Open submissions to Test Signal closed on 6 February 2020. On 16 March, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, began encouraging social distancing. A week later, he announced the first nationwide lockdown.
From the start, Test Signal was envisioned as a wide-ranging and collaborative project that bridged the gap between the North of England and the publishing industry largely based in London. The idea was to create opportunities and build lasting connections through collaboration. Aside from the book you hold in your hands, Test Signal was about events, networks and participation.
Obviously, we were forced to swiftly reconsider our plans and adapt to an ever-changing environment. Test Signal ended up being put together in isolation – judged over Zoom, edited from home, produced in an environment where many of us naturally wanted to bury our heads under duvets and scream into the void. But good news is something that we always need and, however small, the production of this book is good news.
It took 281 Kickstarter backers, C&W Literary Agency, New Writing North, Bloomsbury Publishing and my own press, Dead Ink Books, to bring Test Signal to fruition, but here we are: twenty-two writers in the North compiled into one book showcasing the talent, variety and originality of literature in the North of England.
There were open submissions that invited anybody residing in the North of England to enter their work, we approached literature organisations in the region for recommendations, and we begged some of our own favourite writers to take part. The result is a book that highlights writers from a number of different disciplines, at different stages of their career and from every corner of this beautiful and inspiring region. Unlike anthologies you have read before, this one will not hold together as a whole united by a single theme or cause. Instead, our goal here is variety. The only condition for consideration was that an author be based in the North when they submit. This book is a snapshot of Northern writing at a moment in time, and that is how it is intended. If in future years we are to repeat this endeavour to the extent that we have a series, I hope that series provides a stop-motion montage of changing tastes, preoccupations and trends. If the North is anything, it is alive and it is always evolving, adopting, reinventing.
It may be that not every entry in this book is to your liking, but we hope our efforts towards variety are appreciated and every reader can find more than a few writers contained within these pages that they can become passionate about and champion.
I say champion, because if Test Signal demonstrates anything, it is that the literary landscape is malleable, and you can participate in it. I do hope that this project demonstrates that to you and you feel empowered by taking part in it – and by reading this book you are taking part. To those not involved in the industry, literature and publishing can seem like far-off things that exist within gated compounds and are fiercely guarded by people who are not like us. How many times do we hear the metaphor of ‘knocking on doors’? This book, if used for anything, should be used as a wedge to keep that door open.
Literature is participatory. On the most basic level, all you need to take part is a pen and paper. That might be somewhat of an over-simplification that ignores the connections, networks and cultural capital that actually make things move within the industry, but it does hold true to an extent, and everything else is just a matter of organising. Books exist to serve readers, and it is ultimately the reader that holds all of the power in the sometimes antiquated processes that come together to make books into an industry. But power must be recognised to be useful, so we’re thankful that 281 people recognised their power and supported this project when it was nothing more than an idea.
The events of 2020, and now 2021, may have forced us to reconsider our original plans for Test Signal, but in one respect we already know that it is a success – you hold it in your hands! I hope that this book inspires you to support the writers you believe in, the literature in the area where you live, and yourself and your ability to enact change. Power within publishing ultimately lies with the reader, and through organisation it is possible to use that power for positive change.
In the great scheme of things, perhaps that doesn’t mean all that much, but change comes from a lot of small victories, and today I feel like a small victory is valuable enough to cling to. Perhaps it can even inspire more small victories?
Test Signal has been a joy to work on, even if that work has been done beneath a tremendous pressure from outside. Despite all of the chaos and the uncertainty that has come our way since we began this project, working on it at my desk from my home office has always been a refuge – a small place in the world in which I can place my efforts into something positive and forward-thinking. It took a great deal of collaborative effort to bring this book to this point, and although I’m not at all sure what the future holds for anything at this point, I am sure that the connections, relationships and collaborations that formed during this project will continue to grow, and positive change will emerge from them.
Not My Usual Practice – Tricia Cresswell
It is slack water time and the log barely moves, debris pooling round it, mermaid’s hair. The sun is up, midsummer early, but the world is still sleeping. I know this time well now, in my new life here, high above the Tyne.
The log rolls and something white moves outwards; the mermaid has an arm. I look away from foolishness. It is not a body and I will not look at it again, but when I do the whiteness is clear in the strengthening daylight. The previous owner left binoculars: a present, he said, when I moved here last year. Just a cheap pair, for looking at the cormorants and kittiwakes, he said, certainly not strong enough to see into the windows of the flats on the far bank. Strong enough, though, for me to see the naked torso, the face half covered in tangled hair, the arm outstretched on the oily water.
My eyes water as I squeeze them tight shut, then open them again, and look through the binoculars, again. I do not think I am mad, not now. I can see a body, and the tide is turning. My pulse starts to race and I feel the heat rise up my neck and the cold sweat begin to run. The mantra: do not think ahead; do not rehearse what happens; do not think about the questions, the police, the media. Do not hyperventilate. Do not.
Keys and phone and yesterday’s jeans over my pyjamas and then I run out of the flat and down the stairs and down again to the quayside path.
The body is still there but moving a little now, bobbing in the water as, to the east, the sea ebbs. Not a woman but a man, his long beard and hair twisting slowly across his face and naked chest. His legs are covered, trousers or no, are they wrapped together? How strange to feel curious. Then the head rolls towards me and the wide-open, glaucous eyes look at me. Soon he will be gone, hard to find as the river takes him away to the sea. I press 999. There is an initial slight pause from the call handler as I describe the body but I use my no-longer title to make her take me seriously. I am joined by a jogger as I wait for the police. He is young and looks sick when he realises why I am there, what he is looking at, and I find myself using the voice, reaching out and patting his arm. He smiles weakly at me, as a son to his mother, a patient to his doctor.
Doorstep Pictures – J.A. Mensah
Cambois was a place that had no signs pointing towards it until you were on the road that led only to Cambois. It was as if the people who made the road signs thought that no one who had anywhere else to go would be headed there. Once they were sure that was where you wanted to be, they felt you deserved to know you were travelling in the right direction. Anna Harbottle had lived in Cambois her entire life. All fifty-something years of it. She knew everyone and they all knew her. She had learned to drive on its narrow streets and learned to swim at the beach beyond her front gate. She’d spent summer nights waiting for the sky to turn black, knowing full well that at that time of the year, in her part of the world, the night would never fully arrive. It would be twilight all evening until the sun rose again.
For decades she had looked at the village’s only venue – the working men’s social club – and wondered what lay beyond its dark wood doors. As the name implied, the club was only for men. But lately, a girl from the council had got the men to agree that women and children should be allowed to go in, once a month, for a special event – a film night. It was on account of there being nothing much to do in Cambois. There were no pubs or cafes, not even a butchers, a grocers or a post office. And certainly no pictures – just houses, the sea and the working men’s club. The one bus that served Cambois stopped at 5 p.m. After that, if you didn’t have a car, you were stuck. Anna had one, but she had nowhere to go and no desire to drive. She didn’t mind staying put, it was the young ones she felt for: now, with the internet and all that, they could see the lives of others and it made Cambois feel a bit more like suffocating. Both of Anna’s children had left as soon as they could. Ryan went to Newcastle and Katy to Glasgow. Big cities where you could fade into the crowd. They came home once or twice a year. Each time Anna had promised that the next time, she would visit them. But Billy wasn’t a traveller, and she couldn’t go and leave Billy by himself.
Anna Harbottle did her make-up in the bedroom mirror, preparing for her first night out at the working men’s club. The foundation was too pale and the lipstick too bright for her too-full lips. She rubbed the lot off with a wet wipe, frustrated. Then she spotted them – perhaps Billy had left them out for her. She picked them up and slipped the small dangly jewels into her earlobes. A little touch of sparkle was what the occasion called for – not too much, but not too little. Billy had bought them for her for their twenty-first wedding anniversary, and she’d never got much wear out of them. Tonight was the perfect night to show them off. There was a little flutter of excitement in her stomach as she looked at her reflection. She didn’t look at all like a film star, but there was definitely a glow about her.
She still couldn’t quite believe this was happening, but it had all been agreed and no one could turn back on it now. Once a month the women and children would have access to the social club to watch a new film on a big screen with a projector. The council had it all arranged – it would be like having the pictures on your doorstep, the lass from the council had said that. She wasn’t from Cambois, you could tell. She was probably from somewhere like Blyth or Whitley Bay; she had the air of the outside about her. She’d managed to win them all round, but when it came to the final meeting, she hadn’t turned up. That was the problem with the council types and their community development ideas – none of them were from around here, and every six months you had a new face telling you what the neighbourhood needed, but no bugger hung around long enough to finish the thing they’d started. For that final meeting, the council had sent another lass. Anna thought it had been a mistake: the new girl looked even more out of place than the first one. Her difference wasn’t just an air about her, it was a physical thing. It made Anna’s skin tingle. Anna had wondered if that was why Billy had joined the meeting that day: he saw the new lass and was nervous that things might kick off. He was never interested in the council’s community development projects, but he came to this meeting – sat at the picnic table along with everyone else, and he watched and listened, and pretended to care.
Test Signal will be published by Bloomsbury on 8 July 2021. Purchase a copy through our Bookshop affiliate link here.