164. Farnham Fiction Award Prizewinners

Winner, Grace Walker, in conversation with judge, Gary Couzens

The Award ceremony for the Farnham Fiction Award closed the Farnham Literary Festival on 13 March, 2022.

Overall winner

The overall winner was Grace Walker, with an innovative story The Forced Generation. She imagines a chilling future in which children are “combined” to save pressure on resources. Her clever alternation between “I” and “we” explores what such a fused personality might experience.

Literary award

The literary award was won by Jilly Funnel’s The Lady Without the Van. The story paints the plight of many senior citizens today, feeling isolated, lonely, and despairing for a rich, fulfilling life of human engagement.

Thriller award

Stephanie Thornton’s The Watcher in the Woods took the thriller prize. An unconventional thriller with literary elements, it explores the sense of isolation of the two main characters.

Romance award

Also cross-genre was the Romance winner: Ekaterina Crawford’s Not Your Ordinary Love Story, a ghostly romance. Its setting, in our pandemic years, is scary enough but has an overriding other-worldliness that adds to the complexity and intrigue.

Science Fiction/Fantasy award

Jilly Funnel scored a second win with her fantasy story, Stuck Like a Dope with a Thing Called Hope. This tale blends humour and fantasy, locating the mythological Pandora in the 21st Century and having her open her box one last time to see what is left in it—hope.

163. Farnham Fiction Award 2022 Shortlist

Farnham has long been a craft town. Now it is a literary town, with the first Farnham Literary Festival due to run  from 5-13 March, 2022.

I am running the Farnham Fiction Award, and we have just selected the shortlist. Congratulations to all the talented writers.

Fool’s Mate by Tim Taylor

Train the Brain by James Gault

Not Your Ordinary Love Story by Ekaterina Crawford

The Watcher in the Woods by Stephanie Thornton

Stuck Like a Dope With a Thing Called Hope by Jilly Funnell

The Lady Without the Van by Jilly Funnell

The Calling by Prince Cavallo

Ayashe and the Red Crow by Diana Lock

The Forced Generation by Grace Walker


Join us for the Award Event on 13 March, 2022, at 2:30 p.m, St. Marks Church Hall, Alma Lane, Farnham GU9 0LT. Author Gary Couzens will make the awards.

136. Smashing statues

What are the rights and wrongs of tearing down a statue of a public benefactor, rolling it through the streets and pushing it into the harbour?

On 7 June, anti-racist protestors in Bristol toppled the bronze statue of William Colston, who after his death in 1721 bequeathed his wealth to the city. His legacy can still be seen in street names (such as Colston Avenue where the statue was located), memorials and buildings. That wealth came from the transportation and sale of an estimated 80,000 Africans as slaves. When the statue fell, a protestor knelt with his knee on its neck—a reference to the police killing in the US of African American George Floyd, which has sparked worldwide outrage.

Colston statue

Prime Minister Boris Johnson described what happened in Bristol as “a criminal act”—he meant the dismantling of the statue, not the slave trade. He said “in this country we settle our differences democratically and if people wanted the removal of the statue there are democratic routes which can be followed.”

The protestors say that Bristol citizens did follow these democratic routes but nothing happened. The statue has been a source of controversy in the city for years. In 2018, the town council agreed to add a plaque to the plinth contextualising Colston’s legacy. Nothing happened, because there was no agreement on the wording.

Culture is always contested

There is nothing new in cultural objects being contested. Society changes, and with that comes a reappraisal of who should be regarded as hero and who as villain.

You might argue that we can’t judge the past by the standards of today. But like the Confederate statue toppled by anti-racist protestors in Durham, North Carolina three years before, Colston’s icon wasn’t all it seemed.  The North Carolina sculpture wasn’t erected by those who fought alongside Robert E Lee but by a later generation in the early twentieth century. Colston’s image was put up 170 years after his death by a businessman in 1895.

In a commentary, Matthew Sweet of the BBC wrote

“The statue of Edward Colston is not a pure object upon which later generations have imposed an anachronistic argument. The statue is an argument. About the relationship between the individual and the state, about employers and workers, about civic responsibility and Britain’s place in the world. Its construction was a political gesture. So is pushing it into the River Avon.”

It’s important to say the statue was not destroyed. It has already been retrieved from its watery resting place and could be exhibited in a museum with the appropriate cultural context. You could, indeed, argue that its disposal was also artistic. Certainly, there’s a dramatic irony in tipping Colston into the water in the same manner that many of his slave ship captains did with their surplus cargo.

Destruction of cultural heritage

Cultural artefacts have been destroyed throughout history.  We immediately think of Islamic State’s destruction of priceless Assyrian carvings in Iraq and of the Taliban blowing-up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.  But Muslim extremists are late to the party. One has only to think of the biblical injunction against worshipping graven images, and its resurfacing in bouts of destructive iconoclasm in the eighth century Byzantine Empire and again in fifteenth century Protestant Europe. The gaping shells of abbeys and monasteries in the English countryside bear eloquent testament to the vandalism of kings.

In more recent times, the Nazis burned books, and the British state banned the publication of books deemed unsuitable, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Culture is always a site a contestation.


Should we destroy our graven images?

If we blow up the heroes of past ages, what will remain?  A quick look around the sculptures in Parliament Square is salutary. The statue of Winston Churchill was daubed “racist” during the recent protests. And that is almost certainly true. But he did stiffen Britain’s sinews in the Second World War.

Then there is Lord Palmerston, one of Britain’s great Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers in the first half of the nineteenth century.

opium war

He opposed universal suffrage, launched the Opium Wars to open Chinese ports to the opium trade, evicted 2,000 of his Irish tenants during the potato famine, and sympathised with the secessionist South in the American Civil War. But he was also a social reformer, an abolitionist and championed liberal constitutionalism in Europe.

The South African, Jan Smuts occupies a spot on the northwest of the square.  A commander of the Boer forces against the British, he twice became Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. He was an advocate of racial segregation. But he was also an advocate of international peace and helped in the dismantling of the British Empire and its reinvention as the British Commonwealth.

On the other side of the square stands Nelson Mandela, founding father of modern South Africa. He was once regarded as a terrorist, not only by the apartheid government of his own country but also by British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

And so I might go on. Each leader, every king, every nobleman speaks of a legacy of theft, violence and exploitation. If we erase them all from history, we will have no history.

Something extraordinary is happening when hundreds of thousands of people around the world march, some might say recklessly, despite the threat of the covid-19 pandemic. Racial justice may turn out to be one of the many ways in which the pandemic, perversely, opens the door to rethinking ourselves and our way of living.  This can’t be reduced to a charge of criminal damage to property. Removing all the statues of worthies may not be practical or desirable, but re-contextualising their meaning is on the agenda. Perhaps we need to pair every king, general, and landowner with a statue to their victims.

135. Farnham Flash Fiction Competition 2020

Farnham_Flash_2020Like many other events this year, the Farnham Flash Fiction Competition is going online. The awards ceremony will take place on Zoom on 23 July with a panel of local authors:

Melanie Whipman

Andy Robb

Neil MacDonald

Joanna Barnard

Helen Matthews

Sally Ann Melia

You still have 10 days to get your entry in.

Entry details: http://www.farnhamfringefestival.org/farnham_flash.html

74. Granddad! What have you done?

We have never needed cultural workers more in Britain. We no longer know who we are. Three days ago, the UK voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. It was not the outcome I had voted for. But now we must get on with what comes next.

The result was many things, and all of them challenge the political order that has characterised the country since the Second World War. The young voted conservatively for the status quo, while the old voted radically to leave the EU. The rich voted for Europe, the poor voted Out. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, and England and Wales voted Out. The political class got a thorough kicking in England and Wales. Most of the political class had trusted that dire warnings of economic catastrophe would frighten people away from going it alone and leaving. After all, the tactic had worked in the Scottish independence referendum two years earlier.

angry granddad

But voters, particularly those over 45, delivered a rebuke. It’s not economy, stupid, they said. It’s immigration. For many, the referendum wasn’t even really about the EU. It was a cry of anger and outrage against the politicians who weren’t listening to them. The Prime Minister has already been toppled, and the position of the Leader of the Opposition is under threat. It’s not clear today who’s running the country.

The young, on the other hand, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. And they’re mightily pissed off that the generation who benefitted from post-war prosperity, free health care, free university education and good pensions was now denying them the same opportunities. The country is fragmented, almost down the middle. The Britain that woke up to the result on the morning of 24th of June is a country profoundly uneasy with itself.

These facts are enough to make it clear that culture is at the heart of what happened. And, equally, culture is at the heart of what must come next. Because the result poses the immediate question of what it now means to be British – what kind of country do we want to become?  And here is the problem. Nobody on either side of the referendum campaigns had bothered to articulate an answer to this question. They didn’t even try to explore it.

I’m struck by how different this is to the Scottish referendum on independence two years earlier. Though politicians kicked off the debate in Scotland, the people took it out of their hands. Writers and artists, thinkers and musicians debated what it meant to be Scottish and what it meant to be British. Scotland began that campaign as a tartan-wearing, bagpipe-playing, ship-building Ruritania, descended variously from Walter Scott and the early twentieth century labour movement. It ended the campaign with a new and confident sense of itself as a modern, outward-looking socially progressive European nation.

England experienced no such political education or cultural ferment in the course of this referendum. The rappers and playwrights, poets and thinkers whose job it is to listen to the rhythms of the street never got heard. Politicians’ rhetoric and dodgy statistics drowned out any Scottish-style self-examination. The culture workers never got into harness.

And the hopes of the people who voted for Britain to leave the EU seem destined to be dashed. “Now we’ll get a better life and good working conditions,” I heard one man say. “A better health service without foreigners who haven’t paid-in,” said another. “Now we can stop the Muslims coming here,” was heard too.

Of course, this anguish has nothing much to do with the EU. The democratic deficit these voices are pointing to is in Westminster, not Brussels. They can’t get a well-paid job or a decent place to live or a speedy hip operation in hospital because successive British governments haven’t invested enough in these things. But the politicians aren’t listening because it’s always easier for them to scapegoat the foreigner. When a people are searching for identity, hatred and fear are always dangers.

The hopes of those who voted Leave are not, in the main, expressions of visceral racism. They have more to do with an ageing generation who don’t recognise the world in which they now live. What they express is anxiety about their status. This explains the seeming paradox of the old being radicals and the young being conservatives.

We have to put in some serious cultural work, and debate who we are and who we want to be. It isn’t impossible to make the referendum result the beginning of a real and progressive change. But only if we write ourselves a new story. If the politicians aren’t listening, it lies in our hands to make new politicians. If we don’t do these things, Britain risks becoming a very nasty, unequal, small-minded place. This is a trend with echoes in many other parts of the world.

And, when I say Britain, it isn’t even clear there’s going to be a Britain to answer these questions. Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted Remain. The Scottish government has warned that Scotland was being taken out of the EU against its will by the English.  In Northern Ireland, the nationalist community is arguing for reunification with the Republic of Ireland.

The need for a new story has never been greater. Oh, Grandad! What have you done?

68. Anti-semitism and anti-sense

I don’t usually blog about political events – I have other outlets for my rants.  But as a paid-up member of the wordcraft folk, I’m going to break the tradition to comment on a storm in teacup over words. Words and their precise use are my business.


Readers outside the UK may not be aware that over the past couple of weeks there has been a flurry of accusations of anti-semitism in the opposition Labour Party. A Labour Member of Parliament, Naz Shah, and a prominent member of their National Executive, Ken Livingstone, have been suspended by the Party. The leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been accused of foot dragging.

Let’s be clear first, what anti-semitism is and is not. There is no agreed definition. But the US State Department in 2005 identified it as “hatred toward Jews—individually and as a group—that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity.”  There are some for whom it is convenient to label criticism of Israel as anti-semitic (not least, the Israeli government). But the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia said clearly in 2005 “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Nothing that either Ms. Shah or Mr. Livingstone said fitted the definition of anti-semitism. Ms. Shah did criticise Israel. She published a map, superimposing Israel on the outline of the US, jokingly proposing the Israel/Palestine conflict could be resolved by relocating Israel to the US. If you want to see the joke, you can find it here . The website belongs to Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish American political scientist. He published the map, later shared by Ms. Shah, because he found it funny. Finkelstein, the son of parents who survived the Nazi concentration camps, has said he finds the Labour Party row “obscene”

Mr. Livingstone made a bizarre and ill-judged attempt to defend Naz Shah. He claimed (correctly) the Nazis soon after coming to power collaborated with Jewish organisations to relocate German Jews to Israel.

It’s clear that the statements of both politicians have offended many Jews. But that’s not really the point. Being offensive doesn’t make them anti-semites. There is, within limits, a democratic right to cause offense. The furore has been manufactured. Some suggest that it is an attempted coup against Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Certainly it is odd. And even odder that the Labour leadership has not dismissed the claims of anti-semitism with the derision they deserve. Someone has put the frighteners on.

Israel is a state, and like all states, is open to legitimate criticisism. Criticism of the Kremlin doesn’t make anyone an anti-Russian racist. It may be offensive to some Israelis to say Israel is a racist state, but Israelis are not entitled to throw the label of racism back at the critic. Criticism of Israel could only be meaningfully described as anti-semitism in two special cases. Either, a denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination with their own state. Or holding the Israeli government to standards that apply to no other country.

Neither of these tests is met. Please, let’s use words appropriately. The ellipsis that equates anti-Zionism with anti-semitism is a perversion of language, sense, and democracy.  It is also politically dangerous in hiding the real problem of racism. In 2005 the Chief Rabbi told a Parliamentary committee “If you were to ask me is Britain an antisemitic society, the answer is manifestly and obviously no. It is one of the least antisemitic societies in the world”. There is clear evidence that anti-semitism has been on the rise in the UK since then. However, most such attacks and incidents are associated with the far right, not the left. At the same time, there has been a rise in attacks and hate speech directed at Muslims. The Muslim community has not succeeded in holding British society to the same standards of concern as has the Jewish community.

We need to concentrate on the real challenge of rooting out racism and xenophobia from our societies, and prevent squabbles between rival political party factions cloud the issue.