Upcycling Corks

I could never bear to throw away the corks from old wine bottles, although Katharine was understandably sceptical about the idea I would ever find a use for them. There used to be a recycling scheme (perhaps there still,is, but if so I’ve lost track of it). Over the years the message about corks changed too; at one stage we were being told not to buy cheaper bottles with corks, so that supplies could be kept for the first-growth clarets and so on that really needed it. Then the message was that we should buy anything with corks in order to save the industry, the cork oaks, and the unique biological environment that went with them. Anyway, I feel I’ve been vindicated because I’ve now made place mats with my collection!

I drilled two little holes through each cork with a dremel, and strung them together with fine wire, using tiny wooden beads to fasten off the ends. It would have been possible to string each one with a single wire, but you would have seen the wires crossing some of the diagonals, which I didn’t like. The result is perhaps slightly rustic, more suitable for barbecues and other outdoor eating than your fancy dining table, but I’m pretty pleased overall.

October Competitions

Here’s my review of novel/short story contests I’m thinking of entering next month.
  • Book Pipeline’s Unpublished competition is for full-length manuscripts and offers $15,000 to winners plus circulation to agents etc (though I’m never sure how much value to attach to the latter). Deadline is 5 October so you really need to have the finished manuscript already.
  • Fosseway Writers offer £50 as their top prize for a story of up to 2,500 words on the (possibly prophetic) theme ‘Another Disappointment’. The deadline is 10 October.
  • The University of Louisville is running its annual Calvino Prize for writing in ‘the fabulist experimentalist style of Italo Calvino’ – but entries must not be ‘merely imitative’ – tricky! First prize is $2,000 plus publication in their journal; entries can be part or all of a continuous work or a collection, but there is a strict limit of 25 ‘industry standard’ pages, whatever they are. The deadline is 15 October.
  • The Dinesh Alirajah Prize for Short Fiction offers a top prize of £500; shortlisted entries will be published in an ebook anthology (I like to see paper myself). The word count must be between 2,000 and 6,000 words on the theme ‘Home’; the deadline is 23 October.
  • Retreat West calls for stories between 1,500 and 3,000 words with a first prize of £400; the deadline is 25 October.
  • F(r)iction is a beautiful periodical that seeks to push the literary boundaries. Its current competition offers ‘$1,600 in prizes’ for a story between 1,001 and 7,500 words (love that niggling ‘1,001’), with a deadline of 30 October.
Then once again we have a cluster of contests at the very end of the month, all with a deadline of 31 October.
  • First the strange case of the Bedford International Writing Competition, where it seems there has been kind of coup. Back in May I (and presumably all the other previous entrants) received an email from the Chair saying that three committee members had seized control of the website and funds, in defiance of the other members and the constitution. The ‘proper’ competition had therefore had to be closed, and anything that was organised by the breakaway group would not be the BIWC and could not trade on its good reputation. There is indeed a Bedford competition under way, with a first prize of £500, and a maximum of 3,000 words; judge for yourself whether to enter!
  • Cranked Anvil’s quarterly competition has a prize of £150 for a story up to 1,500 words.
  • Southport Writers’ Circle also offers £150 but the word limit is a slightly more generous 2,000
  • The Horwich Prize is £50 for a story of 1,500 words on the theme of ‘Nature and Nurture’.
  • The Cinnamon Literature Award has categories for short story collections, full novels, and poetry; no prize except proper publication (yay paper!). You need two short stories of up to 5,000 words or 10,000 words of your novel (or ten poems, but that’s not for me).
Enough to keep me busy!


I remember being puzzled by the discovery that Shakespeare had a son called “Hamnet”. What had that got to do with Hamlet? It surely couldn’t be just a coincidence, even allowing for that peculiar one-letter difference between the names. Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, offers an explanation. It’s one that is satisfying fictionally and perhaps psychologically, but almost certainly false historically.

The novel centres on Shakespeare’s wife; we normally know her as Anne Hathaway, the somewhat older woman with the famous cottage, left behind in Stratford while Shakespeare enjoyed his glittering career in London. O’Farrell gives us a different person; even her name is changed to ‘Agnes’, which it seems is what her father called her. They had a flexible approach to spelling back then; we’re told up front that they treated ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ as the same, so that’s that cleared up (of course Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways on different occasions).

Agnes, in this version, has more than a touch of woodland magic about her. She can see into people’s minds by holding the web of flesh between their thumb and finger (which must be really irritating); she often knows the future, and can knock up a terrific poultice or potion out of a range of herbs with the kind of names they give to fancy shampoos these days. She may not comb her hair much, but she has a natural beauty and squirrels come to sit on her shoulder as if she were being written by Disney.

A little of that goes a long way for me, and I feel that the traditional Anne Hathaway – lumpish, too old, inadequately loved – would have been a character eminently worth writing about. But that’s wishing O’Farrell had written a different book, which is simply bad manners from the reader. I don’t feel she goes overboard, anyway; she makes a vivid character out of Agnes. In fact her suffering comes across strongly; I wouldn’t read Hamnet if you have a sick child, or perhaps if you’re pregnant.

In O’Farrell’s version the relationship between Will and Agnes is true love from the moment he spots her flying her kestrel while he is doing some Latin tutoring to help pay off his disgraced father’s debts. Although the later separation while he is making his name in London brings difficulties, the strength of the bond is never in doubt; O’Farrell fairly points out that when he’d made enough money, Shakespeare came home to Stratford for the rest of his life.

In this version (spoilers!) Hamnet dies tragically of the plague, voluntarily taking on his twin sister’s fatal illness. Agnes is horrified to hear that Shakespeare has produced a play apparently named after his son, but ultimately realises that in that play he has brought him back to life while voluntarily taking on the death in turn by casting himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Maybe Shakespeare did think that way to some degree, and it rounds out the novel into a memorable read. But the historical background suggests a different picture. It seems very likely (to me at least) that the Shakespeare twins Hamnet and Judith were named after close family friends Hamnet Sadler and his wife Judith. It may well have been reciprocal, with Hamnet Sadler naming two of his many children after Will and Agnes (or Anne). Hamlet the prince was named after neither Hamnet, however. He comes from a character in a Danish legend named ‘Amleth’; it’s probable that Shakespeare took him from an earlier play or text in which the name may already have been Englished as ‘Hamlet’. In short, neither Will nor Agnes would have supposed that Hamlet was named after, let alone meant to depict, their son, any more than he depicted Hamnet Sadler the baker.

But this is a novel, not a scholarly monograph. As a novel I recommend it and think it was a worthy winner.

Wind the Frog!

So having finished my ‘tiles’ I was left with a few spare pine blocks. The only thing to do, obviously, was to paint more pictures on them.

Here then, is the frog that now graces our downstairs loo. It’s a copy of one by Matsumoto Hoji, in the British Museum, only my version is greener and a bit cruder. Hoji was around in the nineteenth century, but I can’t find much information about him – this seems to be his big hit (as well it might be).

The poem underneath is this…

What a wonderful bird the frog are!
When he stand, he sit almost,
When he leap, he fly almost.
Ain’t got no nose, hardly,
Ain’t got no tail hardly, either.
When he sit, he sit upon what he ain’t got, almost.

Now when I first read that, years ago, I’m sure it was attributed to some author, but googling it now I find it’s down to Anon. Also, my version isn’t quite right, or at any rate, not the earliest. But it’s the version I like, so I’m sticking with it. Anon never sues.

Short Story September

Dahlia Publishing’s Short Story September is meant to promote both reading and writing (and, er, buying no doubt) featuring a month of short story collections with:

  • a writing prompt
  • short story resource
  • short story criticism

It seems an interesting idea, but I’ve got too much to read already and I don’t really like writing prompts. They make me think of this.