Place and time

Maybe you can create a space, a place, a venue. I know you can build a building and I know you can run events but I’ve said before that you can’t just decide that this place will be special, that you can’t predict what venues will start to have a life of their own. But I could be wrong there because there’s a spot that has done this and not by accident. Last night I was at Waterstone’s bookshop in Birmingham and realised that it has genuinely become an arts venue.

This is mostly great but that thought last evening came in tandem with one that isn’t so good. This bookshop now has the same life and impact, it has become the same kind of hub for my working and social life, that the Library of Birmingham used to be. It knifes me saying that: I was so in love with that Library and it was so instantaneously important to the city, but then they halved its opening hours, cut its staff, immolated the place.

I had thought it remarkable that within weeks of it opening, so very many things I do revolved around the Library of Birmingham. I’ve spoken there, researched there, eaten there, had very many coffee meetings, it went from nothing to surely having always been there.

And now I pass it often and I regularly see tourists pulling on the door, perplexed why they can’t get in.


Across the city, there is this branch of Waterstone’s and over the years I’m sure I’ve bought many books there but to me it’s always just been where the old Times Furnishing building used to be. I can’t conceive how long ago that store closed and I refuse to look into it for fear of how old I’ll feel, but I walk into Waterstone’s and somehow I can still see the old store. The bookshop is all light and welcoming and I remember the furniture shop being dark, but the walls are where they were, the distinctive steps up to each floor are where they were.

This Waterstone’s was refurbished and reopened last November and earlier this year I went to pitch a vague event idea to the manager, Stuart Bartholomew. By the time it became less vague, by the time it became a poetry and prose event I performed at and co-produced with Charlie Jordan, it became a fair miracle that we could even be fitted in. This store runs events constantly. Take a look at the current schedule on its official website.

I can speak as someone who’s run one of these events: it buzzed, it was a success, there was great wine and chocolate. There was also Grace, who manages the events and didn’t criticise my shoving aside anyone who stood between me and that chocolate, yet whose surname I clearly didn’t bother to learn. Well.

But I can more speak as an attendee. I’ve been to talks there, I’ve been to see authors talking about their new books and last night I was at the launch of the Birmingham Literature Festival. The event is in October but the programme was revealed last night and you can now buy tickets. Perhaps ironically, I don’t think any of its events will be at Waterstone’s and I know very many will be at the Library of Birmingham. But Waterstone’s is running pop-up bookstalls at the Festival and last night it hosted the launch.

I am doing bits in the Festival but last night I was watching so many happy people near chocolate. I had to skip out early, I’m in London today running a workshop, and do you know it felt wrong leaving? Going from the verve and life of this event to a deeply long and boring train ride and a midnight slump into a Travelodge. Just wrong.

This bookshop is an important part of Birmingham’s literature, writing, arts and poetry scene. It’s become so in less than a year. I think it’s obvious that this is a direct result of the effort of Stuart, Grace and the rest of the staff but this is becoming an advert so I’ll just say that really it’s down to the chocolate.


Mars Bars: a Warning from History

There are no life lessons you can learn from Mars Bars or indeed any chocolate, but that doesn’t mean you should give up looking. I tell you now, chocolate has always been my Kryptonite but just lately it’s been my frustration and not for the weight-related issues you’ve just thought of. Thanks for that.

I am instead a discerning chocolate eater and I have been frustrated by a small thing, just the total betrayal of my entire life by the confectionary industry. That’s all. I want there to be a life lesson here, I want there to be something I can draw on as a writer, and I want that very badly because a) you won’t think I’m such an eejit and 2) it would be solace the next time I put those Mars Bars back.

I do put them back, that’s true. The writing life lesson is more of a stretch, but I do now regularly pick up a pack of Mars Bars in the supermarket and put them back with a howl that would startle a wolf. It would startle anyone, really, but wolves are professional howlers and that’s the level I’m howling at.

For have you seen Mars Bars these days? I’ve been worrying about sounding like a fool or a glutton, I might as well throw in something that makes me just sound old. Mars Bars used to be bigger in my day. Back in the war, when you walked to school over cobbled streets and the only computers were Windows PCs, at least you could count on your friends and on how Mars Bars were a decent size.

There are bigger problems in the world and throughout recorded history, chocolate bars have got smaller as they’ve got more expensive. Only this time the manufacturers have gone too far. Fine, make your bars smaller, see if I care, but this time they’re actively hiding the fact.

That’s why I have this cycle of picking them up and putting them back: try it yourself and see. Any pack of Mars Bars or of any chocolate bars at all will now be dramatically larger than the contents. Somehow the pack is padded, actually padded. You can feel it when you pick the thing up but you can’t see it until then: we are being lied to.

Well, I’m being lied to. You wouldn’t have that trim and toned body of yours if you were facing chocolate lies as often as I am. Thinking about it, I may have just gone off you.

I keep saying that this is happening now, that this conspiracy of confectioners is new, but it’s been happening for a long time, I’ve been noticing it for a long time. I think the reason it’s on my mind today may be because we’ve just had Easter, the great religious chocolate festival, but also because actually, yes, maybe, there is a writing life lesson here.

I’m part of a project called Prompted Tales wherein a group of us are tasked with writing a short story each month. The aim is get us focused, challenged and with a deadline as we all seem to respond to deadlines. The result so far is that we all have three short stories now that we didn’t before the start of the year. I’ve been thinking that’s rather good, I’ve been pretty happy with myself.

But as March’s Prompted Tales go live on the website throughout today, I’m reading them and I’m thinking that mine are lies.

I’m not wrong to have been happy with my January, February and March tales: I think they have something, I think they’re a good read, but I wonder today whether they just look like they’re stories. I don’t want to do myself down, especially not when I really enjoyed writing Departure Time, the story that will be published on the Prompted Tales website at 10:30 today.

But I look at the others being released and if they’re not wider or longer than mine, they have more in them. More depth, more chocolate, less packaging padding and it’s a sobering thing to see. It’s hopefully also an energising one as I’m currently clueless about what I’ll write for the April Prompted Tales but I know I’ll do something and I hope it will be the better for reading everyone else’s March stories.

Not easily, though. It won’t be easy. I think I need tea. And chocolate.