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  • simonfletcher58

In the Sticks

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

The phrase ‘in the sticks’ has long been a commonplace to describe those living in the countryside, possibly through no choice of their own or possibly to escape the ‘madding crowd’. It could be that life in the sticks is healthier and more in tune with nature, of course, if that’s your thing.

My dictionary has it that the phrase means ‘a rural area considered remote or backward’ and that will do nicely for some. And, of course, that’s the problem in a nutshell. Some folk are content with being out of the limelight. Some parts of the rural countryside are remote, certainly, but I see no evidence of things being ‘backward’. Why, we even have the Internet these days!

For a while I’ve been thinking about putting together an anthology of poetry that speaks ‘from the sticks’ and, as luck would have it, had embarked on such an anthology with my co-editor, Cherry Doyle, when the pandemic struck. We had been finding venues for workshops when the whole operation had to be re-made online.

And we needed help as a brief survey of Offa’s finances suggested we’d be struggling if this virus pest went on for more than a few months. We approached the Arts Council and found it was supportive and helpful at every turn.

So, online it was and we concocted an initial workshop about the many faces of Cannock Chase. Cherry lives near there so she went out and dutifully photographed and mapped an ‘easy but interesting’ walk for poets to follow. We looked at different aspects of the Chase including the intriguing and now deserted Brindley village.

In the late summer I spent an excellent day walking around my native Wyre Forest (on the Shropshire side of Dowles) and compiled a workshop around ‘forestry’ that included a ‘Leaf Quiz’ which had a prize attached (a copy of my Cherry Trees of Wyre pamphlet). We didn’t get a huge number of entries but it was won by Nicky Hetherington, one of my regulars at the Pant workshops.

Online workshops via Zoom followed, specifically with more rural writers’ groups and these proved very interesting, challenging and productive by turns. The Bridgnorth Writers were particularly keen and steadily the poems began to trickle in. When we opened the submissions’ window in the spring there was a flood of exciting material and quite a few new voices.

The editing was hard work but great fun (yes, really). We had many poems about sheep but none about fox-hunting, for example. And we also involved our work experience student, Megan, who made some wise observations.

The cover was a real problem as we wanted to show something of country life today that included various elements including gardening, agriculture and the distance of isolated housing. In the end we settled on my picture taken in north Shropshire. Many people have commented favourably on this and its slightly surreal black plastic-wrapped hay harvest.

So, after 15 months’ work, we launched the book at ‘Virtual Voices’ and had a great turnout. The poets were pleased to read their pieces and we also programmed in a delightful rural tale from Keith Rogers and a lovely celebratory song at the end from Alex Vann, a fine musician who’s also our designer.

In the Sticks is proving popular with unheard-of pre-launch sales and bookshops actually demanding copies. Who knows, people might start looking at life in the sticks with its wildlife crisis, sometimes stressed villagers, farming and forestry issues, pollution, gun culture, the isolation and, here and there, romance, with fresh eyes.


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