Also by this author

It's Gone Dark Over Bill's Mother's

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Winner   —Arnold Bennett Prize2020

Longlisted   —Edge Hill Prize2020

Highly Commended   —Bridport Prize for ‘The Land of Make Believe’2015

Longlisted   —The Sunday Times Short Story Award for ‘Abdul’2018

Longlisted   —BBC National Short Story Award for ‘Fron’2018

Shortlisted   —BBC National Short Story Award for ‘Barmouth’2013

Winner   —The Guardian National Short Story Award for ‘Broken Crockery’2009

‘Her stories are at times the laugh-out-loud funny of Alan Bennett and at others, the achingly sad of the great, David Constantine.’—Paul McVeigh

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With a sharp eye and tough warmth, Lisa Blower strikes a new chord in regional and working-class fiction.

This fabulous collection of her award-winning short stories is dominated by the working-class matriarch. From the wise, witty and outspoken Nan of ‘Broken Crockery’, who has lived and worked in Stoke-on-Trent for all of her 92 years, to happy hooker Ruthie in ‘The Land of Make Believe’, to sleep-deprived Laura in ‘The Trees in the Wood’, to young mum Roxanne in ‘The Cherry Tree’, she appears in many shapes and forms, and always with a stoicism that is hard to break down.

Lisa Blower celebrates her characters with stories they wouldn’t want told. She makes the bleak funny, and brings to life the silent histories and harsh realities of those living on the margins.

‘It’s gone dark over Bill’s mother’s’ is a Potteries’ saying that means it’s looking a bit bleak, a little like rain. With origins as a footless and random as the barflies trying to find their meanings in ‘Happenstance’, it is an expression that sums up this fabulous collection.

William Boyd on ‘Broken Crockery’

4 December 2019

The winning story, ‘Broken Crockery’ by Lisa Blower, is written from the perspective of a young girl whose beloved "nan" has been admitted to the same hospital as Margaret Thatcher. "I'm a bit tearful," Blower said on learning of her success, "because the story was inspired by my own nan, and I lost her a month ago."

Blower, 35, a full-time creative writing student from the Wirral, gave up her career in radio marketing three years ago to pursue her life-long dream of writing. "I'm one of those writers who's been hacking away for years, and never won anything or had anything published," she says. The judges selected the story because, in Boyd's words, "it knew exactly how to play with and exploit the potential of its naive narrative voice—what to say
but, far more importantly, what not to say—quite apart from its wit, and the undercurrent of sadness it explored without ever being sentimental."

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Sally Shaw on Barmouth, Sabotage Reviews

8 December 2020

It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s (Myriad Editions, 2019) is a collection of twenty short stories by award-winning writer and author of Sitting Ducks (Fair Acre Press, 2016) and Pondweed (Myriad Editions, 2020), Lisa Blower. The title of the book is a local saying used when the skies above the Potteries appear overcast and full of rain. A phrase used by the working classes, the colloquial term also denotes something is brewing and this is reflected in what Blower writes of people caught in unsettled times.

It's Gone Dark Over Bill's Mother's House book cover

I found the stories that include ‘Broken Crockery’, ‘Love, Alvin And Ramona’, ‘The Land Of Make Believe’ and ‘Dirty Laundry’ grabbed me with their Stoke-on-Trent locality, and sense of place. ‘Barmouth’ has it’s locality in Stoke-on-Trent as well as the familiar once yearly family holiday to the seaside. A beautifully funny, moving account of a family holiday and the impact of the relationship between a mother, daughter and grandmother. This story, as with many in the collection, is written in the first person which makes it a joy to read and ensures the impact of the ending is felt. Through a first-person perspective a reader can have a feeling of traveling with the protagonist, being in their world or situation from the first line of a story. In ‘Dirty Laundry,’ Blower has decided to write in the second person which gives the storytelling strength. With a ‘you’ narrative it provides the storyteller power to tell the story, free from being over sentimental or being overcome with emotion.

Dirty Laundry’ tells the story of Alma, forced into early retirement and, having lost money through poor company investment, she is made to face the realities of her life.

“YOU’VE BEEN READING about the cuts and Icelandic banks but you only put two and two together when you’re given your cards and see the state of your pension. You go and see Beattie—a steamroller of social action­­—who tells you to sit and stop shaking. You are fifty-eight, she reminds you, and not cheap. ‘Alma,’ she says, putting on bifocals to read your statement, ‘you’re lucky you even got that.’ A week passes. You’re awarded a spray of tropical stalks to thank you for your forty-three years of service in the Town Laundry. There is no porcelain figurine, though you’ve dusted the hearth ready, and not everyone’s found the time to sign your card.”

In this way, the reader is granted access to Alma’s past and present, revealing all that has impacted on her current emotional state and her building determination not to remain unseen. The second person unwraps the layers of Alma as she discovers what her life isn’t, and what it has now become, forever. “There are fifteen toilet rolls stashed to the side of the cabinet, four towels on the radiator, six bars of soap under the sink, and your wedding photograph, hung on the back of the bathroom door to remind Clive who you are.” Alma feels trapped and unfulfilled and taken for granted by her husband.

“The weeping overcomes you. You sit down on the toilet and wonder what you’re crying about. You realise it’s the towels: the way Clive crams them onto the radiator after his shower so they stay damp in the middle. You’ll see these things all the time now. You’ll know when he goes out and when he comes in, when it is he changes his underwear for you wash up to fifteen pairs each week.”

She sets up her own laundry business, to try to regain her self-worth and control. She knows her husband’s secrets and a daughter has a life she doesn’t understand but as she takes in other people’s dirty laundry, maybe there’s a way to change, so she’s no longer the unnoticed one.

Blower is wonderful at creating the different voices of her characters with her authentic dialogue and writing style. In ‘Broken Crockery’ the protagonist isn’t named or gender-specified and yet I know it is a child of ten or eleven and most likely a girl. ‘Broken Crockery’ is a story told with humour from the innocence of a child’s viewpoint at the beginning of the story and then that innocence is replaced by a knowing. Throughout the story I gained a sense of family and the nan is the head of this family.

It’s a story of pride, of Stoke-on-Trent, what Margaret Thatcher did to the working class and how in 2009 it’s not been forgotten, because there are people like Nan and her granddaughter. The girl’s mum tells her that her nan’s in hospital with Margaret Thatcher and, like her, she’s got a broken arm.

“Mum says my nan’s in hospital with Margaret Thatcher. She said she’d tripped over the hearthrug and broke her arm by smashing it on the fireplace. I’ve never liked that fireplace. I don’t like that china sausage dog that stares at me like I’m teasing it with something tasty in my pocket. When my nan’s not looking I hide it in the bin. Nan says that sausage dog is the last of the Potteries. It deserves to be on show to make everyone remember what this place was. Mum says that when Nan fell, she broke the sausage dog’s legs. Mum says bones get brittle. Sometimes, she says, they don’t even mend. I asked if my nan’s bones would mend. Mum said Margaret Thatcher could pay for new ones.”

It’s about a nan passing on a way of life and a mother struggling to keep it together.  They’re not a touchy-feely family: “Mum told me to give her a right big hug before she went to the hospital. ‘What for?’ I said. She said she needed it. I said I wanted to go too. She said I couldn’t because the buses were scary in the dark.” As the girl is left alone at home while her mum goes to the hospital with the card the girl has made, the girl remembers what her nan has taught her and thinks about being a vet when she’s big. Then her mum returns but is lost and the girl recalls all her nan has ever told her, and steps up to take control.

The joy of this collection is its sense of place and people. The stories let the working classes speak, let those who have come to Stoke-on-Trent from far away, like in ‘Abdul,’ tell their stories.

We see life through his eyes, or those who are brought up on the outskirts of the community, and we see them struggle to find out why, as in the story ‘The Land Of Make Believe’, they are given a chance to discover their place or journey. I enjoyed reading this collection because of its working-class roots and Blower’s accessible style of writing.

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Turnaround 2019 Fiction Staff Picks

11 December 2019

Collecting the short stories of award-winning author Lisa Blower, It’s Gone Dark is a quietly brilliant collection united by its roots in the North, and often by the working-class matriarchs that populate it. Dip into the first story, ‘Barmouth’, and you’ll be greeted with a family in the throes of domestic turmoil as they embark on a beach holiday. Elsewhere two women argue over ownership of a back-garden cherry tree, while in ‘Johnny Dangerously’ a group of kids marvel over the mysterious identity of a demin-jacket wearing teen. With a laser-focus on ordinary lives “written from the inside”, often overlooked, but no less compelling for it, It’s Gone Dark is well worth a read if you’re looking for a fresh voice in fiction.

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Paul Woodgate, The Short Story

13 November 2019

It’s when, in ‘Pot Luck’, a monologue pitched somewhere between Bennett and Bouquet, Mrs. Johnson describes with alarming clarity the array of poor and downtrodden outside her window, waiting to receive her thirty seconds of optimism and a bacon buttie. It’s when Alma wears her best apron when cleaning in ‘Dirty Laundry’, thoughts of her deceased brother counterpoint the mundanity of her household chores. In ‘Chuck and Di’, Di wonders if the staff on the QE2 ‘peg out’ the towels they wash daily, whilst considering such an effort a little too regular. In ‘Pick Up Your Socks’, a two page vignette that tucks a lifetime of love into a clothes drawer and leaves you impossibly uplifted, it’s the three-word sentence ‘Just like Daddy’Detail lifts these stories above the page. They play out in front of you like half-forgotten memories, just out of reach but always threatening to rear up and storm your senses. It’s in the details that Lisa Blower triumphs.

There are twenty stories in It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s. They benefit from a strong thematic core. Like all good short story collections, we are gifted the shoulder of assorted narrators, over which we enjoy a diversity of entry points, a variety of styles and a clarity and strength of voice that leaps from the prose. Add a confidence with tone and a mischievous way with an ending and It’s Gone Dark feels new every time you return to it. And you will return to it.

These are ‘North of Watford’ stories. The characters and locations adopt the burnished patina of a slowly disappearing, post-industrial Midlands, evoke Northern towns wreathed in the foggy output of factories and no-nonsense, what-you-see-is-what-you-get-attitudes. These people inhabit jobs where work is something you do with your hands, more often than not resulting in the creation of something tangible, be it a tall pile of starched shirts, the thin blue grace of gilded crockery or the release of human contact in exchange for next week’s electricity bill. They live in two-up two-down terraced houses in communities hollowed out by successive governments for whom they are yesterday’s problem. The world outside continues to turn but without their input. They stand like lost tribes at the edge of a forest, watching strangers stake a claim for a future they will never be offered. On the odd occasion that contact occurs, it generates a sense of bewilderment and frustration, a lack of understanding of what it takes to move to the rhythms, the speed, the all-encompassing madness of the twenty-first century.

These are also stories about women. Matriarchs, losers, no-hopers; the dreamers, the down-trodden and the damned, sometimes all in one character. For the most part we enter unannounced on crises of varying importance and by the time the lens withdraws, we are clutching desperately at the final paragraphs, begging to be allowed to stay and see it out, however grim the denouement may be. Which isn’t to say there’s no humour in these stories. There very much is. It’s well judged, handed out when least expected, offered in moments you might not consider deserving of levity, though it’s more the gentle underlying laughter of recognition than the roaring bark of stand up. It may be dark over Bill’s mother’s, but isn’t it always darkest before the dawn? Here you’ll find brash, brawn and bloody-mindedness, the fearful and forgotten. Regardless of demeanour, these women light up these pages with that curiously indefinable charm associated with West Country lip, Mancunian swagger or Merseyside scally, a wholesome, affectionate and self-mocking humour very much associated with the counties north of Milton Keynes.

Blower maps this physical and human geography with a light touch and a lifetime of knowledge. Every street, every tidy parlour, every well-swept front step or dead-end office are framed by the characters that walk, clean and curse in them. Even when characters stray beyond the reach of home and hearth they return, as if held on the end of a bungy line, ready to snap back into place; their place. You won’t find the false arrogance of the UK’s capital, the cheeky flirtations of Nell Dunn’s 60s heroines, in here. Their manufactured sass, all spit and shallow, has no place in these towns. Nan in ‘Broken Crockery’ would offer them short thrift. These are people of the earth, grounded; they rarely fly.

And yes, these are stories of the working class, and family. Extended, broken, displaced or despised, but with a core strength and an innate understanding of safety in numbers, the importance of staying or being together, even, sometimes, the grim acceptance that the Devil is better known.

‘Nan says that Margaret Thatcher was so mean that she gave all her money to the rich people to make more money, and left the poor people with hardly any money to buy shopping. My Nan can’t stand meanness. “You don’t spend life from a purse,” said my Nan. “If that woman was still in power I swear we’d have oxygen tanks on our backs feeding it coins like a jukebox for the air that we breathe.” I said, “Oxygen keeps you alive, doesn’t it?” Nan said “No, family keeps you alive.”’

To highlight stories seems unfair, but think of it like this; for every voice introduced here, there’s another that you won’t know until you read the book, turn the pages.

In ‘Chuck and Di’, the narrator’s capitalised paragraphs read like stage direction; a brilliant artifice. They strengthen the reader’s feeling of watching voyeur-like as the sour grapes of a relationship buffeted by lies, secrets, barely repressed violence and, ultimately, resignation, are thoroughly chewed over and spat out.

The three women in ‘Hoops’ are caught in an ever decreasing circle of fewer opportunities and fear. A mother in need of surgery, an alcoholic daughter with a baby and an immigrant boyfriend, and a second daughter quietly keeping a diary are thrown continually against the rocks of an overworked social worker and an ex-soldier with a closed mind. One is out of control, one has lost all hope and one stands outside the drama observing the quickening collapse of her family. Fear of the system, of bureaucracy, fear of ageing; fear of anything that isn’t comfortably local and a known quantity. Bitterness, lack of understanding and recklessness combine, but where you might expect a conflagration, the soft salve of acceptance blows through the finale and the reader is left wishing for something better for (almost) all of them. ‘Isis cried all night for Rae. Mam rang her mobile fifty-three times until Isis fell asleep then Uncle Chalky crept out of his room and stared at the baby for a very long time. Then he woke up Mam. “I said you’d end up her mother if she had her,” he seethed…’

There’s a perfect storm element in ‘The Trees In The Wood’. Nothing short of a psychological thriller, these fourteen pages throw a mentally ill out-patient and a palliative care nurse, whose own life is more than complicated, together in a spiral of separate worlds. As those worlds begin to weave together, it becomes clear that there’s very little separating us when social norms and barriers are stripped away, and the construct we prefer to think of as ‘normal’ breaks down. ‘You need to get the four corners in place which helps you to work on the edges, see? Then you fill in the main picture.’

The women spin ever faster, like atoms in the one small room, inevitably crashing against each other with results a bookie wouldn’t take odds on. Again though, Blower subverts the tendency of the reader to think ahead to a natural conclusion by flipping events on their head, pulling the pin and walking away so that you can observe the debris in a moment of stunned silence.

In ‘The Land of Make Believe’, Ruthie combines smarts and naivety in equal measure as she plots her way, without ever seeming defeated, through a life where the default from day one is bottom rung. In doing so, for those of us who remember them first-hand, Ruthie highlights a swathe of tragi-comic nostalgia for the 80s, from Bucks Fizz to Woolworths to Michael Hutchence’s crotch (Google it, but carefully). If Ruthie were a battery, she’d light up whole towns, but she’s always on the edge of the beam, never in the spotlight. This story is a fantastic example of how Blower works detail again, picking out threads you might initially think inconsequential before returning to them with simple, devastating effect.

‘Fron’ is discombobulating; eerie. You’re never quite sure where you are. It stands out from the other stories as a true genre piece. Even here there is the hint of a matriarch, in this case ignored, towards the end. Backstory, in ‘Fron’ and all the others, is drawn with one or two beautifully weighted sentences. You care about these people in the space of a paragraph.

Perhaps the most crushing of all the stories in the collection is the last one. ‘Abdul’ arrives in the UK from Afghanistan via an opening paragraph that would melt the coldest of hearts. His short journey with a volunteer is a brilliant dissection of what makes us different and what might bring us closer, a cultural yin and yang with an ending that leaves the reader with more questions than answers, just, I suspect, as Lisa Blower planned it.

It’s a fitting end to a carefully paced collection, one that messes with your assumptions, twists your expectations, before exceeding them by some measure. These stories are about the little earthquakes people get caught up in, the fault-lines beneath their feet that open up without warning and threaten to close around them, and how they reach for the light and an escape, or just the promise of one.

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Kerry Hudson for The Guardian

20 May 2019

When I used to tell people my books explore the working-class experience and the communities where I grew up, they often assumed they were miserable tales of drugs, drudgery, violence, fecklessness and sink estates. It’s true that these issues feature in my work – there is no way of avoiding the complexities of growing up poor and frustrated by society’s structural inequalities – but they’re only one small part. They also explore the hope, intelligence, humour and tenacity that are found in those same poorer streets.

Eventually I came to realise my shorthand description was part of the problem: the “working-class experience” is as broad and varied as anything you could call “middle-” or “upper-class”.

Two recent anthologies by writers who call themselves working class show just how wide this perspective can be. The contributors to the collection of essays, Know Your Place, and the selection of poetry, memoir and fiction, Common People, are of many different ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations. There are academics and autodidacts, people who are now financially comfortable alongside those who are still stony broke. Some of the writers in Common People are unfamiliar, with the editor Kit de Waal putting new voices next to established authors including Damian Barr, Malorie Blackman, Louise Doughty and Cathy Rentzenbrink. These bestsellers have already disproved the idea that working-class fiction is somehow niche, that it will struggle to find readers or critical engagement.

It always feels to me like a way of putting us in our place when people call working-class writing miserable, or gritty, or urban – the same accusation is rarely made when authors from other backgrounds write about heartache, hardship or conflict. Simon Kövesi examines and challenges the expectation of miserabilism in James Kelman, his study of the Scottish novelist. The “quotidian world” evoked by Kelman’s work, Kövesi argues, can instead be seen as “groundbreaking, influential and liberating”. Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy also explodes that expectation. His novels are full of rib-cracking, tar-black humour as they follow the trials and triumphs of the Rabbitte family.

Rainbow Rowell’s young adult novel Eleanor & Park is another example. This tender, joyful love story, with a heroine from the wrong side of the tracks, abounds with hope for adults and young people alike.

I’m not the only writer from a working-class background who has struggled with the idea that I’m not the sort of person who writes, that what I have to say is less valid because it isn’t said amid Oxford’s dreaming spires or around an Islington dinner table. When I feel this way, I turn to Janice Galloway’s memoir, This Is Not About Me. Her account of growing up in a small Ayrshire town is as perfect as any book has a right to be. Recently I’ve also discovered Lisa Blower’s short story-collection It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s, in which her hometown Stoke-on-Trent is the setting that binds together different narrative forms and a fearsome array of matriarchs. Both of these writers are firmly rooted in their lived experience, but transcend all the limitations and preconceptions surrounding work from communities seldom represented on the page.

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The Quietus

3 May 2019

In her new collection from Myriad Editions, It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s, Lisa Blower delivers a scathing indictment on the policies of the Thatcher era.

There was a time when you couldn’t eat a meal with any decency without the potters from Stoke... Can’t grow a bloody teapot for toffee any more. Four thousand kilns gone later and it’s gone that dark over Bill’s mother’s you realise just how much daylight those kilns let in.
(‘Pot Luck’)

The Staffordshire Potteries famously form the thematic bedrock of a series of novels by the great social novelist Arnold Bennett – Anna of the Five TownsThe Old Wives’ TaleClayhanger – whose work rigorously exposes the harsh working conditions in the ceramics industry at the height of the Industrial Revolution. A century later, the despoiled Midlands of the immediate post-Thatcher era is mapped with uncanny and devastating acuity in the work of the sadly deceased weird fiction writer Joel Lane, whilst the ambiguous, denatured land of shopping precincts and ‘new business opportunities’ is the subject of novels by Catherine O’Flynn and Kerry Hadley-Price. With a long-overdue resurgence of interest in regional writing, the stories and novels of Lisa Blower, which centre the lives and histories of the people left behind in the wake of successive government austerities, should be of paramount importance in putting the literature of the West Midlands on the map.

I first came across Lisa Blower when I was asked to review a book of short stories on the science of sleep (Spindles, Comma Press 2016). In what turned out to be a fascinatingly original anthology, Blower’s story ‘Trees in the Wood’, in which two grieving women come to make sense of their lives through the lens of the other, was a highlight for me. In this new collection of stories spanning nine years of published writing, Blower fulfils this first promise and then surpasses it. It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s is – in my own words from that earlier review – emotionally draining, hard-hitting and brilliantly written.

The overarching theme uniting this collection is family. In the collection’s lead story, ‘Barmouth’, which was shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Prize in 2013, an annual holiday in North Wales is the repeating motif in a narrative spanning several decades of one family’s history.

It’s 1982, around five o’clock. We’re at war with Argentina... I see all the things that haven’t changed and cheer at each one. The black spindle towers of the railway bridge, the flags at the top of the helter skelter, the neon lights of the prize bingo, the Shell Shop where I’d buy gifts for schoolfriends, the Smuggler’s Rest where I’d be allowed scampi, adult portion, and cheesecake.

The narrator’s enthusiasm for the holiday is gradually eroded as the years bring their changes: the narrator grows from being a hopeful, imaginative child into a troubled young woman who is forced to give up her own child for adoption. Her father is made redundant, then her parents divorce. Grandpa dies, Mother develops Alzheimer’s, the narrator’s sister escapes her difficult background to become an artist. The story works itself out through repeated patterns of language that are both painful and comforting, reflecting how family is simultaneously nurturing and an entrapment. The adult members of the narrator’s family are discontented people who lack the capacity to properly articulate their discontent. ‘I’m tired of just making do,’ says the mother at one point. ‘This isn’t about Barmouth.’ Such patterns and cadences of family strife are so familiar they are painful to read, though by the time the story closes the narrator has achieved a measure of stability.

In ‘Drive [in seventeen meanings]’ we find ourselves in the company of a mixed race teenage boy named Juke. As the story opens, Juke’s Thai mother is driving frenziedly towards the home of her sister. Slumped beside her in the passenger seat is Juke’s father, unconscious and bleeding from a stab wound. Life in England has not turned out the way Juke’s mother dreamed it would: the professional man she married has quit his university job to open a car wash, Juke is out of control and coming increasingly under the influence of a gang kid called Moth.

The story is structured in seventeen truncated episodes. Like scenes from a film, they intercut the narrative’s forward progression with the background leading up to it, though it is fury that is the real driving force of this story. Juke is in thrall to Moth but he fears him, too. He is desperate for help, and his mother’s seeming indifference to his situation incenses him. His mother is so deeply immersed in her own misery she is driving in circles. Her emotional appeal to Juke at the end of the story may yet offer a way of moving forward, for both of them.

Told in the second person singular, a technique that clearly reflects the inspiration Blower has drawn from Alan Bennett’s popular series of one-hander teleplays from the 1990s, Talking Heads, ‘The Land of Make Believe’ tells the story of a young woman, Dee, who finds herself pulling away from her family background and entering a no-man’s-land in which she fears she will never be properly accepted or understood. Dee’s mother is a sex worker and the single parent of four children. Indulgent of her eldest daughter’s passion for the pop group Buck’s Fizz, she encourages her to achieve her potential whilst warning her against forgetting where she comes from. ‘You’re too clever for your own good,’ Dee’s mother warns her, ‘and you’re wasting it already, because Cheryl Baker isn’t even Cheryl Baker. Her real name’s Rita Crudgington and don’t ever forget who you are.’

Dee’s classmates at the local grammar school seem determined to ensure that forgetting isn’t an option. ‘Your mum’s a slag,’ they tell her, ‘and shit breeds shit and scum like you from down the Abbey have no place being at a school like this’. Dee’s life as a student is marked by pent-up anger and a sense of alienation – she is not like other students, yet when stood against the backcloth of her own background she will always stand out:

The most formally ambitious of the family stories, ‘The Land of Make Believe’ is a moving and uncompromising narrative about class divisions and the pain of moving on, about the impossibility of escape and getting through anyway. This is a story of coming to terms with the sense of betrayal that often accompanies self-discovery, a story that reminds us that what most unites Blower’s family narratives is their sense of compassion.

‘Broken Crockery’ won the Guardian National Short Story Award in 2009, the year an ageing Margaret Thatcher was reported to have broken her arm in a fall at her home. The story is told by a young girl whose beloved Nan has just been taken into hospital. She conceals her anxiety about her sick grandmother within a fantasy about Nan and Margaret Thatcher being in hospital together. She is in no doubt her grandmother would have plenty to say to Mrs T:

It’s not very nice to do well at making people cry. Those people are called bullies... Maybe my Nan is bullying Margaret Thatcher and drinking all her Lucozade. Maybe Margaret Thatcher is still bullying my Nan even though she knows my Nan’s bones are broken. I hope my Nan has better pillows and more Get Well cards. I don’t want my Nan to be best friends with Margaret Thatcher. That would be weird. Margaret Thatcher would say our house was too small and needed a good bottom clean. She might even send my mum to war.

‘Broken Crockery’ is a beautifully poignant tragic-comedy, bursting with pathos and heart, cleverly dependent on the reader not only intuiting but remembering more than the child narrator understands. In this story, we are Nan, looking back at the Thatcher years, still not able to properly process the damage that has been inflicted. In the background, the young girl’s weeping mother must soon tell her daughter the news that will change her world forever.

In lives that have been shaped by such shattering blows, the trauma that recurs most often through these stories is the stress of redundancy. In ‘Pot Luck’, Mrs Johnson prepares food in her home for those who can’t afford a square meal in return for small donations. In words made brittle through anger, she charts the decline of living standards for ordinary people since the closing of the kilns. ‘I had a big life once,’ she insists. ‘But then his big job went, ping went the big dreams, and the big house got sold at a bargain bin rate... I remember standing in the shop, shortly after he left, seven pence short of a split bag of rice. Seven pence short of a split bag of rice. That’s when you start to think you’d rather die than ask the big queue behind you for a bit of small change.’

The end of the story sees Mrs Johnson addressing the reader directly, asking for help. In ‘Chuck and Di’, a less famous Di Windsor describes how the royal wedding turned out to be a boom time for the potters of Stoke, how her husband Charles, who works as a gilder, subsequently has a breakdown when he loses his job. Chuck sets up a business using his pension money, buying and selling commemorative china. As it turns out, Chuck’s business is more about buying than selling, and Di is finally at the end of her tether.

In these stories and more, Blower delivers a scathing indictment on the monetary policies of the 1980s, the mass redundancies that inevitably followed in their wake. As characters reflect on how having a job is about more than just money, these stories show again and again how family ties are eroded and communities destroyed. Blower is also not afraid to explore the more recent tensions that have arisen through the arrival of asylum seekers in already depleted communities. In the harrowing story ‘Hoops’, alcoholic teenager Rae is under threat of having her newborn daughter placed in care by social services. Rae’s boyfriend is Mo, an Egyptian asylum seeker consumed with guilt at having escaped the conflict in his homeland. Rae’s traumatised and racist Uncle Chalky is in hiding, a deserter from the British army in Iraq. The hopelessness of the situation for Rae’s mother Jean and sister Lo still does not prevent them from wanting to protect their loved ones.

In ‘Abdul’, longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2018, a social worker collects an Afghan asylum seeker from a holding facility in Kent to drive him to his allocated YMCA accommodation. Abdul believes he’ll be taken to Birmingham and expresses anger and frustration when he realises he is bound for Stoke instead. This story conveys a searing glimpse of the incalculable gap between the life this young man expected and what actually lies in wait for him, the equally unbridgeable gulf between the well-meaning narrator and her desperate charge.

In her acknowledgements for this collection, Blower mentions a ‘novel that didn’t make it’, but that nonetheless became the basis for several of these stories. I cannot help wondering if ‘Featherbed Lane’ – my personal favourite – is one of them. This story reads like part of a crime novel. Frances has returned to her home town after an absence of twenty-six years. She runs into an old classmate, Breda, in the supermarket, and soon discovers that Breda is now living in Frances’s childhood home on Featherbed Lane. We learn how Breda had a breakdown after her best friend was murdered, how she is convinced that Frances has been concealing the truth about what happened. There is more to the story, however, and when Frances gets talked into visiting Breda in her old home, she discovers that Breda’s obsession with the past is a cover for darker secrets of her own.

Blower makes superb and deliberate use of repetition in this story. Words, phrases and whole sequences of sentences appear again and again in an effect that mimics the recursive nature of memory, circling backwards in an attempt to recapture what is real, the stuck-record nature of imperfect recall. ‘Featherbed Lane’ unfolds as a series of flashbacks, or flash-photographs, and though the story works well as it stands, I did find myself hoping that Blower might one day consider returning to these characters and drawing out their histories at greater length.

Though the dominant mode of this collection is impassioned social realism, Blower reveals herself everywhere as a highly versatile writer, delighting in formal experimentation and linguistic inventiveness. ‘Fron’ is a ghost story, ‘Happenstance’ is told entirely through dialogue, ‘Prawn Cocktail’ is a deliciously wry little story about how to write a story. Most of all, Blower is finely attuned to the resonance of place and the music of speech. I came away from this collection with the sense that here is a writer who could take her talent in any direction she wishes.

It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s by Lisa Blower is published by Myriad Editions

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Bookish Chat

8 April 2019

When my good bookish pal Clare from Years Of Reading Selfishly brought this short story collection to my attention it made me feel quite emotional.

My lovely Dad who is no longer with us used to say ‘It’s gone dark over Dick’s mothers’ whenever the sky looked gloomy. He was called Bill….

Apparently the phrase is one that developed in the Stoke potteries area, often uttered by the working classes. Which was another huge draw for me to this book. The stories are all told by the northern working classes, many of which are matriarchal voices. I ADORE this!

The very first story ‘Barmouth’ tells of a working class family’s road trip to their annual caravan holiday. Within the first 3 pages I had read things which sparked memories of my own childhood holidays. It was like a warm comforting blanket despite the story going on to become not so chirpy!

Each of the subsequent stories are told through strong working class northern voices, be that matriarchs, children, men. Some of them are written in a northern dialect and come across as conversational, a lot of them told in the first person perspective which makes the reader feel like they are being drawn into a secret conversation.

Interestingly one of the stories Dirty Laundry Is written in the second person which is a perspective I don’t often come across but which I really enjoy, I think the last time I encountered this was with Montpelier Parade by Karl Geary.

The general themes of the stories in this collection are of normal family struggles, secrets held over a number of years and the difficulties encountered in normal family life when lines of communication breakdown.

I often say that with short stories I don’t always ‘get’ them but I enjoy the way they make me feel. With these stories there was a lot of reading between the lines and making assumptions about what could have happened, I love this. I enjoy a story that makes me think. The exception with this collection was a story called Happenstance which is a back and forth unpunctuated dialogue between two people in a bar. This was the one story that I didn’t quite gel with.

These stories are in equal parts comedic and achingly sad.  The Cherry Treeand Smear Campaign really stand out as extremely poignant stories in my mind. Good examples of the types of stories I went away to think about and ponder.

Dripping with nostalgia and a real sense of place, told through the down to earth northern voice, this is a collection about real folk and real struggles that will always have my heart, not least for the stunningly engaging writing, but also for the memories it stirred for me.

Thank you do much to the publisher for my advanced review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

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Rachel Darling, Faber

29 March 2019

I’ve read a few from this collection of stories – the title is an old potteries’ saying that means the outlook is bleak, a little like rain – and look forward to seeing more of Lisa Blower’s raw and starkly funny narratives, most of which feature working-class matriarchs so tough and uncompromising they make you weep.

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Nina Allan discussing Trees in the Wood from It's Gone Dark Over Bill's Mother's

27 December 2018

‘This leaves me in the kitchen with the twins, Margot and Henry, who have just turned five and are still in their school uniforms squabbling over jigsaw pieces under the kitchen table where they also now like to eat. I have told Mia that I don’t agree with them eating off the floor like dogs, but she says at least they’re eating and it keeps them quiet and I spot a few rubbery-looking pasta twirls on the floor and a dollop of what looks like hardened ketchup.’ Laura lives alone. She hasn’t been able to sleep since the death of her mother. She’s spending the night at Mia’s house on the advice of her doctor, that she should undergo a course of ‘sleeplessness with someone you trust’. Mia is a palliative care nurse with five-year-old twins, a teenage daughter, and a never-there husband. She’s completely exhausted. The two women share an evening. From between the cracks, secrets emerge. The details and textures of the women’s lives are utterly different—and yet there is something that each can give the other. An emotionally draining, hard-hitting story with an unexpectedly positive outcome. Brilliantly written.

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Shropshire Star

1 March 2018

I'm terribly excited about this. A collection of short stories by the brilliant writer Lisa Blower who is based in Shrewsbury. The arresting title of the book is It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s. Puzzled? It’s a Potteries saying that means it’s looking a bit bleak, looking a bit like it might rain.

Now, I absolutely loved Lisa’s last book, the highly-acclaimed novel of working class life in Stoke-on-Trent, Sitting Ducks. I've met Lisa a couple of times. Interviewed her once for a Chronicle article. Popped along to one of her creative writing talks. You know how it is. I now tell people that she's a personal friend of mine .... a bit like those people who went to school with Ringo's next door neighbour's cousin and then told everyone they were personal friends of The Beatles. Awww. Bless.

Anyway. Look out for this. With a sharp eye and tough warmth, Lisa Blower brings to life the silent histories and harsh realities of those living on the margins. The book isn’t officially out until next spring, but you can pre-order it at the Myriad publishers website.

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Morning Star

UNFLINCHING descriptions of sex, violence and addiction are less controversial than in the past but writers and publishers remain reluctant to tackle important aspects of human experience. Their refusal to talk about class led the writer James Kelman to accuse the literary establishment of treating people without money as if they should be swept under the carpet.

Lisa Blower lifts that carpet to explore lives deemed superfluous by business, media and government. Her well-rounded and convincing characters have limited choices as they face deprivation, disappointment and a relentless struggle for survival.

Blower has been compared to Alan Bennett — the monologue is her preferred form and she shares his knack for revelation through detailed observation and telling omission.

The similarity ends there. Blower’s purpose is to find a voice for people often dismissed as inarticulate. Her narratives are direct and accessible but there’s variety of both situation and style. Some are traditional monologues, others more dialogue driven; some are related from the first-person point of view, others use second-person; some are related by people struggling to survive, others by observers who have escaped the circumstances of those less fortunate.

Handled badly, a second-person narrative reads like a choose-your-own adventure game but Blower’s deft writing creates deeper engagement with the dilemmas of her characters.

There's a nod to Great Expectations in story The Land of Make Believe, in which the talented but struggling working-class Dee tries to fit in at Cambridge University and wants to understand her mother Ruthie, who works as a prostitute.

A touching and powerful tale, it’s freighted with wit and subtle complexities. Blower’s stories are grittily realistic but she relishes ambiguity and enjoys injecting humour into the darkest of situations. Her readers are treated with as much respect as her characters.

In another standout story, The Trees in the Wood, Mia experiences sleep deprivation as a result of grief, while Laura’s sleeplessness is caused by panic and anxiety. An affecting tale of women’s resilience in the face of tragedy, its many-layered narrative assesses the power of character-driven fiction in increasing our understanding of science and, as it does so, it highlights the risks modern life poses to sleep and health.

Alma’s life spirals out of control when she loses her job due to the Icelandic banking collapse in Dirty Laundry. Gradually, we learn of her other source of anguish and the story ends with a sense that all may not be lost.

This is a fine collection of 20 tough but tender tales by a writer who celebrates the lives of uncelebrated people with compassion and caustic wit. It’s by no means a depressing read — there are moments of hope as well as hardship.

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Literary Sofa

This is the final guest post from my first Sofa Spotlight of 2019 and (much later than usual) the first Writers on Location piece of the year, so I’m very pleased to be featuring award-wining short story writer and novelist Lisa Blower and her new collection It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s from independent publisher Myriad Editions.  Lisa’s many accolades include winning The Guardian’s National Short Story competition in 2009 and being longlisted in last year’s Sunday Times Short Story Award.  She also has a piece in the crowdfunded Common People anthology of working-class writers from Unbound – out in May – which I am really looking forward to both as a supporter and because it also includes my talented former mentee Jenny Knight.

There’s currently a big movement underway to increase opportunity and exposure for under-represented voices, including the working class and regional kind central to Lisa’s work; whilst this and anything celebrating them is great, I also hope the day comes when they’re as ‘common’ in publishing as in the real world.  It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s is proof of the ordinary yet extraordinary storytelling we cannot afford to miss out on, showing remarkable depth of voice, character and human bonds.  The first story, Barmouth, reveals a woman’s life over many years through the recurring motif of family caravan holidays; I re-read it this morning and was no less moved and awed than the first time by everything it manages to convey.  It’s Brokeback Mountain good.  As Lisa explains, place can be the ideal starting point for a short story that hugely messes with your heart.

Stoke-on-Trent. It’s a sneeze south from where the ‘north’ begins and skirts the arctic tip of where the Midlands ends. One of the most accident-prone sections of the M6 snakes around its west edge. To the east, the Peaks. Smoke-on-Trent. It was a good day if you could see Longton, as the saying went, being one of the six towns – Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Tunstall and Stoke; six hearts that beat disharmoniously, says Linden West, which makes the place somehow placeless. It was recently rubbished as the most ardent Brexit city in the UK. According to Orwell, it was uglier than Sheffield. Even The Sentinel ran a tongue-in-cheek article on why you shouldn’t visit. No history, apparently. Nothing to see or do, and you might remember the Garden Festival washout in ‘86. Rather like a Staffordshire oatcake recipe and the correct way to eat it, everyone has an opinion on Stoke-on-Trent. As Arnold Bennett wrote, “Beauty was achieved. But none saw it.”

It’s why It’s Gone Dark over Bill’s Mother’s felt like an apt title for a collection of stories that mine the pits, pots and poets I grew up with. Where I played in the Backs behind the Leek New Road, or sat listening to my Nan’s stories and scruffy wisdom. We’d spend weekends walking the towpaths around Stockton Brook before heading home to tape the charts, a pan of lobby on the stove. Not since Arnold Bennett has a writer given what was the pride of every dinner table a voice, yet I hear all my stories in that voice. They come to me in a broad Stoke accent and mid-conversation because unless I specifically inform you otherwise, Stokeys are always talking, to poach from Martin Amis’ John Self. And I’m stood outside Hunt’s sweet shop where I was too small for a gobstopper surrounded by a chattering of matriarchs with their strong communality and confounding sense of accepting rather than expecting, yet waiting all the same. For what? That would be telling.

Because it was a peachy childhood, despite the smog, strikes, and Thatcher gunning for the unions back in the early 80’s; my mum making us all wipe our feet on a Vote Conservative board before she put it out for the dog to do his business on. We lived in Baddeley Green with a downstairs bathroom, galley kitchen and a twin-tub pulled out every Monday; a place cuddled by two main roads that peeped out from between Milton (where we did our big shop), Endon (where we went to school) and Light Oaks (where we went sledging): and green it was on the A53 heading out to Leek, and from there we looked back in at our past generations: the stalwart citizens of the Potteries working-class who owned neither a car, passport or mortgage but were the vital participants in its industry. Any potter worth their salt will flip over a plate seeking Made in Stoke-on-Trent because at least someone in their family will have had a hand in making it. And that’s what I wanted to capture.

The voices of those for whom life generally happens elsewhere, to paraphrase Alan Bennett, but were living nonetheless, and contributing to history. Those too busy to go in for all that ‘woman’s stuff’ as they called it, or told me that ‘with too much education comes too much choice,’ and that ‘no-one wants to be retired with no grandkids.’ If you got ill, you didn’t dwell on it because that would make you ill. If you’d bought yourself a new hearth rug for the front parlour you never sat in, you were ‘that smug you’d think her Auntie’s up from Brighton.’ Nope, I still have no idea what that means, as I was too young back then to understand the impact of their words upon me now.

I guess that’s how the stories in Bill’s Mother’s came about. ‘Put big light on, duck,’ I thought. What was really going in those hope-thin walls behind that new Roseby’s net as everyone sat around the telly as if it were a vital organ? Because no-one really went anywhere in Stoke-on-Trent. ‘We’ll go when it’s warmer,’ they’d say, as if other places had no central heating. And then this mass pilgrimage to static caravans in North Wales during Potter’s fortnight and knowing that this was as abroad as you were ever going to get.

The trick to writing about Stoke is not to observe but to listen, and then whilst you’re listening, help yourself to an oatcake with melted cheese. You’ll find real beauty in that simple slice of life.

This is top notch short fiction, showing remarkable depth of voice, character and human bonds.  The first story, Barmouth, is magnificent and made more of an impact on me than many novels.

A big thank you to Lisa for this gorgeous piece.  All I can recall of a long ago journey through Stoke-on-Trent is the bus station so definitely feel I’ve got more of a handle on the place now!

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