Monday, 12th February 2018.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Whitaker’s Almanack, a reference book whose history is intertwined with the history of British literature, both as a tool for writers and, occasionally, as a plot device.
The Almanack, which stretches in the 2018 edition to 1141 pages (plus colour plates and index), covers subjects from the workings of the British government to tide charts; from a brief guide to politics in every country of the world to a series of essays on the year’s developments in a range of art, political, and financial fields.
Want a quick rundown of the past year in literature? It starts on page 999. Decide it’s time to find out how the European Union is actually run? Pages 611 to 620 will do their best to fill you in. Pages 365 to 377 list the current fees of (almost) every private school in the UK, while an explanation of the differences between the NHS in England, Wales, and Scotland begins on page 382. It’s effectively a user’s manual for residents of the United Kingdom.
Dracula and Sherlock Holmes both consulted Whitaker’s in the course of their adventures. A character in Somerset Maugham’s story ‘The Round Dozen’ passes on Trollope’s advice that ‘the two most useful books to a novelist [are] the Bible and Whitaker’s Almanack’ (admittedly Maugham’s narrator isn’t convinced, and doesn’t himself possess a copy). Whitaker’s crops up in Orwell, too: his early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying contains the observation that, ‘After all, all works of reference are pornographical, except perhaps Whitaker’s Almanack’.
Of course, all of the information here – aside from the various essays – is also freely available online. Isn’t a reference book like this a bit of an anachronism? Something for retired civil servants to snooze over while they digest their Christmas dinner, rather than a genuinely useful tool? It’s not a cheap book, either: the RRP of Whitaker’s Almanack has climbed rapidly over the years, to the point where the complete 2018 edition is priced at £90 for a single hardback book. That price is largely academic, though: it sells at around £55 online, and is clearly priced to be discounted. (That’s not great for bricks and mortar bookshops, who tend to get a raw deal out of this kind of pricing strategy.) There’s also a concise edition available, containing a selection of the UK material, priced at a more High Street-friendly £25.
But if you can afford it, or settle for the concise edition, it might just be worth getting hold of a copy.
For general usage, it’s good to be able to consult Whitaker’s rather than disappear down the rabbit hole of the internet, or indeed going near a screen at all. Even using a book, you might very well find yourself starting to browse the pages and read up on other topics once you’ve found what you were looking for, but still, the context is at least relevant. There’s no clickbait, no advertising, no notifications, nobody trying to message you.
If a question comes up when you’re with friends or family, it’s a lot more pleasant to pull a book from the shelf, rather than have everybody cluster around an iPhone, or get drawn into one of those tedious information races where everybody is trying to be the first to Google the prime minister’s salary (p.177) or what happens if you die without leaving a will (p.545), or what the flag of Ghana looks like (unpaginated colour plates, following p.800).
For a writer, having a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack nearby – shelved somewhere close to the dictionary and the style guide – means that when a question comes up about the workings of the UK, you don’t have to leave the environment of your work-in-progress in order to open a browser window, with all the dangers to concentration and productivity that entails. And much of the information contained in Whitaker’s is useful for fiction: if a character dies intestate, you won’t want to give your readers a three-paragraph summary of the relevant legislation, but you probably want to make sure that whatever happens next in the story is realistic. If you’re writing crime, your chief inspector’s lifestyle is going to need to be funded on an annual salary of roughly £55,000 (p.309) – unless he’s bent, of course.
The other benefit to having all of this information in a physical book is that although most of it might be available online, that doesn’t mean writers will actually access it. Most of the short fiction written today doesn’t take the national context into account; there’s no suggestion that the writer is aware of the workings of the country, or the particular social and political backdrop against which their story is taking place. Again, it’s not necessarily information you’d use explicitly in your fiction, but it’s background that’s worth having at your elbow. A copy of Whitaker’s on the desk of a fiction writer might get consulted less often than it would be in the hands of a political journalist, but it could also serve as a reminder of the importance of context.
In a book printed late last year, there are obviously things that are out of date. Political appointments change, as do politics themselves: perhaps a little optimistically, p.613 tells us that Brexit negotiations are due to conclude in December 2017. There will certainly be times when you’ll want to confirm a detail online after consulting the book. There’s something comforting in this, though, in being able to step outside of the eternal ‘now’, the telescoping of time in the digital age, and to look at the world from a fixed, defined point in time. (This might explain why some people find themselves trying to collect a complete set of Whitaker’s, all 150 volumes from the last 150 years.)
You can even access Whitaker’s online, purchasing chapters at £1 a time, or sections for £5 – although this rather defeats the purpose of the whole thing, and anyway the execution feels a little rushed, with for example the list of abbreviations separated into 25 different chapters of just a few words each. (At least they don’t charge you for X, which has no entries.) Given that people going online will be able to find the information for free elsewhere anyway, the future of Whitaker’s would probably be best assured by embracing its merits as a physical object, and fundamental difference to the world of digital information.
One purpose of Whitaker’s Almanack is to describe in uncritical detail the workings of the British establishment. Depending on your own politics, some of the content might feel redundant or complacent to the point of being objectionable. The sheer breadth of the topics covered also means that most people won’t find every section useful. But think of the book in its entirety as the real-world equivalent of all those notes JRR Tolkien made for himself as background to the Lord of the Rings, or simply as a handbook to the great machine of which your characters – if they live in modern Britain – form a part, and you may just find a place for it on your desk.
Thursday, 30th November 2017.
Today we announce the shortlist and the winners of the 2017 Flash Fiction Competition.
First, a quick reminder of the prizes this year: the two runners-up will each receive £100, and the winner of the first prize will receive £300. The three winners will be published in our next anthology, and everybody on the shortlist will also receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series.
We’ll start with the shortlist. This year it’s ten stories, and here they are in alphabetical order by author name:
- Alastair Chisholm: The Castle
- Steve Clarkson: Excuse Me
- Martin Dufield: In Memorium
- Justina Eckert: Hiding
- Sean Gill: The Computer Man
- Kevlin Henney: On the Science and Complexities of Having Sex in the Family Caravan While One’s Parents Are There
- Lynsey May: Beyond the Body
- Miha Mazzini: Rock’n’Roll Life
- Rachael Swindale: The Orchid
- Jud Widing: Hazards
And now the two runner-up stories:
- Alastair Chisholm: The Castle
- Sean Gill: The Computer Man
And finally, the first prize, which this year goes to:
- Steve Clarkson: Excuse Me
Congratulations to all of the above, and thank you again to everybody who took part in the competition this year.
The three winning stories will be published in our next anthology, which is due in early 2018. I’ll be getting in touch with the winners and all of the shortlistees next week to sort out prizes.
If you missed the flash fiction competition and still want to send us a story, our general submissions system is open now for stories over 1,000 words. Our ghost story competition is also open for entries until the end of January 2018.
Thursday, 9th November 2017.
It’s time to reveal the winner of the Writers’ Award for our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories III.
The Fiction Desk Writers’ Award isn’t like the other competitions we run from time to time: it’s awarded to the best story in each anthology we publish, and is voted for by the contributors to that anthology. It’s a great way to get the writers’ own view on their peers’ work, and it’s always a close race. There’s also £100 for the winner.
This time around the award goes to Will Dunn, for his story Des Nuits Blanches. Congratulations, Will!
New Ghost Stories III, featuring Will’s story and six other fine tales of the supernatural, is available now in paperback: you can get your copy right here. The 2018 edition of our Ghost Story Competition is open now for entries. See details over in our submission section.
Wednesday, 1st November 2017.
The 2018 edition of the Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition is now open for entries. This year there’s a first prize of £500, along with second and third prizes. Entry costs £8, and the closing date is Wednesday, 31st January 2018. (The competition closes at midnight UK time, so don’t get caught out if you’re sending an entry from overseas.)
Winners from the last two years appear in our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories III. It’s well worth picking up a copy if you want to see the stories that have been successful in the past – or if you just want a good spooky read to get you through the winter nights…
Friday, 29th September 2017.
Copies of our latest anthology are available now. New Ghost Stories III contains seven substantial tales of the supernatural, including the winners of our last two ghost story competitions. The contributors are Amanda Mason, Barney Walsh, Seth Marlin, Jerry Ibbotson, Philippa East, Richard Agemo, and Will Dunn.
If you’re a subscriber or pre-ordered your copy, you should have already received it. If not, you can order your copy now directly from us right here. You can also take out a subscription to include this volume.
Monday, 31st July 2017.
It’s time to announce the winners of this year’s Newcomer Prize for Short Stories.
The standard of entries to our competitions is always high. People send in their best work, and judging the entries is as rewarding as it is challenging. Getting the entries down to a shortlist of ten stories was tricky, and picking two winners nearly impossible. But we’re short story publishers: we’re used to doing the impossible.
And so, here are the winners and shortlist of this year’s prize. First, our shortlist of ten stories. All of the writers below will receive a selection of paperback Fiction Desk anthologies through the post:
- Three More Days by Gayle Andrews
- The Bus Stop by Becky Carnaffin
- Uncle Dougie’s Suitcase by Alastair Chisholm
- The Insurance Policy by Christine Grant
- Not Waving, But… by Maureen Hanrahan
- All Washed Up by Chris Hogben
- The Black Squirrel by Christopher Howard
- Tool by Mac McCaskill
- Recalculating Route by Mat Osman
- Not Like Us by Sherri Turner
And now our two winners:
In second place, with a prize of £250:
- All Washed Up by Chris Hogben
In first place, with a prize of £500:
- Uncle Dougie’s Suitcase by Alastair Chisholm
So congratulations to all of the above, and thank you to everybody who took part in the competition. This year’s winners will be appearing in our twelfth anthology, due early in 2018.
The Newcomer Prize will open again for entries next year, but if you fancy trying your hand at very short stories, our flash fiction competition is open now. You’ll find details of that one over in our submissions section.
Tuesday, 4th July 2017.
After taking a break for 2016, we’re delighted to announce that our annual Flash Fiction Competition is back for 2017 — and open now for entries!
This year we have a first prize of £300 and two runner-up prizes of £100. The entry fee for one story is £5, or you can enter two stories together for the special rate of £8.
The deadline is midnight (UK time) on Friday, 29th September. For full details, including our online entry form, head over to our submissions section.
Thursday, 30th March 2017.
Today I’m very pleased to be announcing the winners and shortlist of our 2017 Ghost Story Competition.
Judging this competition is one of the great pleasures of working with The Fiction Desk, and this year’s entries have been very strong indeed, possibly the strongest to date.
As usual we’ll start with the shortlist. All of these authors will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series:
- Richard Agemo: The House Friends
- Jacqueline Burgoyne: Borrowed
- Alastair Chisholm: Exhalation
- Amanda Crum: The Body Farm
- Will Dunn: Des Nuits Blanches
- Philippa East: The Archivist
- Randi Berg Ferstad: Benjamin
- Amanda Mason: When the Dark Comes Down
- Henry Peplow: Take Me Home
- Victoria Richards: The Camera
- Darren Todd: What Meets in the Dark and Rain
- Christopher Youds: The Reclaiming
And now the winners:
- In first place (£500 prize): Will Dunn: Des Nuits Blanches
- In second place (£250 prize): Philippa East: The Archivist
- In third place (£100 prize): Richard Agemo: The House Friends
Congratulations to all of the above writers. Again, it’s been a particularly strong year for entries. We’ll be putting the winners of this year’s competition together with the 2016 winners and a selection of other stories in our next anthology, New Ghost Stories III.
The next edition of our ghost story competition will open for entries in November 2017. Keep an eye on the competition page for more details closer to the time.
Wednesday, 23rd November 2016.
It’s time to announce the winner of the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for our tenth anthology, Separations.
The Writer’s Award is a prize of £100, presented to the author of the best story in each of our anthologies, and voted for by the contributors to that volume. This makes it a genuinely peer-judged prize, and a great way of recognising talent.
Separations featured some tough competition for the award, as it contained some superb work, including two stories by previous winners: S R Mastrantone and Alex Clark. In the end our authors decided that the Writer’s Award should go to Fiction Desk newcomer Hannah Mathewson, for her story ‘Two Pounds, Six Ounces’, which tells of a hospital visitor’s crisis when a power cut knocks out the lights in the building.
Friday, 28th October 2016.
Our occasional ‘Stories behind Stories‘ series features our writers talking about the inspiration and ideas behind their work. Here, Alex Clark tell us how she came to write ‘Poor Billy’, which is featured in our current anthology Separations.Ghosts, it seems, are usually attached to places. The haunted house, the haunted graveyard, the haunted wood: as Halloween approaches, you’ll see them adorning everything from boxes of biscuits to babygrows. A thousand horror films have at their centre the Bad Place, where no-one should go but we know they will: the place where the unquiet spirit waits, seeking justice or vengeance.
Give this a moment’s thought, and it’s a bit odd. Why don’t the ghosts go out wandering? Why don’t they go looking for the people who’ve done them wrong? Or try to correct whatever terrible mistake led them to be stuck in the real world? Of course, in some stories and in some other cultures, they do. The ghost in Western culture, though, is usually stuck on its home turf, acting out the same horrors over and over again.
With the dawn of spiritualism, in the Victorian and Edwardian period, it was inevitable that people would start investigating why this might be. Intelligent, rational people set out to investigate hauntings, feats of mediumship and black magic. For a glimpse of the true weirdness of this time I strongly recommend a visit to the Wikipedia page for Harry Price, amateur magician and psychical researcher of the early twentieth century, which features tales of talking mongooses, egg-white ectoplasm and boys transforming into goats.
The idea of seriously investigating these kinds of phenomena seems ludicrous to us now, yet many of the investigators were not fools. They knew that most of the supernatural claims were hoaxes, but they believed that it was possible they might find a tiny core of genuine paranormal activity. This activity could then be investigated, to find the mechanisms by which apparitions might appear to people in the everyday world.
New theories sprung up, theories distinct from previous religious, moral or superstitious understandings of what ‘ghosts’ might be. Victorian psychical researchers William Fletcher Barrett and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, for instance, suggested that strong psychical energy could become imprinted upon materials such as wood or stone, remaining there and disturbing the minds of later visitors. In the mid twentieth century, Welsh philosopher H.H. Price expanded on this and suggested that ghosts might not be unquiet souls, but some kind of memory or recording, held in the matrix of the physical world. His theory of ‘place memory’ suggested that a strand of memory from a person’s mind might attach itself to the physical environment and lodge there, experienced by others as hallucination.
Later, in the 1960s, all these theories were gathered by parapsychologist Thomas Lethbridge to argue for ‘stone tape theory’, the idea that ghostly phenomena are recordings of historical events, stored in the stone and wood that witnessed those events. Ghosts, in this theory, are inanimate shadows, acting out a short loop of the past over and over and over.
Whilst I love the idea of stone tape theory, there are some big problems with it. The first of my objections is: why no happy ghosts? Or ghosts who have strong emotions, but about ridiculous things? If stone tape theory held true, then maternity units the world over would be plagued by endless replays of new-baby bliss, registry offices would be impossible to work in and the M25 would be infested by apparitions with road rage. Furthermore, why are almost all supposed ghosts dead people? Wouldn’t there be lots of recordings of living people?
And this is where Poor Billy started to take shape. Rather than wood or stone, concrete seemed the natural material on which to store a psychical recording. There are very few stone castles and timber-framed houses knocking around nowadays, but an awful lot of concrete tower blocks. Concrete has all of those properties that Billy talks about in the story: it’s great at absorbing sound and heat, so why not memory too? Why not a happy memory? When Maggie’s mum describes the ghost as ‘just a snatch of him,’ this is what I had in mind: a fragment of the past, like a radio station caught and lost again, or a TV channel flicked over.
I’ve written here before about my former career as an archaeologist, and it amuses me to note that many of the early psychical researchers were archaeologists before becoming paranormal investigators. Perhaps there’s something about studying the past, about wanting to know what life was like there, that draws the mind towards ghosts. I know myself that to pull an object out of the ground, to know that the human being who last touched it walked the world of the 1570s, is extraordinary. It is easy to think that the present is the only real time that there has ever been, and that the past looked like a film, or a tapestry, or an illuminated manuscript. It didn’t. The sun shone, the wind blew. 1570 was the only reality, and it was happening just where you’re sitting, reading this. Hundreds of millions of dramas and revelations and deaths have been acted out on every patch of this earth, and all of them are vanished. It seems inconceivable that those emotions left no trace. How appealing it is to imagine that they might have done, and that we might be able to replay those memories and see the past for ourselves.
It was perhaps because of my archaeologist’s training that I was unable to stop myself planting a small artefact in the story, an in-joke of my own. The architecture firm for which Billy works is named Sidgwick Barrett Price, a nod to the people whose ideas birthed stone tape theory. I think they would find it funny. If they don’t, I do hope they won’t come visiting.
— Alex Clark