The Sleeping Princess – London and Edinburgh

TL;DR – The Sleeping Princess is coming to the Edinburgh Fringe, and there are two final preview shows in London this week! Details below 🙂

Well, the months roll on and this blog is still pretty quiet – between working on the show and dealing with a hefty dose of personal / health-related stuff, I hope you’ll understand that my energy’s been needed elsewhere.

Still! The Sleeping Princess (alongside Fay Robert’s beautiful The Selkie) has now been to London, Oxford, Cambridge (as part of the In Other Words literary festival) and Stony Stratford (as part of the Stony Live! festival), and I’ve been delighted by the reception. The good people of Cambridge even got some great shots of me performing! (I get very anxious about pictures of myself, so believe me when I say it’s a big compliment that I’m sharing them here…)

And things are heating up even more – I’m taking The Sleeping Princess up for the first week of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as part of the Spoken Word contingent of PBH’s Free Fringe. I’ll be performing at Silk (Venue 444) at 21:45, from the 6th to the 13th (except the 10th). I’m not listed on the official Fringe website because of the high cost and early deadline, but I’ll be in the Free Fringe’s Wee Blue Book 🙂

I’ve also got two shows on in London this week:

Thursday 14th at the Dogstar, Brixton, as part of Stand Up Tragedy’s Edinburgh previews season. Doors 19:30, Rosie Wilby’s show The Conscious Uncoupling begins at 20:00, and I’m on at 21:15. I’m really excited about this one – I love the Dogstar and have many great memories of it both as a performer and spectator, plus I’m looking forward to hearing Rosie’s show. The Dogstar also does fantastic pizza, so come early and get dinner with your drinks! Unfortunately the Dogstar’s performance space is upstairs, so wheelchair-users may wish to direct their attention to the second performance below…

Saturday 16th at the Poetry Cafe, Soho. Doors 19:00, an open mic begins at 19:15, and I’ll be on directly after the open mic. I’d love to hear other people’s magic-infused poems and stories, so if you’ve got something to share then please do bring it! This was the place where Fay and I debuted our shows back in April, so it feels fitting to finish by returning there. It’s a lovely, cosy venue, serving cake, soup, and a range of delicious drinks both hot and cold. The performance space is accessible via a lift.

So those are my upcoming shows. Hooray! Hopefully see you there?

Why I write the fairytales I do

Originally posted on The Oxford Playhouse website, in advance of my performance on April 2nd. (Said performance has now been reviewed on The Daily Info – click here to read, if you don’t mind some details of the plot!)

I have always been fascinated by fairytales. I grew up with them, and never really grew out of them. This Saturday, I’ll be performing work from my poetry and storytelling project Red Hoods and Glass Slippers – a journey through multiple interlacing fairytales, where every action leaves ripples in the world.

The world of fairytales is one of mirroring and transformation: not just in terms of the magic that can feature in the plots, but of how fairytales interact with each other. Many of the stories we think of as ‘classic’ or ‘canonical’ fairytales are more like snapshots: each one a single preserved moment in the life of a story that has been passed down generations and changed with every telling. Fairytales mirror each other: every single character archetype and plot structure in a ‘classic’ tale can be found in others –there’s an entire categorisation system (the ATU index) dedicating to tracing them.

And fairytales transform: they are stories with lessons, and the lesson depends on the teller and their culture. Red Riding Hood is a story about what today we would call ‘stranger danger’ – but what is its lesson? In early versions, where she tricks her way out and deals with the wolf herself, it’s a lesson about being cunning and resourceful. When the story shifts to her being rescued by a huntsman, it becomes a cautionary tale about the perils of disobedience. And today, the symbolism of the story – a red cloak, a hairy male predator, an innocent girl who has been given instructions on how to stay ‘safe’ – has taken hold to the extent that it’s increasingly hard to find a modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that isn’t on some level a Freudian fable about sexual awakening and/or sexual violence.

This rich vein of symbolism in fairytales is one reason they stick with us. These are not just stories about fairies and witches and woods. These are stories about sex, love, death, hunger. These are stories about inheritance and abuse and loss and bravery and kindness and victory. Their familiar patterns offer us comfort and catharsis; their sketched-out characters enact morality plays and rites of passage. Fairytales are powerful. At their best, they teach us how to be human. And so it should be no surprise that as we change, so too do our stories and the lessons they carry.
When I reimagine fairytales, I want to take the mythic weight that lurks behind the deceptive simplicity and bring it to the fore. I want to tell stories about what it means to be human, to love and suffer and want and lose. I want to expose the dark power dynamics underlying so many ‘happy endings’, and make space for tenderness in stories of pain and hardship. I want to investigate the motives behind – and personal cost of – the familiar stories we often take for granted. (What does it feel like to wake from a hundred-year sleep, in a changed world? Why doesn’t Cinderella just leave her stepmother’s home? What kind of person finds a girl in a coffin and kisses her?) I want to tell the fairytales I wish I could have read when I was younger, because someone out there is still wishing for them.

Red Hoods is ultimately an invitation to see fairytales differently – to place yourself in the shoes of characters both familiar and strange, and experience these old stories through new eyes. I hope you’ll join me.

Our opera, “The Lion-Faced Man” – last chance to buy tickets at ÂŁ5!

Hello, internet!

Yes, once again it’s been a long while – I’ve been working on a number of things, and this blog dropped way down the priority list. Oh well! I’ll catch you up eventually.

You’ll be hearing more about this particular project soon, but for the moment here’s the short version: I wrote an opera with CN Lester and it’s showing at King’s Place in London this August. There are two showings a day, on the 8th and 9th, and today’s the last day to get your tickets for a fiver before they go up to ÂŁ7.50.

Would you look at others differently if you knew you couldn’t look away?
Stephan Bibrowski: sideshow performer, urban legend, aspiring dentist – touted by Barnum and Bailey, inspiration to Jean Cocteau.
A new opera for mezzo Alison Wells and static image.
What makes us think we can know the man behind the myth?

Buy a ticket here, if you’re so inclined. Spaces are rather limited, and the show is not suitable for children or people with claustrophobia.

New poem recording – “Blood on the Snow” (happy Yuletide, everyone!)

Hello, internet!

I wish you all a very happy Yuletide, Christmas, Solstice, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Winterval, and any other thing you might be celebrating around this time of year.

Here is a present for you – a wintry tale of the supernatural, from back when faeries and elves were considered rather more terrifying than they are today. The audio is below; If you want/need a textual version, click here for a PDF version (tagged for accessibility in accordance with the WebAim guidelines).

(I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine the Wild Hunt being led by a sparkly flower fairy or one of Santa’s helpers… although now I’ve said that, I’m half expecting to Google it and find pictures of a blood-soaked Tinker Bell with a changeling under each arm?)

[Content note: humans being hunted for sport.]

Note: being happy

I was going through some old notes and found this from September. A friend has requested I put it up on the public interwebs so they can share it, so here it is!

It’s not necessarily a case of making your peace with the way things are and accepting that they will always be like this forever. It’s really not. But if you can’t find a way to be sustainably happy as you are now? That’s a problem. You can’t stake everything you have on making yourself miserable until you reach this mystical goal where you’ve done everything Just Right and now you’re happy, particularly if you’ve never even experienced the circumstances you’re expecting to Fix Everything when you attain them. You need to find ways of being happy, NOW, and then reaching your goal (if you do) is a bonus. Take your joys with you into the landscape of your traumas. Find space outside. Carve a niche where you can rest from it. You can’t gamble everything on working yourself to the bone.

Cops on horseback and post-Ferguson shudders

NOTE (added after writing but before posting): I talk about race and Ferguson and police brutality in this post, but if you’ve not been reading about these things already, then please: don’t read this. Read something else. My voice is not an important one here -I’m white, British, and have never been on the receiving end of structurally racist state violence. Go read what American people of colour have to say about Ferguson and other instances of racist police brutality – there’s a lot at The Root, Racialicious, and Colorlines; if you’re a Twitter person then look at #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe, #ThisMustStop. They’re the voices that need to be heard, over and above those of white people. But I’m adding my voice on here because – per these two articles about white allyship – silence can be oppressive too. White voices absolutely should not be central to this discourse, but they should be raised in support and solidarity. We should be angry. We should be upset. We should be viscerally horrified by, and ashamed to be benefiting from, a system that is shot through with such prejudice and violence. The post that follows is kind of rambling and written on less than five hours sleep; it is mostly about the internal landscape of me-the-white-narrator and as such is really really not something that should be at all centred in this discourse; but I’m posting it with this caveat because ultimately I think I’d rather say to the world “here are some of my feelings about the police and racist violence” than say nothing at all and be another silent white person awkwardly not posting about this at all. (POC: If I have still screwed up in so doing, please tell me and I will listen.)


I saw three mounted police officers in a built-up area of London today, and my first feeling was one of terror for the people who lived in the neighbourhood.

This was kinda new to me. In the village where I grew up, police on horseback were not an uncommon sight – and indeed, there were generally quite a few people (civilians!) on horseback knocking around the village, so the sound of hoofbeats could just as well mean Farmer Jones or little Jemima’s riding lesson as it could mean Bobbies on Dobbin. (Bobbies. Tommies. Isn’t it funny how we’ve given cute friendly names to the perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence and murder? Names that make them sound like adorable little boys playing dress-up and starry-eyed over Glory and Honour and Serving Their Country?) So – clip-clop cops are things I do not find strange. But in the past few weeks there has been this… relentless dizzying focus on the police as agents of violence, in both broad structural ways and in bone-crunchingly immediate ways. (Mostly the American police, although seriously let’s not kid ourselves that the UK police are saintly – they may not make such liberal use of guns, but political demonstrators are still routinely met with violence, and I hope nobody’s forgotten about Jean Charles de Menezes.)

Ferguson is dominating my newsfeed right now, and on top of that there seems to be a new story every other day displaying the same pattern of police violence against black people going unpunished, unacknowledged, inadmissible. I’m told by American friends that this is the status quo – but the focus on Ferguson means that racist police violence is getting reported more often and disseminated more widely. White officers killing black members of the public with no fucking repercussions, even when they’re unarmed, even when they’re holding their hands above their heads, even when there are multiple witnesses, even when it’s caught on film, even when the coroner literally fucking rules it a homicide. So I see three white police officers clip-clopping about on their immense draft horses, and all I can think is: oh shit. This neighbourhood is somewhere a hell of a lot of economically-disadvantaged people of colour live, and there are mounted police riding around and talking on their radios. Something awful is about to kick off, someone is going to get their head smashed in by a truncheon, someone is going to have their child or partner or parent not come home tonight and not know what’s happened until they see their loved one’s face on the news alongside justifications about why they deserved to die. Shit. It’s going to happen, here, now, and I have no idea what to do or how to help when it does.

And that sense of dread – it’s nothing, compared to what so many people of colour are constantly forced to deal with. It was small, it was fleeting, and it was fear for the lives and safety of other people rather than for myself. It was a glimpse of a very mild version of something terrible that I can’t imagine the extent of. It was a single moment of my evening rather than a constant presence in my life. And I’m still shaken enough to vomit out a blog post about this. It’s not news to me, on an intellectual level, that the police frequently enact structural violence – racism, sexism, queerphobia – but I’ve never really felt it before, an instinctive shudder at the sight of hi-vis vests over dark uniforms, and glossy muscular horses that could run people down easy as breathing.

I hung around and watched them for a while, worried. Eventually I asked an officer what was happening – apparently “there was an incident”, that’s all I got told. There were parents with children wanting to pat the nice horsies – and other adults hanging back, nervous. I hope like hell that nothing happened after I left.

I don’t know how to end this post in a coherent way. So I’ll just say I’m horrified by everything I’ve heard and seen about what’s been happening in and around Ferguson. The white-supremacist world we’ve built and maintained is toxic and violent and none of this bullshit is even slightly okay. I want us to keep waking up to it, to keep listening to those who know what it is like to live under its shadow, to understand even a fraction of the rage and fear and horror that this systemic brutality necessarily merits, and to join the fight against it.

Made-up words

*bzzt – bzzt – crackle*

We interrupt our scheduled radio silence to bring you this important broadcast –

ALL WORDS ARE MADE-UP WORDS. We did not find naturally-occurring words washed up on the beach. We did not crack open fruit and find words spelled out in glistening seeds. We did not hew words out of the living rock. Words are of human origin. WE MADE THEM UP.

Yes, some of them were made up by long slow processes of making noises at each other over thousands of years, while some were deliberately bolted together very recently out of existing words and roots and suffixes and prefixes, and others emerged from the bubbling stewpot of all the words in current usage. And yes, some words have been made up more recently than others. But if you’re discounting words like “genderqueer” and “cisgender” (and “sie/hir”, “intersectional”, “allistic”, and basically any words to come from marginalised groups), I sure hope you’re  discounting words like “smartphone” and “fracking” too.  They’re all as made up as each other. That’s what we DO – we make up new words when the words we have aren’t enough to describe the world around us, or the experiences we have. Language is constantly changing and evolving. Words reflect our reality, but they also set the terms of it. (Hey, didn’t I post an audio poem about precisely that?) Adapting language is not a trivial thing: it is powerfully legitimising. It is adding your truth to the terms which govern and delimit existence – it is expanding the category of the “real”.*

And fellow Anglophones, we really don’t have any excuse for this kind of prescriptivism – the Oxford English Dictionary, i.e. the foremost authority on the English language, adds hundreds of new words (or new usages of old ones) every damn year. If English had never changed then we’d all be reading Beowulf without a translation; and yet there’s always someone who seems to think that English-as-it-is-right-now is the pure, immutable, “correct” form and everything after this arbitrary cut-off point is Wrong. All it takes to see the absurdity is to imagine people tutting over Shakespeare for all the words he “made up”. And then imagine a few generations later: These kids today, with their barefaced assassination of our mother tongue! What remorseless savagery they show in besmirching our majestic language! (Yes, those are all Shakespeare.)

(This post brought to you by a friend’s request that I actually blog the things I rant about in conversation, and this thing in particular.)

* (I have a feeling “the terms which govern existence” is a phrase I’m quoting, but – aptly? – it seems to have fallen into my own idiolect enough that I’m not sure where it came from now, and Google is just presenting me with information about governments. Thanks, Google. Thoogle.)

100 poems in a day for Refuge – please donate!

THE SHORT VERSION: On the 15th of August 2014, I will be attempting to write 100 poems in a day, to raise money for Refuge. Sponsor me here. Domestic violence services are facing cuts and it’s vital that they can continue their work. I’m joining Claire TrĂ©vien, Tori Truslow, and Cat Conway in this endeavour – follow our team here! – and we’re aiming to raise over ÂŁ2,500. So please, even if you can’t donate, consider signal-boosting this post in case someone else might?

I’ll be writing the poetry on postcards, which will be posted my shiny new Tumblr poetry-postcards so I can update frequently without burying everything on my main blog. Feel free to send me writing prompts! If you donate, I will make absolutely certain your prompt gets written – AND I’ll send you your choice of postcard by snail-mail.

THE LONGER VERSION: I’m taking a moment to remind you, dear readers, that the day after I come back from the Edinburgh Fringe, I will be attempting to write ONE HUNDRED POEMS. One hundred poems in a day. That’s the 15th. Which, as you probably know, is VERY SOON. And I’m doing it to raise money for Refuge, because they work they do in supporting victims/survivors of domestic violence is really important. So far I’ve hit ÂŁ130, and I am immensely grateful to all the generous folk who have donated so far, but – but, but, but – I am aiming for ÂŁ1000. 100 poems and 1000 pounds both seem impossibly distant, but you know I love a challenge to throw myself bodily against, so please, if you can spare the money, donate some. And if you can’t spare the money, then donate something else – a prompt, an ideal, a potential title, a picture you want a poem telling the story behind… anything. And I may well write about it.

If you want to make sure I write your prompt, throw me some money. If you want one of the postcard poems, throw me some money. Remember: if you like my poetry, this is your chance to have a poem written JUST FOR YOU. On a postcard. And then sent to your actual home through the actual post. It’ll be just like the Elizabethan era – poetry, ON DEMAND. Okay, I’ll be Shakespeare, you can be the Earl of Southampton or Sussex or something. Give me money and I’ll give you art. Possibly very caffeine-rich, sleep-deprived art. And then I’ll give said money to people who need it an awful lot more than me. Isn’t this basically the perfect deal? (Well, probably not, but hopefully it’s at least quite good.)

Thank you so much reading – please pass this on if you can!

Why this blog keeps going quiet

It’s rare for me to post an entry here without editing it several times – and when I do, I usually end up regretting it, feeling like I’ve short-changed my readers or failed to express myself as clearly or as eloquently as I could have done. Writing this now, and posting it now, is something of an experiment – or perhaps a plunge, into the deep end of a rather ominous-looking pool.

Although openness (and the vulnerability that goes with it) is something I look for in the writing of others – and indeed, strive for in my own work when it comes to poetry and fiction – it’s hard to divorce my writing on this blog from a need to appear ‘professional’. Calm, composed, collected, in control of my life. After all, that’s what this blog is for – it’s not like pseudonymous blogs I’ve previously had, it’s an Official Outpost for Information About Hel Gurney (Writer, Activist, Poet, Et Cetera). It’s probably the first thing someone finds when they google my name, and the idea that my innermost thoughts will just be sitting around waiting to be read by anyone with an internet connection is… well, terrifying.

Ironically, there’s a half-written blog post about moving away from the illusion of perfect professionalism and towards a more organic, conversational, open, vulnerable mode of communication on this blog – but, y’know, I haven’t finished drafting and redrafting and redrafting it to make it express that idea perfectly, so on the pile it stays. (Perhaps even more ironically, was titled Towards Ugliness.)

But this is ridiculous. I’m a writer. I write not because I want to construct a perfect mechanical self to impress everyone around me with my sparkling wordplay, a perfect untarnished statue-self which will outlast the ages and stand in testament to my sharp wit and incisive mind. (I mean, that would be kind of cool, if deeply weird, but that’s not the point.) I write for the same reason I read – because the flawed, messy, struggling, imperfect human that I am wants to find a connection with other flawed, messy, struggling, imperfect humans. Those connections are one of the things that can make reading so magical, and I feel the other side of that magic whenever someone tells me that my writing – a poem, an essay, a story – has captured something for them, taken a feeling they’ve had and just… articulated it. This Alan Bennett quote has been doing the rounds among my Facebook friends recently, and it sums it up so well:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

So. The openness and vulnerability that is vital to most of my other writing – well, I’ve not been doing so well at bringing it here. For the most part, I gloss over the hard times, skim over the crushing lows, and most of the time when I have to make a decision between posting something that’s imperfect but mostly-finished and slipping back onto the pile for further editing in the ill-defined future… well, obviously, I go with the latter, which is why my blog is curiously empty even though my Facebook is full of multi-paragraph status updates that look for all the world like short blog entries. There’s something about the highly public nature of a public blog – as opposed to the semi-public self-curated spaces people can build on social media – that makes writing on here so intimidating. The feeling of this being a permanent record – because the internet never forgets, in the age of the wayback machine – and the scariness of doing growing and learning in public, in setting down opinions I may change or struggles I may never overcome. But it’s important. Connecting with people is important. Bringing down the walls, finding your community, giving and receiving both support and challenges. It’s why I do what I do, which is why I need to do it more here.

Like most of the other times I’ve written something emotional on here, there’s a catalyst for this post. This time it’s not a bereavement or a pressing need to come out. It’s just… a cumulative sense that I’m strangling myself with perfectionism. I have so many half-written essays I want to post on here – so many things I’ve tried to articulate, and maybe got 80 or 90% of the way through – and it kept coming down to this: feeling too afraid to put something out there in case Something Nebulously Terrible happens. (Something nebulously terrible but probably involving flame-wars in the comments.) And then I was sent a link to a post by Meg Barker, and this message really jumped out at me:

When we withdraw and erect all these barriers we end up in more pain ourselves. We’re also more likely to hurt other people as we bump against them in all that armour, bruising them and encouraging them put up their own defences to avoid getting hurt.

The alternative is gradually softening instead of hardening: opening up instead of closing down.

So. This is me clawing a hole in the barriers. Writing something and letting it be imperfect. Saying that things are hard, rather than that they were hard but I’m okay now. I hope I’ll be posting something here again soon.

[Extra note: I then procrastinated by trying to find the link to a really good post I read years ago about the links between perfectionism and procrastination! I’ll put it here if/when I find it.]

A sonnet for queer musicians

I first wrote this sonnet after seeing CN Lester perform classical music at King’s College Chapel. Last night I saw The Fourth Choir – an LGBT chamber choir – perform there. As a queer former King’s College student who had a few unpleasant experiences with KCL’s religious elements, seeing the chapel become a space that gave a platform to LGBT musicians was wonderful. So. Here is a sonnet – traditional but heartfelt.

It’s time. The audience anticipates
your fingers on the burnished keys: and more,
they crave the silver sound your throat creates
and sets to dance across the chapel floor –

where, growing golden, it ascends and spills
until the rafters and the song within you
are woven as one thing that thrums and thrills.
Can such a sound be made by flesh and sinew?

By stars and spheres is music surely made,
not spittle, bone, and base embodiments.
But this is human, blazing and displayed
in its perfection drawn from diligence.

And when such songs are hammered from the heart
then this, we know, is music: this is art.


King's College Chapel, taken from

King’s College Chapel, taken from