Friday, 31 December 2010

New Year's Eve... live from a sofa near you

Firstly I must tell you - something weird happened tonight with me and Darth Vader.

Bear with me. There's this guy (or gal) calling themselves Darth Vader on Twitter, and they asked for a three word description of the Dark Lord of the Sith. I replied saying I couldn't do it in 3 words, but gave a link to this blog post. 'Darth' re-tweeted my link to his quarter of a million followers. So suddenly (not that I follow my stats on Statcounter or anything) I've had 1500 people (and counting) visit that post...

...for an average of 5 seconds.... hahaha! Andy Warhol was wrong - not even fifteen minutes,

added later: ... although Darth doesn't tweet that often so I'm still getting hits from it, and a few new followers, and a great story which both self-agrandises and self-denigrates... but does end up with people wanting me to explain (in detail) what Twitter is and what's the difference between Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and Linked-in and my arse. (Not really - just added that in to see if anyone was paying attention.)

It just goes to show how many sad, lonely people who don't get invited to New Year parties are getting something out of Twitter, and the internet. It's nice for us them.

I've been trying to be positive, what with my top Christmas pressies, and my highlights of 20210 (hey... I can't drink tequila and type!) and not mentioning the BAD BITS and the CONTINUING SAGAs and the TROUBLES AHEAD. But really.

Must I bear alone the trauma of my mother's gift of a leopard-skin shower cap (and matching snuggle) and 48 boxes of chocolates? Could be worse - my BFF got a doorstop, a tea towel, teabags and (ahem) 16 random library books.

Anyway, there's some more cheap fizz en route so I'll stop here. But if you're reading this tonight, here's some comfort for you - 'staying in' is the new 'going out'. Twitter said so. But then it says a lot of things.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! Cheers!! *raises can of Stella and gets all teary...*

Thursday, 30 December 2010

My 2010 Highlights

I always get a bit contemplative this time of year. I suddenly cease to be any fun at parties, preferring to dwell on the year past and

The ten best things that happened to me this year:

1. I got a job as a library assistant. It's the sort of job I'd have liked on leaving school. If that had happened I'd probably still be there and there's no counting the adventures I wouldn't have had. But it's kind of nice to be doing it now - far less stressful than some of my other recent incarnations!

2. You! I started writing this blog last winter, have had lots of unexpected fun and interaction with great fellow-bloggers through venturing into blogland and celebrating my 100th post!

3. Coming second in THREE poetry slams - Liverpool Most Romantic Poet, Liverpool Glam Slam, and the far less glamorous Morton Arms Poetry Competition

4. Learning to cope with the anxiety which has affected me badly over the last few years. From having a panic attack during a yoga relaxation session back in February to...

5. ...celebrating my 200th live poetry performance a few weeks ago (since my first open mic in 2003)

6. A very enjoyable fortnight in Madeira!

7. Lovely short breaks in The Lake District and Prague

8. Earning a total of £287 from writing/performing... *sigh*...must try harder.

9. Many visits to Scotland. Not for nice reasons, but it was good to get to know it a bit better.

10. Arriving at the turn of this year better equipped than at the turn of the last - materially (better gadgets etc) but also emotionally.

What have been the highlights of 2011 for YOU?

Monday, 27 December 2010

OK, Let it STOP Snowing Now!

Where I live, you can go for years without a dusting, a flurry, or even a frost!

But I've just been making a list of how many times - and where - I've been snowed on during the last few years.

March 2009 - My first proper snow (alright ice) sighting for years and was too much fun NOT to mention - heli-hiking on Fox Glacier, NZ (of which more in a supplemental post to come).

April 2009 - Unexpected blizzard whilst staying in the Mt Cook YHA - unseasonably early (equivalent of early October!). The 2nd picture is near neighbouring Lake Tekapo.

May 2009 - Patagonia. OK, winter in Patagonia we weren't expecting a heatwave. Torres del Paine, Perito Moreno Glacier (3rd pic), and Ushuaia were all quite chilly.

January 2010 - snowed in at home! (4th pic) This never happens.

January 2010 - snowed in in Scotland - twice!

February 2010 - snowed in in Bury. A walking weekend (note absence of the words 'exotic', 'luxury' or 'pampering') turned into a chilly knee-deep stumble in a desperate bid to escape.

March 2010 - Scotland (again). 2-storey mounds of snow outside Tesco in Keith (could have been worse - mounds of snow outside Keith in Tesco)

* there may have been a bit of summer here *

November 2010 - snowed in in Scotland. I mean really snowed in. Read this post.

November 2010 - snowed in in Prague (bottom pic)

December 2010 - snowed in at home again. It is starting to thaw... but the year ain't over yet!

It's just a good job I have a range of cold-weather head-gear you will not fully appreciate from these pictures alone.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Ho Ho Ho! My favourite Christmas Jokes

It's a funny time of year - and I hope these Christmas jokes make it just a little bit funnier:
Q - Why is Christmas just like another day at the office?
A - You end up doing all the work and the fat guy in the suit gets all the credit.

Three men die on Christmas Eve. St Peter says they can get into heaven if they have something Christmassy with them.
The first guy clicks his lighter. 'It's a candle!' He says, and is allowed in.
The second guy jangles a bunch of keys. 'Jingle bells!' He sings, and is allowed in.
The third guy thinks for a minute then fishes a pair of ladies' knickers out of his pocket.
'In what way are they Christmassy?' asks Saint Peter.
'They’re Carol’s!'
We were very poor. Every Christmas my mother would give us all a haircut and then we’d sit down to Xmas dinner with all the trimmings.

Q- How does Darth Vader know what Luke Skywalker is getting for Christmas?
A - Because he has felt his presents.

A woman goes into a post office to buy some stamps for her Christmas cards. 'What denomination do you want?' asks the lady at the counter. 'Good God!' she said. 'Has it come to this? I suppose you'd better give me twenty Catholic and twenty Protestant.

Q - Why does Santa come down the chimney?
A - Because those pants are tight and he wriggles a lot

I got a Helium book for Xmas. I can’t put it down.
I got a U2 jigsaw for Christmas. I'm starting with the Edge.

I bought my kids a David Blaine doll for Christmas – they couldn’t open the box!

Tampax are replacing the string on tampons with a piece of tinsel – but just for the Christmas period only

More seasonal sillies in The Funniest Christmas Joke Book Ever

~ That's all folks! ~

There's more Christmas humour at

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Silence Museum

Outside it is always noisy
but within these walls, more than a metre thick,
we hold, insulated, the history
and lost examples of silence.
Visitors are ushered, whispering
through padded cubicles, astounded.

Turn off your phones and music,
speak only in whispers.
We Curators live in silence.
It is our vocation – chosen
from the quietest children
we were trained to listen.
It is like a religion.

The first floor is devoted
to the silence before a sound
with perfect specimens of the pregnant pause:
the counted silence between flash and thunder
that measures your distance from a storm,
the animal quiet of the dog that will be first to bite,
the charged stillness of a held breath
between the last tick and the explosion,
and, the prize of our collection,
the last natural recording of a pin about to drop... 

Beautiful isn’t it?

On other floors we preserve
examples of the silence after a sound –
the straining, listening silence after
the bump in the night,
the sullen tongue-holding of the instructed silence,
one minute silences filled with awkward sorrow,
and rare samples from ground zero
those twin silences of shock and awe.

Our interactive exhibit invites you to consider:
the silence of the crowd at the call for volunteers,
the silence of a majority who oppose without speaking
– the silence that is mistaken for complicity,
the silence that is suffered in.

Listen for a moment…

Our researchers are gathering examples
that measure silence – its depth and width
from the silence of mutual understanding
which needs no vocabulary
to the dumb silence of incomprehension,
from an argument seen through triple-glazed windows
to the last wilderness on a windless day.

Many silences are near extinction.
But we can manufacture them
using the exact wavelengths and frequencies
that echo the weighty absence of sound in space,
and we are close to containing
that final silence
when your own music stops,
and your body ceases whispering
its rhythmic commentary.

(c) Clare Kirwan 2005        

First Published in Aberrant Dreams

Picture: Los Angeles new Museum of the Holocaust

Friday, 3 December 2010

Presents with no future

I've thought of a brilliant idea for giving someone an amazing FREE Christmas Present - but all I get is abuse when I mention it. It depends how you look at it - cheapskate pressie from tight-fisted weirdo or  sustainable gift that saves the earth's valuable resources? You decide!

First you 'borrow' (ok steal) the library card of your loved one / sidekick / awkward relative (henceforth know as 'the recipient')  - or you could use your own. Then you go to the biggest library near you and use the card to borrow (this time I don't mean steal) as many of the most gorgeous, newest 'coffee table' books as the ticket allows (eg in Wirral you can get 16 books out on a card!) 

You know the kind I mean - the ones the size of coffee tables, full of mouthwatering photographs or ephemeral nonsense. Books about art, travel, confectionery, puppies, gardens, Star Wars, steam trains, latex... whatever your recipient's 'special' interests may be. Books that lift the heart for a moment but cost £40 in the shops and no matter how beautiful they are, you couldn't justify buying them, and if you did they would barely be looked at after the initial flurry of excitement.

So on Christmas Day your recipient gets a big pile of wonderful books* to browse through over the holidays - to entertain guests, provoke conversations or merely to provide alternative surfaces to put your nuts on! Then when your recipient tires of them you just pop them back to the library. Job done! 

You haven't broke the bank, the author gets a cut through the Public Lending Right, your library is supported and your recipient is touched by the gesture and the effort you put into choosing the best books! 

After all - it's the thought that counts, isn't it? What do you think?

* This probably only works with books. It would be unreasonable to buy someone, say a box of choccies just to look at and then take back to the shop in January. I'm not that cheap!

Other posts about books:       Top 10 Books for Writers         The dog ate my library book

Thursday, 25 November 2010

No no no no November

November has tied me
to an old dead tree
get word to April
to rescue me.

November's cold chain
made of wet boots and rain
and shiny black ravens
on chimney smoke lanes

Tom Waits, 'November'

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, - November!

Thomas Hood, 'No!'

While November numbly collapses,
this beech tree, heavy as death
on the lawn, braces for throat-
cutting ice, bandaging snow.

Edwin Honig, 'November Through a Giant Copper Beech'

Fog in November, trees have no heads,
Streams only sound, walls suddenly stop
Half-way up hills, the ghost of a man spreads
Dung on dead fields for next year's crop.

Leonard Clark, 'Fog in November'

I'll be in gnawing off my own legs for sustenance in a snow drift somewhere in Aberdeenshire by the time you read this.  

*Opens door, blizzard swirls in*  "I could be some time..."

More November poems at

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A novel facade

I forget where I first stumbled across this picture of Kansas City library.

Isn't it amazing? 

It's actually the frontage of the car park! Local people were asked to help pick highly influential books that represent Kansas City. Those titles were included as “bookbindings” in the innovative design of the parking garage exterior, to inspire people to use the downtown Central Library.

I can't begin to tell you how much I love this - it's like a takeaway made out of colossal chips or covering B&Q with enormous tools... erm... moving on...

While I was looking for more pictures of it, I discovered something similar a lot nearer home.

In 2006, Cardiff residents were asked to vote for their top 100 books to adorn 6m hoardings of the temporary library during a rebuild (left).  

Of course, these are both quite large libraries. I'm not sure you could do much with Britain's smallest library (pictured on the right here). Bless! Then again, I don't think much of their shelving - it's a bit shoddy. Melvil Dewey wouldn't be very impressed.

(American readers - this is the smallest library in the US)

And just wait until I start on library interiors - I found some great pictures but I don't want to throw too much at you at once... you might drool all over my blog!

Meanwhile, some related posts:

Sunday, 21 November 2010

I was a Magician's Assistant

Not knowing how to describe myself in just a few words -as Twitter requires -I leave my description as: 'I used to be a magician's assistant but, after years of therapy, rarely appear out of an empty box these days.

This may sound like something made up to amuse but it is, of course,  absolutely true.

I was twelve. He was a workmate of my father's - a member of the Magic Circle - and he started a small (very small) 'School of Magic' in his basement every Sunday morning. It was mainly pubescent girls, and his wife would make us costumes - we'd dress as mini showgirls or circus animals for his magic shows. 

Ahhh the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd... the vicious little teeth of Mr Wuffles, the dwarf white rabbit!

There was one trick where a dog 'magically' appeared out of an empty box - which was then shown to be empty again. Then me and another girl jumped out too with our special 'Ta daaaa!' faces on. 

It was quite a tight squeeze in the empty box with my friend and the dog.

I know what you're thinking. It does sound a bit pervy when I consider it now - but it was all in innocence and lots of fun. I was 'Young Magician of the Year' in 1977 - admittedly in a local competition they ran themselves which only had four entrants. I themed my act around outer space, wore deely-bopper antennae and a silver lame bodkin - 'sadly' there are no pictures - and did my tricks in rhyming couplets:

I'm a Magician, come from Mars
I do magic on the stars.

(Oddly, I didn't win any poetry prizes.)

Perhaps, in retrospect, my parents were concerned - my dad came with me on Sundays and pretty soon he was learning the tricks of the trade and knocking up 'magic boxes' in the shed. So then I started being his 'glamorous' assistant at house parties for posh families and Christmas bashes for the kids of local factory workers. 

It was hard work and a bit scary - wondering if they would be well behaved and enjoy it.  By now I was a glowering, spotty, teenager - and when I had my hair cut off it took away my special powers. After all, it was all done with mirrors.

I suspect we were both very glad when he stopped. 

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Scaffold to China

You may have seen our new Prime Minister brown-nosing in China and so you must be wondering what - oh what - is Wirral doing to prop up Anglo-Chinese links?

I am happy to report that we have done our bit - we sent in The Scaffold.

No! Not this kind of scaffold, silly!

Nor the one on the right.

(I suspect the Chinese are quite capable of rustling up something like this themselves.)

No! I mean the popular beat combo from the 1960's - The Scaffold, who of course had a lot of Chinese influences...

Liverpool Lu

Gin Gan Gu Li

Lee Li the Pink

Fang Yu Very Much (for the Shanghai plastic)

Of the three members of the group, only Roger McGough has sodded off to London, and anyway he never lived in Wirral to my knowledge, but Mike McCartney (his kid brother was in another beat combo) and John Gorman both reside on the Wirral Peninsular, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool.

Do any of you remember them? I inherited most of their singles from the (much older *ahem*) daughter of some friends of my parents and was particularly delighted by a B side called 'I'd be the First'. It included lines like 'I'd be the first to climb Mount Eiger on a tiger' and suchlike, with the punchline 'But I'm 88, I'm 95 and I'm 103.' (I forget the exact ages, but you get the gist.)

There's more about Wirral Liverpool Day at Shanghai Expo here and there's a nice article in the Financial Times online (where else?) which describes the Scaffold as: "Three elderly men yoked together by happenstance, their home town and a rugby anthem."

It also has a couple of lovely quotes about what the Chinese response to Lily the Pink was, but my favourite was: "I liked those grandpas singing."

Click here for Thank U Very Much - The Very Best Of Scaffold

More pictures of scaffold in Shanghai here

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Top 10 tips for performing poetry

I began performing in 2003 and will have totted up 200 appearances before this year is out. 

I've spouted in slams and jams, open floors and secret gardens, Palm House and Slaughterhouse, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (Las Vegas) and Bolton Socialist Club. I've been translated into sign-language, broadcast on a Big Screen and banned from a Cathedral (not my fault).

None of this makes me an expert, but I've picked up a few DOs and DON'Ts along the way - which I am happy to share - hope it helps or inspires (especially a reader of this blog who is about to perform for the first time!) Even if you're not about to launch onto the poetry / spoken word scene, these tips may also help with other public speaking.

The Tips

  1. Don't worry! No-one is going to 'boo' you - I've never seen it happen unless someone was being really offensive. Ask yourself: What's the worst thing that will happen? And then don't answer! At the Dead Good Poets Society in Liverpool we often have newbies 'losing their performance cherries' and while they might not give a flawless performance (everyone gets nervous), they are always welcomed and applauded - it takes guts and we all remember our first time!
  2. Case the joint. You'll feel more comfortable if you've been to the venue before and know the layout and clientèle. If you can't do that, arrive early and chat to a few people so you're not performing to a room full of strangers. And watch how other performers use the mic - how close do they stand to it?  

  3. Be prepared. Know what you're going to read and practice beforehand so you're comfortable with the poems - you don't have to memorise them, even for a slam, but if you haven't read them aloud before, you won't do as well as you could. Have a drink to hand in case of 'dry mouth' and, if your hands tremble, try sticking your poems in a book or folder and reading from that - it reduces page-shake.  
  4. Time yourself - practice at home so you're used to reading your poetry out loud, make a note of how long each piece takes (allow time for intros and applause) and keep to time - it really helps organisers, and they are your friends.

  5. Choose material that suits the audience and venue. Try to suss out the audience and the vibe before you make your final choice what to perform. Some poems are better read and some better heard - a good rule of thumb is not to read anything too heavy to inexperienced audiences - instead, delight them with something accessible, funny or quirky and not too long. Save more 'poetic' material for serious poetry lovers.

  6. Breathe. It really, really helps. Even if you don't think it's helping, it is. Take really slow, deep breaths for a few minutes before you get up to read and it WILL calm you down. 

  7. Slow down. Most people start out reading their poems too quickly... okay you want to impress with your fluid tongue, and get away again quickly, but speak too fast and people can't take in what you're saying. You really can get away with reading a lot slower than you think. 
  8. Mix it up a bit. Start strong with something that will grab attention -  launching with a lively poem can release tension (theirs and yours!).  A 5-minute open floor slot will allow two longish or three short poems (see 4 above) so you can vary the tone. For longer sets, it's even more important to vary the pace - a funny poem after a downbeat one, a fast one after a couple of slow ones. Exaggerate changes in pace within poems too.

  9. Make eye contact with your audience as much as you can - it helps them connect with you, and if you're looking up, your voice will project  better. 

  10. Enjoy yourself - smile! It's actually fun and empowering to stand up there, speak your own words and get an instant reaction. Nothing beats the feeling of an immediate response to your work... the relief when you've done it afterwards!

P.S. Maybe I ought to add:  
11. 'Don't forget to take your poems to your gig' - like I did last night!

Pictured above: Me, Alabaster de Plume, Colin, Abi & Me

Pictured right: The lovely people at Write Out Loud - check their site for an open floor near YOU!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Why is my biro broken?

It was a year ago today I started this blog.  But having celebrated the blogs that came since in My 100th Post  today I'm just looking back at why I started and why-oh-why I called it Broken Biro.

I struggle with names for things. It's not that I don't have enough ideas - too many more like! - but I was painfully aware that it would probably develop in ways I didn't expect, so it couldn't be anything too specific.

Originally I thought it would be more about the nuts and bolts of writing, maybe even developing into some sort of writers' resource site, but once I began - and especially when I began to read more blogs and engage with other people online - I realised I wanted to be broader in content.

It took a while to realise a blog's a great place to store things that I'm interested in, even if no-one else read it!  It's a very neat way of grouping thoughts, pictures, quotes and links on a particular subject together.  I bet I use the Google 'search this site' tool in the  top right more than anyone! I wish everyone had it - it's an easy way to find posts you vaguely recall someone writing ages ago!

But because I like writing and scribbling down ideas, I wanted a loosely writing-themed title. Something friendy, slightly comical and human too. I had a list, but I just kept coming back to Broken Biro - you could find one anywhere, use it to write anything. In a way the blog has become like those little notebooks I always carry around - crammed with thoughts, contacts, rhymes, facts, ideas written in with assorted biros.

I'm rambling, aren't I?  

Anyhoo, that's where the name came from and I think it fits (although I am described in certain quarters as: 'Not a biro, not broken'. Bloody pedants!) - even despite my recent reinvention as a library assistant. It's not the best ever title - there are many out there I love and envy - but it's me!

10 Things you can do with a broken biro

  • Not write a novel
  • Not be able to write in the notebook you keep with you at all times
  • Not mind-map ideas for stories and ideas in idle moments
  • Make a big inky mess
  • Shoot peas
  • Drink 'Margaritas'
  • Irreversibly stain trousers
  • Emergency tracheotomies
  • Press a restart button
  • Fiddle

So - lots of things you can do with a broken biro... and that's before we even start on the whole lampshade / cutlery/ insert your own whacky idea here

Saturday, 13 November 2010

10 Books for Writers

Here's my top ten books to buy for writers this Christmas (or other festival of your choice).

One thing a writer loves to do is to read about the process of writing - it makes you think you're 'a writer' without all that pesky having to write anything yourself! Believe me - I know!

If you're planning to buy any of these, or indeed anything from Amazon, please click on the links in the text. I'll get a small % of anything you buy from Amazon (at no cost to yourselves) if you arrive through the links below or the 10% off one in the right hand bar... think of it as your Christmas pressie to me!


Top of every budding author, playwright, poet's wish list is the latest edition of perennial bestseller Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2011, £8.69 on Amazon. Bulging with useful contacts in all sections of the literary community, it also offers expert articles on thorny issues e.g. writing for television, finding an agent. Even if the writer you've bought it for never actually opens it they will feel a little bit more like an author just for having it on the shelf!


To be fair, I haven't finished this yet, but Booklife - Digital Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer looks like fascinating reading  for authors already trying to establish a presence on the internet, or those considering it. It looks particularly at blogging, promotional opportunities, and networking with editors and publicists.


Confession time now - I've had A Creative Writing Handbook: Developing Dramatic Technique, Individual Style and Voice out of the library since May! I'm going to have to buy it... even though I promised myself not to buy any more writing books. This is the closest I've got to a creative writing course book with lots of proper exercises and examples that really help you kick start your own. It would suit teachers of creative writing too!


This gem is quite old now but The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (Stillman) is still a classic volume for poets, with detailed  descriptions and examples of different forms, all you ever wanted to know about trochees, iambs and their chums, and a really, really good rhyming dictionary that makes others (especially the online pretenders blush with shame/blame/bad name).


This won't suit 'seat of the pants' writers, but for the planning kind it's hard to beat Novel Writing: 16 Steps to Success for a thorough system of writing a novel that is well-plotted and populated with well-rounded characters. Author Evan Marshall is also very active online and offers many free resources  to authors. Check out his website here.


If you write humour, if you enjoy it and are interested in how it works, you could do a lot worse than The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves. It is a curious mixture of very erudite and well-researched musings on the nature of comedy and what makes a joke funny... and lots and lot of very funny jokes. It's a cracker!


I've seen Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft mentioned so many times as the best book on creative writing that I had to buy it. Of course I haven't read it yet, so it shouldn't appear on this list - especially when I can't remember who the various people who recommended it were, but I've always enjoyed his writing even back in the days when he was Richard Bachman - great plots peopled by real human beings.


For anyone who loves reading - as well as those who love writing, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories is the definitive guide to the grand themes of literature: man against monster, the quest, tragedy, comedy, and whatever the hell the other three are. Oh, and don't try to click on the picture where it says. None of that magic here! Click on the link for more.


Carol Blake's From Pitch to Publication: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Novel Published is a really sound, businesslike guide for authors ready to publish. It takes you through what editors are looking for, how to do your final edits and synopsis, approach and work with agents, the process of publications and lots of stuff about rights and advances and managing finances that frankly, some of us may never need to know. *sigh*.


Although most of these books are about the craft of writing, I  include Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times from Bloodaxe Books because it's probably the finest anthology of contemporary poetry around, and I like the way it's organised around the big themes of life with powerful poems on journeys, growing up, love, death and chocolate (actually I made that last one up - the world is still waiting for the definitive chocolate poetry anthology).

Please do share your favourite books about writing