Bare Fiction 10 starts with an particularly strong poetry section. I loved ‘Aigrettes, Spring 1893’ by Jane Lovell once I’d looked up what an aigrette is. (It’s a headdress consisting of a white egret’s feather). We witness a party from the point of view of one of the unfortunate feather donors. Elegance and violence intermingle uncomfortably. ‘Remember me as you lift your glass,’ the dead bird implores.
Jemma L. King has a terrific poem inspired by Eduardo Paolozzi’s statue ‘Vulcan’. It’s about myth, industrialisation, the environment and gender, managing to cram all these in a small space without seeming overworked. The language is muscular, dense and knotted. Vulcan is the spirit of modernity: ‘your veins run steely/beneath London, New York, Tokyo, your flesh clayed to bridges,/your tendons stretched from pylon to pylon.’ Meanwhile Venus, his wife, watches, ‘her bloods/a vandalised oil field, blazing.’
There is also fine work from Anthony Lawrence, Maria Apichella and Eve Ellis. The whole poetry section is a delight.
In fiction, ‘Anticlockwise’ by Ashley Stokes finds two misfit public schoolboys japing around as they try to solve the mystery surrounding their creepy geography teacher. Eighties schoolboy references abound: 2000AD, Ozzy Osbourne, James Herbert. It crackles with character and inventive schoolboy humour but shifts by steps into a darker mode. The narrator’s feelings of resentment towards his absent mother and the present-day repercussions of the story are skilfully woven into the main plot. These sub-themes allow Stokes to slip away at moments of high tension – and the ending is very tense, like one of those James Herbert novels – to think through the subject matter with the benefit of hindsight or to make connections with his feelings of betrayal, deliciously ramping up the tension even further.
‘The Irish and the Greeks’ by James Martyn Joyce concerns a potato farmer who decides to follow his own particular star. If I was compiling my personal top-ten list of stories published in 2017 then this would be on it. Joyce has a wonderful dexterity with language and comes on like R.S. Thomas when he’s describing the harsh unyielding earth: ‘his spade slipping in, the clay heaviness good to the heft as he moved along the drill.’ I love the knowledge of the process implicit in this writing, description that feels earned from experience. Hughie, the protagonist, is dour, laconic, passive aggressive but savagely wilful. His is a small, circumscribed life, mostly concerned with raising his crop of Golden Wonders. He’s trapped by the expectations and restrictions of the old-fashioned rural community he finds himself in. It might sound like some cosy Sunday-afternoon-TV slice of Irish blarney, but in a brilliantly-executed surprise, contemporary themes are foregrounded. The structure is fantastic, turned inside out, so that we start near the end with many partially-developed story strands exposed, arousing our curiosity. One by one, connections are made. The ending is deeply satisfying. I felt like cheering, both for Hughie and for James Martyn Joyce.
‘Postcards to the Lost’ by Marcia Hindson is an angry rant to a former lover. It hasn’t been given the really hard edit that it needs; there are too many loose and self-indulgent lines. We are not told anything about the ‘you’ of the story or of what happened to drive the couple apart, so we have to take the narrator’s emotional splurge on trust, something I found hard to do. But there is really good writing here. The ex-lover sends the surreal postcards of the title, including one from the pocket of a drowned boy: ‘They pulled him out in the dark, the lad that got lost to the ways of the Wear. Pulled him out by his too short hair, looked for his family when they were still unfamiliar with despair.’ There is more poetic writing towards the close, so I was frustrated that I couldn’t like the piece more, but without character, incident or setting it was difficult to engage.
Similar problems affect ‘Rage and Other Darling Pets’ by Kathy Groan and ‘Four Stories’ by Hugh Smith. The first is an angsty meditation on the nature of the self, the second a Borgesian experiment that doesn’t quite click. Both are too abstract. It’s difficult to care about abstractions. Humans are gossips: we want to know the messy details.
‘The Spacehopper’ by Vanessa Pope is rammed full of very messy details, mostly involving vodka. It speeds along, maybe a little too fast, but it’s impossible not to get sucked in to this story of bad parenting, worse drinking and a fingers-crossed redemption.
Unusually, Bare Fiction publishes short plays, which is a risk because it takes a lot from the reader to get drama off the page well. ‘He’s Not There’ by Jodi Gray is ‘Waiting For Godot’ meets ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. It lacks conflict between the two characters, but when staged the humour might carry it more effectively. I initially thought that ‘Christmas Every Day’ by Sam Bees was a Brexit-inspired piece, until I saw that it was first performed in December 2015. The prime minister, no doubt delighting glam rockers Wizzard, has passed a bill forcing the population to pull crackers and eat turkey in perpetuity, but it’s a populist cover for a repressive lurch to the right. The result is rioting on the street, forced repatriation, militarised borders, a police state. Bees even finds space for a play within a play. It feels intensely topical and would work brilliantly in a program of short plays.
Finally a word of warning. Bare Fiction is physically big, having the dimensions of an old-fashioned glossy. It doesn’t fit on my bookshelf. The font is large point and feels slightly childish. I realise this doesn’t reflect well on me, but I was too embarrassed to read it on the train. It just seemed so showy, so there, and besides it didn’t fit in my bag. But please ignore that because Bare Fiction 10 is well worth your time and contains a couple of real gems.
You can buy Bare Fiction 10 here.