This year we have that collection, Notes from a Mountain Village. A launch would have happened in the village’s main square. This is 2020, so that could not happen. Instead James takes us all to France in this short film.
Enjoy the film, and please buy, borrow and share the book!
Also: tune in to the ClientEarth webinar in which James Thornton discusses eco poetry with William Sieghart, which include’s William’s readings from James’s first collection The Feynman Challenge.
Here’s a surprising snippet from the conversation. The word ‘anxiety’ only gets mentioned once in the whole book, by Chris’s girlfriend as she guesses what is wrong with him. Why is that? Because Chris is writing about his teenage years, when his anxiety went undiagnosed. He had no name for it.
Chris was in his twenties before he was able to ‘bust the secret’ and speak openly about his anxiety and OCD. You can see he’s practised. His is a remarkably clear and engaging voice.
And some podcasts for you, to take the conversation further – with thanks to Hull Kingston Radio.
You live on Hessle Road in Hull, albeit on the posh end. How does it help you as a writer, living in the community you are writing about?
Being able to ‘walk’ the setting for my books is invaluable. Even though much has changed in some parts, there are still remnants of docklands, trawler offices and of course the trawlermen’s pubs, where a yarn is never more than a pint of bitter away. When I was a kid starting out in journalism one of my old mentors told me, “People are news.” – Well, the people of Hessle Road, on my doorstep, are a news resource bar none. I write in a tiny room at the top of my house opposite a park donated to the city by an Edwardian trawler magnate. On rainy days squalls and storms somehow enhance the atmosphere when I write, glancing from my little window to the legacy of Sir Christopher Pickering – especially when writing about ships at sea. In the early hours on winter nights fog horns still sound.
Lilian Bilocca makes for a striking hero in The Headscarf Revolutionaries. Were you conscious of pulling her out of history and into the limelight, as a model for others?
I was very conscious that Lillian Bilocca, in common with many women of her class, were overlooked on the whole. This story was particularly so. The Headscarf Revolutionaries worked to remedy that, and then the documentaries, poetry and music inspired by the book. This public art renewed interest in the community. I like to find stories that have been overlooked or under-appreciated and bring them to the fore. Lillian and her comrades were both under-appreciated and overlooked. Not any more though.
What’s as close as you came to encountering Lilian Bilocca ‘in the flesh’?
In a feature I wrote for the Manchester-based arts website Northern Soul, I recalled my only encounter with Lil. I was a young reporter and had arrived in Hull when the industry was in decline. I was sent to interview the mother of a lad lost at sea. After the interview the photographer with me, an old timer, arranged to meet me in the fisherman’s pub, “Rayners” on Hessle Road. Reg, the photographer, pointed out a big woman at a corner table. She had a bottle of stout in front of her. I glanced at her as we left the pub and the snapper told me, “That’s the dame who fought for the trawlermen.” In the car on the way back to the office he told me her story and I remember thinking then it would be a great book. A mere thirty years later and … hey presto!
You’re writing about tragedies – trawlermen who were lost at sea. Those who loved them are still around to
grieve and have memories. How did that fact affect your writing?
I am very aware of the responsibility of writing about real people with relatives (and often themselves) still living. You owe them the duty of truth. Nothing more. In The Luckiest Thirteen I told of a man who died in the rescue, falling from a rope ladder into raging seas. His death was a harsh, cold one. His shipmates watched helplessly as he drifted to his doom. The details were tough to write, let alone read – yet when I met his son he thanked me. He was able to put the uncertainty that had haunted his dreams for forty-five years to rest.
Events such as Hull’s triple trawler tragedy move into folklore. Were there any facts that were part of the local narrative that your book had to correct?
Yes! Lillian Bilocca never met Harold Wilson! – this has become the urban myth I most have to dispel. Wilson was in the USA at the time of the Hessle Road women’s lobbying of Parliament. Other than that, the good thing about recent history is you can speak to folk who were there as well as check out the veracity of what they say via other resources, such as media, radio and TV archives. The latter can literally give voice to your characters. I know what Lillian and her comrades sounded like and that is a real asset when writing about people who existed.
The title The Luckiest Thirteen focused on the survivors of the St Finbarr, rather than those who died. Why?
Like the mountaineer’s answer to ‘Why do you climb mountains?’ it is, ‘because they are there.’ In other tragedies the survivors are usually nil. In the Triple Trawler Disaster in The Headscarf Revolutionaries – there was one. In The Luckiest Thirteen – twelve men from a crew of twenty-five perished. But there was a two-day rescue in fierce Newfoundland seas on Christmas Day and beyond. Showing the lives of those thirteen men is a tribute to the bravery of those who saved them. Showing the gift that the brave gave; the gift of a life lived to old age. And again, we are back with my old mentor’s adage, ‘people are news’ – and the news of these people’s lives that are owed to the courage of their rescuers is the best tribute I can pay.
Your books are incredibly filmic – we’re inside the heat of the drama and experience the course of maritime disasters in vivid detail. Are you a secret trawlerman? How did you come by all those details?
I am a reporter. The re-tell is in the details. I know lots of trawlermen and folk from the community. It’s their story. I just get to type it up. I don’t have the courage to have been a trawlerman. I am pleased that I only have to write about it! As for the filmic aspect of my writing, a smart book editor told me to write as if looking through a lens and reporting what I see. This is something I now tell my students in my creative writing classes.
What’s your process of drawing stories out of people to share in your book?
Make them comfortable. Chat, don’t interrogate. When folk are at their ease they will unpack the story for you. Bear in mind, they don’t think they have anything of interest. It’s their day-to-day life. If they had such awareness they’d be in competition! I am always at pains to listen and … be kind. You catch more flies with honey…
What’s your relationship to the stories in your books – is it the storyteller, the custodian? It was moving to attend packed audiences in Hull Minster, in which the stories seemed to become ‘our’ stories. And then with the likes of Reg Meuross, some storytelling baton has been passed on.
I am always moved when art begets art. And The Headscarf Revolutionaries certainly did that. It inspired two radio documentaries, one BBC TV documentary, poetry by Helen Mort, Music by Joe Solo and Reg Meuross and is in development with the acclaimed director Mark Herman (Brassed Off, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Little Voice etc.). I toured England with Reg with a multi-media theatre piece, with his song cycle at its heart. I am also working with a songwriter with music inspired by The Luckiest Thirteen too. So, I suppose I am more than a storyteller in as much as I get a wider audience that just that of my readers. An old skipper who advises me paid me what I think was a great compliment. He said, “Brian you are our community’s clarion.” I like that. A clarion. Yes, I’ll take that all day.
When you’re researching your books, is there a point when you say ‘Yes that’s it. I see how to shape this into a book now.’
There’s a point when I can almost recite the research. Then I write. Unlike when I write fiction – especially short prose and poetry. With this latest book there were some sad personal issues early on that set me back – but now I am writing and can recite the research. Also, every nonfiction writer needs a bit of luck. Mine came via a very old man. Across 30 years he was involved in the government investigations into the mystery ship Gaul – which is at the core of my latest work, Spynet: The Enigma of the Gaul. The old fellow in question had kept files that filled a room, which he gave to me via a friend. Contacts are important too. As is luck, but I also find the harder I work, the luckier I get.
There’s another Brian Lavery famous for writing maritime history. Are you in touch with each other at all?
We have never met. Although Radio 4 almost got us mixed up and I missed out on a bigger cheque when they realised their mistake! The other Brian is also Scottish, writes about maritime matters, but is far more encumbered by success than I. He is also the reason I had to find a middle initial, something which previously I did not have. As a result, I used “W” as a wee tribute to my father, William.
We asked writer-readers to write us a reader-diary of their reading journey through Chris Westoby’s The Fear Talking. Joseph Coward writes this crackingly honest first piece. [To meet Chris in conversation with Edmund Hurst, live on Zoom 18.00 GMT Dec 3rd, email firstname.lastname@example.org]
Chris Westoby is the same age as me. He and I left school within a year or two of each other, in the same country. I recognise his social circle, his teenage haunts; I recall with cringing clarity the same fumbling sexual experiences, the same destructive rampages masquerading as house parties. And we both suffer from anxiety. His summary of his experience of our mental and physiological affliction is The Fear Talking, a memoir documenting the early days of his disorder. My summary of the experience of reading the book, as someone with the same thing, is this diary. I’m going to read it in seven days, and write about it every day.
Anxiety for me is a cold, billowing cloud that starts in my chest, a blue-black shroud of ink that stains everything it touches, and it grows and grows. Sometimes the sensation is brought on by what’s happening around me, sometimes by nothing at all. I’ve been like this since my mid teens, I think.
I immediately recognise the double life Chris assumes in order to seem normal: every day he lies to his parents, silently suffers an overbearing girlfriend, and pretends to go to school while really hiding out in fields, or his local Tesco. To survive as an anxiety sufferer is to stay out of sight, and, when you have to be seen, to pretend to be someone you’re not, someone else.
At the end of Day One I leave Chris at a university convention, where he is frozen in place, failing to see a future beyond the looming possibilities of an ever-continuous present, a vertiginous, vertical Now.
Every day I wake up and ask myself the same two questions: ‘where am I?’ and ‘how do I feel today?’ The effect of constantly having to assess my emotional and physiological response to the room, the world around me, is exhausting. The anxiety has grabbing tentacles that latch onto negative thoughts, stretching them them into shapes more odd and terrifying than they were before. I think of the ‘cold supple octopus’ that Bulgakov’s Master feels clenching around his heart as he burns his manuscript; when I’m at my worst I certainly want to destroy whatever I happen to be working on.
Chris sets about destroying his relationship with his girlfriend who, as much as she might be smothering him, seems to genuinely care about him. I can empathise with Chris’s pushing away of even the most well-meaning people. When people are around, he writes, ‘they see me, they know me, they can talk about me’.
But I start to notice differences in the way we process the presence of others: Chris refers to his fellow passengers on the bus he takes every day as chavs, crazies, dole mums; an old lady is described as cadaverous, in cruel detail. Despite our shared condition, we’re not the same person; but I recognise Chris’s insanely cheery feeling as he almost wilfully destroys his future, or at least changes it unalterably. It can feel nice; you say to yourself, ‘I’m in control.’
Reading an anxiety book does nothing for your anxiety. (How do I feel today?)
I see more of Chris’s parents. His mum says that if he takes a year out of college and gets a job he’ll never go back. I’m reminded of my mother saying exactly the same thing to me, and I think of just how much we remain children of parents, even after becoming parents of children.
The book is a pleasing time capsule for anyone born in the early nineties: several times while reading I find myself saying ‘oh yeah’ out loud at the mention of a game, album, film, TV show. Chris’s stories of beer drinking and frat-boy behaviour start to annoy me, but then his dad, driven by his son to distraction, smashes up Chris’s computer, and I feel bad.
Further uncanny: Chris stays at home when he’s meant to be in class, and hides upstairs when his dad comes back on his lunch break. I used to stay in instead of going to school too, more than once hiding in a cupboard when my father came back from work at midday – stupidly I think, ‘this book is about me.’
Things come to a head for Chris. Friendships disappear, the full extent of his truancy has come to light, and he faces expulsion; His relationship with his parents seems damaged beyond repair. When I got thrown out of my first secondary school for near-constant truanting, my dad spent the entire day shouting at me, pausing as he stormed from room to room to add to the list of ways in which I was putting my mother and him through hell.
Chris notices everything. What could be exhausting lists of the sounds and smells that trigger his anxiety are instead poetic little lines, and beautiful: ‘[t]he smell of wet clay, paints, white spirit. A girl a few rows behind me uses a hairdryer to harden a layer of acrylic.’ This art room scene takes place during Chris’s own toughening up, as he starts to see a counsellor and tackle his debilitating condition. Something has made him realise that he can still do important stuff, even when he feels bad.
When you are chronically anxious – and have been, and will be – it’s hard to separate how you feel from what’s actually happening, almost impossible to see how immaterial your own feelings about a situation might be. ‘It’s all in your head’ I remind myself when I’m overcome by an imagined scenario, or how a person ‘must’ be feeling as a result of something I’ve done. I take heart as Chris starts to feel better.
Every day Chris returns to school is a silent triumph over his anxiety. He savours the flavour of a chip, the first hot food he’s been able to buy from the cafeteria all year, tasting victory as he sits with friends, who are none the wiser to his bravery. And he likes it that way, and that’s the point: The Fear Talking isn’t a story of redemption, not even of healing, it’s about doing what you have to do in order to live with how you are. Quietly getting on with life even when you feel like you can’t, because your circumstances aren’t always dictated by how you feel, and getting on with it can make you feel better in the long run anyway. It’s not about winning, it’s about not being defeated.
At times I don’t like Chris – though I suspect I don’t like many teenagers very much – but I still want him to succeed, I still want him to realise that so much of the battle is forcing yourself to do the things which anxiety says you can’t. And when he does, I celebrate with him. If you read this book, as I did, as a chronically anxious person, then you’ll enjoy Chris’s searing honesty all the more because you get it; if you read it as an un-anxious person, it’ll help you start to understand.
Joseph Coward is a writer and musician, most commonly found in London, England. He locomotes bipedally at a height of six feet and at a weight of one hundred and sixty pounds, subsisting on a diet of vegetables, grains, grease, booze, and sleeping pills. Like most mammals of his order, he is working on a debut novel while studying for a degree in English Literature. He has paired for life with his partner Alex, and they live together in East London, their natural habitat. @JosephCoward