A Review by Alexandra O’Toole
Blackburn. Former mill town; producer of textiles since the thirteenth century; boom town of the Industrial Revolution and now the subject of a brand new collection of writings from those who have lived in, worked at and known it.
The Voices anthology is a unique collection of fiction, poetry and life writing from an eclectic group of writers: combining well known talents such as Tony Neil, A.J. Ashworth and Sarah Hilary with a host of previously unpublished writers, young and old, some of whom had never even written anything before their submission to the anthology.
How poet, lecturer and editor of Voices, Dr Sarah Dobbs, must have decided which submissions made the cut and which fell short, is not made clear, but her curatorial expertise in this volume is something to be marvelled at. Adjoining entries are connected through core themes which, despite the disparate nature of forms and styles of writing, enables the whole to flow seamlessly. The collection moves easily between wonderfully evocative pieces from longstanding residents, such as Pauline Jackson, whose memories of ‘Slippy Baths’ and ‘Saturday Nights’ and J Palmer, whose retelling of how she became known as ‘Contrary Mary’, paint vivid pictures of lives lived in a town in its prime, and the emotive and bitter poetry of ‘Piss Town’ by Tony O’Neill and the frustration laced prose of young Shane McHugh, whose ‘A Day In The Life of A Young Person’ is a sobering read.
Thank goodness, then, for ‘Blackburn Library’ to lift the spirits. This charming, witty story from the anthology’s youngest contributor, ten year old, Lotte Gracie Neil, emanates real warmth of feeling for the town. Sentiments that are echoed in the rosy childhood memories of an earlier Blackburn in John Hindle’s poem, ‘My Favourite Row’ and also in Gideon Woodhouse’s, ‘Memory’, one of two poems written by him included in this collection.
However, many of the contributors to Voices have chosen to focus their words on their feelings of despondency and disappointment about the Blackburn of today. I particularly liked David R Morgan’s very effective, ‘Mediocrity Is Not Enough’, which paints a picture of the town as a place of discontentment, of failed hopes and people let down and unsupported.
Mark Ellis’ story, ‘Until Morning’, which reads like a fragment from a longer piece, is an ambiguous tale that appears to comment on the breakdown of town’s traditional social mores, whilst the shame felt by Thomas Eccles, about his ‘empty, bleak and unfulfilling’ hometown is shown more directly in his writing, ‘Blackburn’.
Poems, ‘The Methodist Chapel’ by Alan Taylor and ‘Bag Lady’ by Martin McAreavy, depict a lethargic town of neglected relics. Whilst Baron Jepson’s, ‘Dandelions and Nettles’, cleverly juxtaposes a series of happy childhood memories against the backdrop of his decaying neighbourhood.
Yet despite the town’s industrial decline in recent years and the lack of opportunity it may now appear to offer its residents, it seems that Blackburn retains a hidden magic about it, with the knowledge that some things have remained true: a sense of community and belonging and pride in its heritage.
‘The Trouble With Blackburn’ by Christine Clayton and ‘Some Hovis and A Cup of Oxo’ by Diane Smith, prove that even outsiders are not immune to Blackburn’s charms, finding it, as Christine says, ‘a place that doesn’t pretend: not pretty, but beautiful; not perfect, but loveable’.
Community is the central theme of Maria Ismail’s, ‘The Colours of Blackburn’, which celebrates the vibrant variety of cultures found on every street, calling it ‘a town buzzing with culture / on the brink of change’. So to, Ishmail Karolia’s story, ‘The Community (Dig In)’: a heart warming tale of a multi-racial community coming together to solve a problem.
Blackburn’s proud heritage is given full acknowledgement in Gaye Gerrard’s poem, ‘Industrial Anthem’ and also Keith Dalton’s ‘Northern Street’. And a submission from the town’s Youth Action group, entitled, ‘The Cotton Town Project’, reports on their findings from interviews with former local cotton mill workers: a thoroughly interesting read.
This diverse collection of works is punctuated and tied together by two stories written by established published authors, Sarah Hilary and A.J. Ashworth. Though unique and unrelated, the plots of Hilary’s, emotive elegy, ‘After A Long Illness, Quietly At Home’ and Ashworth’s poignant tale, ‘Eggshells’, share a similar focus: a quiet concentration on the tiny, seemingly insignificant and often intangible details that have made up a life. A fitting convergence for a collection such as this. For the Voices anthology is all about this kind of minutiae: observations of the humdrum and the everyday; the unexpected beauty and the hard to ignore decay of Blackburn’s sloping, terraced streets; a town once great, now taken for granted. Here provided as a brand new set of reasons to visit this beloved and beleaguered Northern town.
Alexandra O’Toole specialises in brand storytelling. When she’s not helping businesses connect with their audiences through stories, she’s trying to write her own. She has almost finished the first draft of a novel and is in the second year of the distance learning MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She blogs at http://alexandraotoole.wordpress.com