Tuesday, 24 June 2014

An Abundance of Absence: A review of Enjoy Oblivion by Wolfgang Carstens

Fathers are something we all have to put up with. If that sounds like a jaundiced and cynical statement, it is.

Personal experience has shown me that the ideal of family life as presented by many people is an empty sham, a prison you can never ever really escape from, however much you try.

From reading 'Enjoy Oblivion' (Concrete Meat Press, 2014), the latest work by Canadian polymath Wolfgang Carstens, it seems that there are far more people than just me who feel that way.

Although I might confess to more ambiguous feelings on the matter than Carstens, whose brutally short poems are like hilarious jokes at which no one can actually laugh.

This book is a concise memoir of pain and resentment. The poems are chopped into the page, and possess the pithy gravitas of cemetery elegies. Forgiveness is an empty sham, unconditional love another trick played by an uncaring parent, looking for excuses. Although, by the end of the book, one senses that even looking for excuses, by either father or son, had become more than a little boring.

The poems which deal with the actual death of the speaker's father are perhaps the most brutally poignant. Carstens uses very short lines, sometimes only one word, creating poems out of simple statements of emotional fact.

These are poems of negative space, of experience defined by an abundance of absence.

Father's Day is celebrated by the simple act of "taking Mom/out for dinner." All the speaker of the poems needs to know about his father's character is that he was never there: "All I know,/ or need/ to know/is that/you/died/at/11/am."

The sparse line structure deconstructs the childhood pain into a searing absence of love, the giant space which is never filled, however much you wish it was.

The poems are accompanied by a series of drawings by Swedish artist Janne Karlsson, which are unsettling and charming in equal measure.The figures displayed possess at first a puerile cartoonishness which obscures their profundity.

Look more closely, and you can see the empty spaces that bad parenting leaves. The aches, the loneliness and the sheer wondering at what you have to do to be in any way validated by a father who is just not interested in anything you have to offer the world.

'Enjoy Oblivion' is not a difficult book to read, but do not let that deceive you about its depth. There is despair and alienation here in abundance, and a sense of  absurd waiting that often evokes Beckett, amongst others.

This is humour without the smile, stand-up without the braying laughs, and poetry without pretension. Its brevity may not be to everyone's taste, but no one should underestimate the punch that lies behind these choppy, punky poems.

Enjoy Oblivion, I certainly did. But it was enjoyment springing from a recognition of truth. There are no belly laughs here. Accuracy and gravity characterise this collection, with lines delivered as by a gravestone chisel on stone.

'Enjoy Oblivion' is available from Concrete Meat Press soon.

 Zack Wilson is the author of  'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press. Find them on Facebook and Twitter too.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Love and Death in Canada: Part Two of an interview with Wolf Carstens

Lone Striker continues its exploration of the world of poet and publisher Wolfgang Carstens, with a focus on the Canadian great outdoors...

Much of my own focus as a writer is on sport, and how sporting activities test people, create new crucibles for experience and shape the existence of communities. Of course, sport, in many cases, functions as a substitute activity for more bloody pursuits which used to be more common, such as hunting and war.

While you would be unlikely to find Wolf going to war, at least in a literal sense, any time soon, you might find him in the Canadian woods. Canada is a mysterious country to many Europeans, and its sheer size and natural wonders can make it seem alien and strange. Wolf thrives in this wildness, though, and believes that his own life has been shaped and his consciousness honed by his proximity to primal nature.

He certainly feels that it has made him more resilient, and better able to assess the real level of challenge which faces us in the everyday world.

"I think pursuing activities in the wild makes you mentally tougher," he said.

"I am, of course, basing this upon personal experience that suggests that most people give up way too easily.  When you have stood toe to toe with a Grizzly bear, have been bitten by Black Widow spider, or have had to build a shelter because you’ve been caught in a snow storm that lasted three days (all of which have happened to me), things like a blown tire on the highway, having to swim to shore because your boat capsized, or fending off marauders who’ve broken into your house (all of which have happened to me),  seems rather insignificant. 

"Yet, every day I see these sad sacks on the side of the road waiting for somebody to save them.  Every day people are crying about the silliest problems that you really wonder what they would do if confronted by a real conflict.

"I want to give props to my wife here.  She is not only the toughest person I know, but her 'never say die' attitude is truly remarkable.  We were camping recently and wanted to have a game of dice.  We had, however, neglected to bring dice with us.  In a move of ingenuity that would put MacGuyver to shame, she constructed dice out of cardboard, duct tape and white paint. 

Most people would’ve simply given up, yet her perseverance and unwillingness to surrender enabled the laughter and games to continue.  She’s always amazing me with small acts like this.  Her home-made dice were the inspiration for the poem Tracy Lee."

Fishing is an outdoor pursuit which Wolf enjoys, and the Canadian can see many links between the process of tempting fish out of the water and writing.

"Fishing and writing are very similar hobbies," he asserts.

"Both require preparation, patience and perseverance.  The solitude and monkish nature of casting a hook into a river is conducive to great thinking, contemplation and working through your inner demons.  When I fish, time slips away and the world disappears—whether it’s a Walleye or a poem, the reward is always worth the effort."

In the sports I've played over the years, there is sometimes a perfect stillness in the action, moments which are transmitted strangely into the memory banks, where everything slows down for a second and becomes eternal, like a moment lived forever. Out in the woods, those moments where perfection is suddenly and momentarily defined also exist, just framed by a different context.

Often, in the Canadian wilderness, that context can be truly terrifying.

"I’ve been in plenty of life threatening situations in the wild," Carstens explained.

"I’ve been up close and personal with bears, cougars, rattle snakes, and was once bitten by a black widow spider. 

"Saying that, however, it’s not always the usual predators you have to worry about.  I’ve also been attacked by beavers, ruffled grouse, and once even gotten into a fistfight with a duck. 

"The most memorable was standing toe to toe with a hungry Grizzly bear.  My adrenaline was through the roof!  It was the middle of the night and I was armed with a cane, a flash light, and my car keys. 

"Once I screwed together my courage and committed myself to dying, I unzipped the tent and confronted the creature.  As luck would have it, my van was parked nearby.  When I clicked the auto-start, the engine roared to life, the headlights snapped on and Motorhead’s Overkill started blaring through the speakers. 

"The spooked bear turned tail and ran.  It was one of the luckiest moments in my life.  It was a character-defining moment for me.  I’d made peace with my mortality and was fully invested and prepared to die right then and there to protect my family.  Since then, every other confrontation, whether man or beast, has paled in comparison.

"The life and death struggles in nature always impact me as a writer.  It is because of these struggles that comprise the underlying 'Live today. Tomorrow never comes' message at the core of many of my poems. 

"Here is something that happened to me recently.  I was driving down an isolated country road when a fox ran across the road in front of me.  He was being chased by a wild turkey.  The turkey, however, wasn’t so lucky because it exploded in a mess of blood and feathers on my front bumper.  In the rearview mirror, I watched the fox cross the road again, presumably to return to the turkey’s nest and devour the young. 

"Beyond the death scene here, it always amazes me to see the smaller and weaker animals stand up against a much larger enemy.  To return to my fist fight with the duck, it’s noteworthy that I was the one who backed down.  It was making a horrible sound and moving its head in such a strange and eerie way - and it scared me!

"Being alone in the wilderness makes you feel insignificant in relation to the greater whole.  You aren’t at the top of the food chain anymore."

Sport is a testing process for war, in many ways, making modest warriors of us all. I wondered if part of the appeal of the wilderness was similar, in that it takes us back to a place where everything matters just a little bit more.

"Let me answer with a story," Wolf said.

"Last year, a group of four young men were trying to split an gargantuan stump of green wood with their axe.  Every time they swung their axe, they would scream, 'Manpower!' 

"They tried for three days, taking turns, but couldn’t even crack the stump.  When they gave up, I retrieved the stump and worked on it with a hatchet for an entire day. 

"My kids were like, "it’s too big" and, "you’ll never do it."  When the stump finally split and sap oozed like sticky blood, I knew exactly what 'manpower' meant.  Once I had the stump chopped and stacked in a neat pile of firewood, I felt immense satisfaction.   It was a personal victory and a lesson in perseverance and overcoming obstacles to my kids.  Tests like these are ways to prepare yourself for future obstacles."

That connection with the effort and perseverance necessary to survive in the wilderness is something which is now missing in many places. Carstens feels that the ethical contradictions this situation presents go to the heart of many issues in developed societies.

"Most humans in our modern civilizations have probably lost a connection with the wild," he said.

"The most blatant example are those hypocrites that enjoy all kinds of meat yet adamantly oppose hunting.  They walk into the supermarket and buy their pre-packaged steaks but think hunting is cruel.  Last summer I attended a family reunion and out of the thirty people gathered, I was the only one who could start a fire with flint and steel. 

"I think this connection to the wild is important for many reasons, yet without experiencing the contrary view-point, I cannot comment with any certainty."


Wolf Carstens was talking to Zack Wilson, the author of  'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press. Find them on Facebook and Twitter too.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Wild Wolf Revealed: Part One of an Interview with poet and publisher Wolfgang Carstens

Wolfgang Carstens is an impressive figure. Not just physically, either, though I certainly wouldn't want to have to tangle with him in a fight. The Canadian has had a huge influence on my career as fiction writer, publishing my first novel Stumbles and Half Slips, and several stories in various journals and magazine he's published.

But he is also a very fine poet in his own right, the author of collections such as Crudely Mistaken for Life. While his style is very accessible, his subject matter can often be challenging in terms of its subject matter and its sheer guts.

Very much a man who believes in the power of the printed word, I asked Wolf about his relationship with the wilderness of his native western Canada. Lone Striker's main focus is usually on how sport and literature interact. Wolf's sports are a little more primal than many people I know, though. A true outdoorsman, Wolf sees the processes and narratives of the wild as central to his being.

Certainly, living in Alberta means that Wolf's experience of nature is vastly different to that of most people in the United Kingdom, and in much of Europe. I wondered if being in a place 'on the edge' of the world had shaped Carstens' attitude to writing at all?

"The 'sense of being on the edge of the world' has always influenced my thinking," he said.

"When I experience natural phenomena like the northern lights or thunderstorms, I always try to put myself in the shoes of the ancient philosophers and try to reason as they would.

"I do not believe that original thoughts are impossible or that modern humanity has answered the great questions.  Modern views on so many philosophical issues (like consciousness and dreaming and free will) are not only incorrect, they’re primitive.

"The remoteness of my surroundings has given me time to think deeply about paramount questions that humanity continues to wrestle with.  I don’t think most people encounter these questions in the same way that I do.

"Maybe it’s because city life affords too many distractions; maybe it’s the copious abysses available in our electronic age in which to fall into; maybe it’s because most people are too afraid to be alone with their own thoughts: maybe they want the easy answers; and maybe it’s because most people don’t want to think deeply about philosophical issues.  I don’t know and I really don’t care.

"I do know, however, that everything begins with great thinking, and both writing and publishing are secondary to that."

Much of Wolf's best poetry is deeply rooted in the western Canadian experience. His narrators carry hunting knives as a standard accessory, there are continual reminders that he lives in a huge landscape where snow, rain, wind and the rest can often be a little bit more than just weather. The animals which one might encounter are also a little more threatening than wild goats or badgers.

"A closeness to the rawness of nature makes you acutely aware that you aren’t at the top of the food chain any more," he explains.

"I don’t place myself above and beyond other animals in the animal kingdom.  Many places are inhabited by bears and cougars and these two predators add an element of danger to the most mundane tasks.

"You need to keep your guard up because if you don’t, you’re likely to die very young.  Ironically, rather than become less sentimental about nature, it has made me less sentimental about humanity.

"When you’re constantly confronted by the savageness of nature, human death seems less tragic.  In fact, I think animal death strikes a deeper chord with me than human death.

"This has played an essential role in my own thinking and writing.  I don’t think being in the wilderness is essential for the development of a writer.

"What is essential is thinking through fundamental questions on your own and arriving at your own conclusions before you learn what conclusions others have drawn.  If the question of free will is important to you, for example, don’t research what others have said before you determine your own conclusions.  So many people start with the so-called 'experts' and it corrupts their thinking."

One thing which playing sport of any kind, especially those which require a great deal of action, often creates is significant moments. Moments where life slows down and becomes eternal. Carstens believes that something similar happens in the wilderness.

"I experience moments like that every day," he said.

"Whether it’s a Great Blue Heron soaring directly overhead, dwarfing your tiny shape; an Elk leaping out of nowhere into your personal space, sending your heart rate through the roof; seeing a Lynx creeping behind a bush, stalking your children at play; or stumbling upon a creepy abandoned house in the middle of the trees, there is that moment of crystal clarity.

"The events that frame those moments seem to be when you’re lost in your own thoughts, on autopilot, stumbling through life like a sleepwalker, when the realization of living creeps up and hits you like a ton of bricks!"


Wolf Carstens was talking to Zack Wilson, the author of  'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press. Find them on Facebook and Twitter too.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


This is a poem which is, in part, a reaction to a recent visit to Wigtown, and the Martyr's Stake, an austere memorial to Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan. These two women died because they would not swear obedience to King James VII of Scotland and II of England. Wilson was 18 years old, while McLachlan was described as an elderly lady.

Stone kirks, white-washed inside
with clear, glass windows
to see the Lord's Light with clarity
among Scotland's southern hills.
A leal land, for a pious People,
sprung from Ayrshire touns sic as Sorn,
Gallovidians gallus with austerity
as they listen to Prophet Peden's
fause-faced preaching from found stone pulpits.

Later, the soldiers came.
They drowned Margaret Wilson of Wigtown.
   She choked her last
                                  in salty sands,
defiant, neck forced into a bow
                                         to drown,
Margaret McLachlan by her side.
[though the Anglicanisers turned her into Lachlinson
in their official recommendations.]  
They died in Ninian's Solway sands,
some echoes of the old purity of Candida Casa
A stane stake marks it,
planted in dreich peat moss
to show the way to the lonely.
This choking, damp death,
                                        no thrill of redemptive fire,
just another refused oath.
Royal soldiers failing,
choking submission never coming.
A victory to sap the soul.

In the hills, the Conventicles
were armed and ready,
in the heaven of their Galloway glens,
pulpits handy-made from the same stane
later hacked to build the wee kirks
which would have ruled all Scotland
if only the Time of Saints had persisted.

The Document itself remains impressive.
A multitude of ready souls
                                      of all kinds
                                      of all pairts, all trades
scratched their names on the great Parchment.
No crown, or mitre, ever really moved this many,
stirred souls like this army
                                       of such stiff principle.

Orange drummers will beat
                                         and bleat
that these Covenanters are their folk.
But Peden's People never bent their knee
                                        to any crowned head
[save the thorny one
                              of the Prophet's theories and dilemmas].
Charlie's Tartan Army
claimed Scotland's souvenir tin image
when they marched to Derby and back.
A culture hi-jacked by the dreams of a Prince,
with Border baronet Scott later completing the job,
banging the drum for Bonnie Dundee and the boys
on the Teuchter's behalf.
                                    [Posthumously, of course,
                                     too much of the real Gael,
                                     'Garb of old Gaul' and all,
                                      being, by then,
                                      a Bad Thing.]
Woe woven into spun stuff
by a pair of alleged Poles.
Peden never foresaw this shroud, for sure.

Papist eyes tend to look away,
in frustration, perhaps, in fear.
And Bishops sneer
from Episcopal heights.

But this People
died for Scotland's Kirk
not a King.
And that, here, in itself,
is a remarkable thing.

(c) Zack Wilson, 2013

Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.

Monday, 25 March 2013

On Playing Rugby Again

Recently I started playing rugby union. I should stress, I have played the game before, at school plus a few games afterwards, when I was in further and higher 'education'. But it has been a long time since I picked up a rugby ball in anger.

I chose rugby union by the way, because, despite being a rugby league man to my core, playing league at the age of 38 is simply beyond me. The aerobic and anaerobic demands of the game are just too much. Being balding, overweight and having a bad knee does not preclude anyone from playing union, as I have discovered. The two occasions I've had pneumonia in the last 15 years don't seem to matter too much anyway. Nor the decade and a half spent indulging an obsessive passion for booze.This is a good thing, and shows that participating in sport is not actually as hard as it might appear.

It's worth writing about from a number of perspectives. Firstly, beginning a contact sport at my age is an interesting experience in itself. And the contact is not tickling and cuddling, despite what many 4th team games might look like to the uninitiated. My first game, an hour on the wing, saw me covered in bruises, from my shins to my shoulders. Soccer this wasn't.


Being Fit Enough

Of course, I have a reasonable amount of athletic ability to get me through, I have spent a lot of time playing soccer after all in the last two decades since I last played rugby seriously. I have run a reasonable amount and kept myself in reasonable shape, certainly after I stopped drinking some seven years ago. But thinking that you're fit is not the same as being fit, and being fit is not the same as being fit enough.

The training I've done with the club has been more interesting and more challenging than anything I've done physically in a while, and that includes running a half marathon. Originally, I just signed up to play touch rugby, but was talked into playing proper games too. The challenge of getting fit enough to cope with a game every week has been hard, but it gives some focus to my training and is something to strive for. The knocks and the bruises make it even harder, especially when my body is crying out for a rest. Taking a few days off from physical activity here and there has become crucial.

But my own personal physical battles are not necessarily the most interesting thing, important as they are to me. As a writer and journalist, the experience is also an interesting exercise in perspective. To be a participant, rather than an observer, is something which has not always been part of my life in recent years, as I've been paid to watch others doing things.

It may sound simplistic, but my empathy for professional sports people has increased massively. Not with the softies of professional football, for whom my respect has actually declined even further, but for people in contact sports, and sports which demand extreme fitness, it has increased massively. The endurance component in rugby is also huge; this is not a sport which is all about power and strength.

Heroes of Rugby

My heroes, in the sport of rugby league, produce some amazing feats of skill and strength each week. Playing rugby union has allowed me to see just how amazing some of these feats are. The pressure that a player comes under, in terms of fitness, aggression from the opposition and having limited time to make decisions and act, is something which I have really come to appreciate anew. Yelling at players from the terraces becomes a different experience, with me understanding once again just how difficult it is to give of your best all the time under extreme pressure.

As a novelist, rather than a journalist, the experience has also been interesting.I write a lot about group dynamics, about how people, especially men, act when they are together. In the past, my focus has been largely on how people work together and act in the workplace. Which is an environment which tends to make people into arseholes. If you want to see the very worst of people, go to work with them. That was one of the main themes of 'Stumbles and Half Slips'.

I have written a lot about people at play in the pub too, in 'Lescar', but again, if you want to see the very worst of someone, go and get pissed with them in a shithole pub. Negatives abound, so what has been interesting to me is how different a story it is when playing rugby.

I didn't know anyone at the club, Hallamshire RUFC, before I started going training with them, yet I've been welcomed without any reservations. This was something new for me, I'm used to having to make my way into groups of people on a wave of destructive negativity, a big gob and a sharp wit coming in handy.

This was different though. The whole thing was about encouraging people to do their best. There is also plenty of violence in rugby, league and union, so knowing that people are behind you is very encouraging. The extreme nature of the sport seems to bring the best out of people, in terms of heart, bravery, camaraderie and willingness to sacrifice self for team almost every time. Team talks have spoken of 'no blame, no whinging'. This is very different to football, a sport where blaming other people for what happens is as much a part of the game as passing the ball.

Grist to Society's Mill

This is all grist to the mill as a writer. In my current fictional projects I'm sketching out ideas for a western and a novel based on the differences between the rugby codes, probably set in England just before World War Two. Playing rugby again has not only provided great insight in terms of how people behave in a 'battle' situation, but also re-connected my senses to the physical. The smell of mud, how the grass feels when you fall over, the strangely evocative sound of a shoulder connecting with someone's face, pain, surprise, sudden fear overcome by action, the sting of a blow to the shin, the instant defeats and tiny victories which occur in their hundreds throughout a game, and the sense of all pulling together for an intangible sort of success.

The  game also places you in a ready-made community, where what we have in common with each other is more important than our differences. Class differences, as everywhere in England, are easily perceived, if you want to look for them, but they actually do not matter in this environment, certainly not on the pitch. Beyond disparaging and humorous references to countries like Australia and South Africa, where some of our players come from, nationality, race and religion are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Helping hands are frequently offered, whether for the benefit of the club or for each other. It looks very much like the kind of society I'd like to live in, to be honest.

If that sounds profound, it's meant to. As we live in an increasingly atomised society, with the communal ethic continually being eroded by those who prefer profit to people, it's something to seriously consider.

Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Little Miss Mayhem: Interview with Annie Clarkson

Annie Clarkson is a writer from north west England, currently living and working in Manchester. A writer of intense honesty and sensitivity, her blog 'Forgetting the Time' contains some really superb writing.

Annie's work focuses on the edges of life, the places where the sweet, sad things happen. The writing is raw, but not in the sense of blood pouring from wounds and people fighting in the street, or taking drugs in public toilets. The rawness comes from the emotions evoked, and there is often a quite delicious sense of unease in the reader when she is at her best.

Recently, Annie has been throwing herself into a new sport, that of roller derby. As someone who is keen to explore the links between writing and sport, it seemed to present a perfect opportunity for me to do interview Annie about her experiences with a new sport, and how it might have changed her writing.

Roller derby looks very violent and fast to me, to whom it looks something like something out of a sci-fi film. It looks like it combines the intensity of ice hockey with the thrills of short track speed skating. There is a strong team element, and the team uniforms are often personally adapted into stylish, scary and quite sexy forms.

Firstly, I asked Annie what had sparked her interest in such a physically demanding sport.

"Roller derby is a fast and tough sport, on quad roller skates, where two teams compete against each other to score points, and it’s a full contact sport," she explained.

"But to start playing the sport you don’t need to be fast or tough. I definitely wasn’t. I was never really interested in competitive sport, even at school. I wouldn’t call myself an athlete, but through playing derby I’m faster, tougher and more confident than I was.

"I discovered roller derby about eighteen months ago. A friend of mine from my school days started playing – Abby Dasher.

"She invited me along and I watched a training session. I instantly thought, 'Nah, this sport is not for me, too tough and I’m not fit enough...'

But I followed her progress over the following months, and she was so excited by it. Her skills developed really quickly, and she kept saying, 'Come on Annie, you will love roller derby.'

"I decided to try it, and signed up for the ‘Zero to Hero’ training for beginners run by Manchester Roller Derby (http://www.manchesterrollerderby.co.uk/). I instantly loved being on skates and over the course of the training course, I fell in love with the sport."

The costume aspects of the sport always look like they are very important to me. Players also change their names and give themselves pseudonyms. These often seem like the names from a punk band.

Despite that emphasis on costume and looking great, Annie is keen to stress that the sport is very much not just about dressing up.

"The most important aspect of derby is playing the sport," she said.

"But, yes, the image side of derby is fairly unique to the sport, I think.

"A lot of players have derby names which are puns, plays on words, or show the personality or alter-ego of the player. They can be intimidating or witty, clever and fun.

"Some of the names I love are Cleo Fracture who plays for Rainy City Roller Girls, Marty McDie, Psycho-Sis, and Kate Push from Manchester Roller Derby (MRD), and Raw Heidi (London Rollergirls)."

"I love the fact that roller derby encourages personality, individuality and persona. As well as being part of a team and a league, we can be ourselves on the track or who we want to be.

"Some players put on the ‘war paint’ like stripes on their cheeks or paint their face for example as a skull like Skulldozer from MRD.

"Some players like sportswear. Others wear crazy tights, patterned socks, or colourful hot pants. There are many styles, and roller derby allows us to express ourselves on the track, be bold or alternative or whatever we want to be. Men’s Derby has its own styles as well."

The transformative aspect of the sport, where aspects of personality can be explored which are normally suppressed, is something which is important to Annie though.

"I guess it appeals to me, because I can be a different self when I train and play," she mused.

"Aggressive, more fearless, and it gives me permission maybe to access parts of myself that are not appropriate for my everyday life. Little Miss Mayhem can be a trouble causer, can deliberately set out to disrupt, she can shove people out of the way, be cocky and cheeky, wear clothes that I would never wear in my non-derby life."

Annie's writing often deals with people and events at the edge of things. She seems to relish her status as an outsider, despite it often being a lonely experience. Roller derby is a team sport, so I wondered how playing had affected her sense of self, whether she found the team ethic hard to absorb, and also whether it had changed her feeling of being an 'outsider'.

"Yes, it has, to some extent," she admitted.

"In life I often feel like an outsider and on the edges of things. I was never into team sports or team activities at all, preferring to rely on myself, and not feeling as if I belonged in a lot of groups that I joined, or that I was on the periphery of groups.

"I’m not sure whether this is part of my personality or not. But school sport was always a nightmare for me, people expected me to be rubbish, and therefore I never tried, I was always last to be picked for teams, and my confidence in any team or competitive sport was rock-bottom.

"Plus, being a writer can be isolating. It's a very individual, internal kind of experience for me, and I've explored aloneness, loneliness and being on the edges over and over in my writing. I indulged myself in this for a long time.

"Roller derby is very different. It's been an education for me and at first, it was a huge step out of my comfort zone. It has involved a lot of challenges in training, as I learned to trust team mates, work together, and play as part of a pack. I’ve been tested a lot, and sometimes found it hard.

"But I’ve been drawn into it, not just on the track but off-track as well. There is a lot of support and encouragement within the roller derby community, and nobody has ever made me feel rubbish as a player. I am learning. We are all learning. And, it’s taken maybe more time for me, than other people, but I feel very much a part of the team."

Annie also admitted that the sport has had an effect on her writing. Certainly, the sense of overcoming obstacles that sport can bring has seemingly brought about something of a change in aims and purpose in her writing.

"My poetry and short fiction has always tended to verge on the darker side of life," she said.

"It’s gritty and explored perhaps more complex and undesirable sides of life. I was working on a collection of fiction, but roller derby (and other things) have stopped me in my tracks.

"I want to write more uplifting stories, stories that might explore struggle, difficulty and darkness, but show more fight and survival. Roller derby is influencing what I want to write about, the kinds of characters and subjects, and the way I write. I’m still working through these changes.

"I’ve written a few derby inspired fictions, and will probably do so again, not necessarily using the sport as the subject matter but exploring some of the experiences, emotions and characters I’ve discovered through playing derby."

Annie is very clear about whether artists and writers can benefit from an understanding of sport, and how participation can offer new insights and perspectives, not least on the writer themselves.

"Roller Derby has become hugely inspiring to me in many different ways," she explained.

"It has brought me new ways of expressing myself as a person, access to a new community of people and experience, lots of endorphins and drive. It gets rid of tension and stress and the crap that can get in the way of being able to sit down and write, or get out there and live.

"I would encourage any writer or artist to get involved in some kind of sport or exercise. Any writer who has gone for a long walk and found some kind of inner stillness, or has observed things in a new way, or had an epiphany or realisation will already know this.

"I guess a more competitive or physical sport can have a similar impact. I come away from training, full of adrenalin and ideas and thoughts, and I want to communicate and express myself. It fires me up.

"Sport also gives the balance that I need between sitting at a typewriter on my own and getting out there and skating round a track with team mates.

"There is a similar dynamic of performance. Good writing can fill me with adrenalin, ideas and thoughts as well.

"Sometimes I have good sessions at training, sometimes I feel I could have done lots better, I get similar frustrations and excitements. Sometimes, I want to give up, sometimes it is all I want to do. Writing and roller derby are similar in that sense, although I think they belong to different sides of myself."

At an age where most athletes consider hanging up their boots, or skates, Annie has an inspiring determination to be the best she can be at roller derby, which is still a very new sport to her.

"My goals for 2013 are to make it into Furies, the B team at Manchester Roller Derby, to continue my training as a roller derby referee, keep developing my skills, stay fit and have fun.

"I guess what I’m saying is that the future isn’t widely ambitious or competitive. I’m nearly 40, and love roller derby because there’s plenty of room for people to be involved for different reasons: to have fun, to get or keep fit, and/or to compete.

"I had no experience of roller derby a year ago, and I was welcomed in as a new skater. Most leagues teach people to skate and even lend you the skates, helmet and pads at first. Manchester Roller Derby has a ‘Zero to Hero’ training course that teaches all the basic skills needed to play roller derby, and it’s a great way to try out a sport you know nothing about.

"Watching a roller derby bout is a real experience too, and I recommend it to anyone. It’s fun to watch, there is lots of interaction with the crowd, and it’s easy to pick up what’s going on.

"Roller derby is very much a growing sport, and the BBC wrote an article saying just that."

Annie's writing is on a little bit of a sabbatical at the moment, sadly for her readers. She is sure that a rich return to form is not far away though.

"I was working on a collection of short fiction, but it’s come to a halt as I re-think and re-explore what I want to write," she explained.

"I think this is one of those fallow periods where the ideas become really rich through not working at them. My plan is to come back to some old stories with a fresh approach, and eventually get back to finishing my short fiction collection. I think it will be richer and diverse a collection for giving it some time."

One thing she is in no doubt about is the transformative power of sport, whatever it is, to build communities and bring people together.

"YES, it can! Roller derby offers sport, fitness and skating, but it is also socially vibrant," she asserted.

"People can be involved in different ways. I've socialised with my team and made many friends. I’ve been to karaoke with derby friends, eaten food, been to the pub, been to people’s houses.

"I’ve skated as a volunteer for Cancer Research, made cakes, roller disco’d, and within our league there have been clothes swaps, car boot sales, some players skated as part of the Pride parade for George House Trust.
"There is an awful lot of love and support within the league, and I know it sounds like I’m just blowing roller derby’s trumpet, but it’s for really good reason.

"I’ve seen people help others to move house, babysit for each other, dog-sit, give lifts, advice, hugs and a whole lot more. It is a growing community, and leagues are cropping up throughout the UK for women and men.

"MRD has people taking part from all parts of Greater Manchester and beyond, and what I most love is that it’s welcoming to anyone...the sporty, the non-sporty, men, women, people of all shapes, sizes and levels of fitness, and people from all kinds of backgrounds.

"I guess the commonality is that everyone wants to skate and learn and play roller derby. But there is so much more to it than just sport.  

"I loved the Olympics and Paralympics. It was so inspiring to watch and, like many people, I started to think I wanted to be fitter, expand my experience of sports.

"I think seeing the athlete’s warm up and compete, hearing about their training regimes, and seeing them push themselves beyond their own limits to achieve new personal bests, it made a lot of us think, maybe I can push myself further as well, maybe we can all play sport."

Annie Clarkson was talking to Zack Wilson, the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Seven Great Songs About Football

Every fan knows that football is a sport which has been linked with music for many years. From the crowd at Anfield belting out Merseybeat hits in the 1960s, to the Faces kicking a ball about on Top of the Pops, and many others.

Good songs about football itself are relatively rare though. So here's seven of the best, in my view. There seems to be a preponderance of songs relating to Scotland and Ireland, so interpret that how you want.

Sultans of Ping FC Give Him a Ball and a Yard of Grass

A song about Derby County manager Nigel Clough, in the days when his dad Brian, was manager of Nottingham Forest and he played for them. Nigel was "a nice young man with a lovely smile" according to his dad, and he could play a bit too. Operated just off the striker 'in the hole', but was undone a little by a lack of pace. Still played for England though...

The Wakes The Uncrowned King of Football

Probably the most elegaic song here. The lyrics manage to rhyme 'town of Uddingston' with 'Bernebeu Stadium', which is genius in my view. A wonderful tribute to 'Jinky' Jimmy Johnstone, the Celtic winger from the 1960s and 70s. Taking in the Lisbon Lions and Jock Stein, this is a great modern folk song.

Don Fardon Belfast Boy

This is a slightly strange song, with a superb squelchy 70s bass sound. I don't know much about Don Fardon, but this seems like a piece of musical archaeology. It somehow sums up 70s plastic fanhood and the poetry that was the life of George Best in one bubblegum splurge, with enough gritty soul to keep you interested.

Slade Give Us a Goal

Not the best from the Black Country's finest, but still a rabble rousing tune which hits all the stomping, romping, rocking sweet spots. Lyrically not that bad either. Also worth checking out which scarves the boys are wearing. I reckon Dave's is a Walsall scarf, while Noddy's might well be West Brom, although the video was filmed at Brighton's Goldstone Ground it seems, so he might be 'going native' as a PR move. Don's got a Leeds scarf on, while Jim's supporting the Wolves.

The Pogues and the Dubliners Jack's Heroes

A hymn of praise to the fans of the Republic of Ireland football team, when it was managed by charismatic English football legend Jack Charlton. This is the Pogues and Dubliners on autopilot really, but it's a great party tune, once the whiskey has been cracked open and you're up for a sing song.

Christy Moore Joxer Goes to Stuttgart

Again, we're with Jack Charlton's Irish team for this one, a great narrative about heading to Germany with the boys for the trip to the European Championships in 1988, a tournament marked by a memorable victory for the Irish over Bobby Robson's England team. The live versions of the song always work better, in my opinion.

Matt McGinn Five Million Scotsmen Will Call

A nice addition to the ranks of hubristic Scottish World Cup songs. Indeed, this is the one that probably kicked them all off. The chant of 'easy, easy', will make Scottish football fans' hairs rise on the back of their necks, but probably not for the right reasons...

Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.