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Jenn Ashworth

Northern, working class writer curious about domestic, strange happenings in uncanny landscapes

Born in Preston, England. Based in Lancaster, England, UK

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English

About

Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third and fourth novels, The Friday Gospels (2013) and Fell (2016), are published in the UK by Sceptre.

She is also a short story writer, and has had fiction broadcast on BBC Radio 4, published in The Big Issue and The Independent and collected in The Best British Short Stories (2015).


Here, Jenn Ashoworth speaks to the BBC about her third novel, The Friday Gospels.

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Bibliography

Fell, 2016, Sceptre

'The Daughters of Lot, Ashworth', 2015, In: The Lonely Crowd

'Life writing / writing life', 2015 In: The Art of The Novel, Salt Publishing

Bus Station: Unbound, with Richard Hirst, 2015, Curious Tales

'Dinner for One', 2014 In: Big Issue in the North

'On being brief', 2014 In: Writing short stories, Bloomsbury

'Doted'2014 In: Litro Magazine

'Generation rental: the housing crisis facing today's youth', 2014 In: The Observer

Five Thousand Lads a Year (broadcast on BBC Radio 4), 2014

'The longest night: five curious tales', 2013 Curious Tales, Anthology

'Katy, My Sister', 2013 In: Short Fiction: The Visual Literary Journal

The Friday Gospels, 2013, Sceptre

'Shoes', 2013 In: Scraps, Gumbo Press

'Dinner for one', 2012 In: Poor souls' light, Curious Tales

'Every Member a Missionary', 2012 In: The Mechanics' Institute Review

'Hammer' (Kindle ed.), 2012 In: Jawbreakers: a collection of flash-fictions

'Why I refused to go to school', 2012 In: The Guardian

Cold Light, 2011, Sceptre

'The Wrong Sort of Shoes', 2010 In: Bugged. CompletelyNovel.com

A Kind of Intimacy, 2009, Arcadia Books

'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others', 2009 In: Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths, Serpent's Tail

Extract: 'Fell'

As God of the high road and the market-place Hermes was perhaps above all the patron of commerce and the fat purse: as a corollary, he was the special protector of the travelling salesman. As a spokesman for the Gods, he not only brought peace on earth (even occasionally the peace of death) but his silver-tongued eloquence could always make the worse appear the better course. From this latter point of view, would not his symbol be suitable for certain congressmen, all medical quacks, book agents and purveyors of vacuum cleaners, rather than for the straight-thinking, straight-speaking therapeutist? As a conductor of the dead to their subterranean abode, his emblem would seem more appropriate on a hearse than on a physician’s car.
Stuart L. Tyson, ‘The Caduceus’, Scientific Monthly 34, 1932

Not farre fro thence there is a poole which rather
Had bene dry ground inhabited. But now it is a meare
And Moorecocks, Cootes, and Cormorants doo breede and nestle there.
Lelex tells of Baucis and Philemon – Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book VIII, translated by Arthur Golding

 

FIRST

Her key in the lock wakes us. It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky. They don’t fly far; before the door is open they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge. We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff as bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.

Our?

Our names.

Yes. We are. We are. Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place. A respectable house. Netty. Jack. That’s what they called us.

She opens the front door. It’s stiff, and she has to push hard against the tide of free newspapers and old letters to get in, and when she does, she gasps, and looks around her at the old hallway, which is not as she remembered, its green-and-white-striped paper faded and hanging off the walls, and all the pictures gone. She closes the door behind her and stands, not moving, her breath making clouds around her face. It must be cold. Must be winter time.

This is our house. And here is our daughter and the words for all our objects start to come back to us now, and with the words come the objects themselves: the house and the garden, and the town around it which unrolls like a map, right down to the salt marsh, and it is all ours and this is all we wanted and all we would have wished for if anyone had asked. To stay. To have it all back. To have stopcocks and light switches and – what are they called? plugholes – and sticking plasters and skirting boards and feather dusters. To have ourselves back. To be restored.
She kicks through the old letters, looking up at the damp patches on the ceiling and the strings of cobwebs around the light fitting. The glass shade furred with dust. We have the words for everything now. Lampshade. Light bulb. Doors. There’s one on each side of the hallway for the dining room and the sitting room, and at the back, one for the little kitchen, which has its own door that leads into the garden. And we see ourselves, too, the way we were before. Jack stringing Christmas lights around a plastic tree and digging in the garden and painting the dining-room walls, doing battle against the damp. Netty with her dustpan and brush in the hallway, putting lipstick on in the hall mirror, kissing Jack in the kitchen, dancing to the Light Programme in the dining room when the lodgers have gone to work, sitting in her pink armchair doing accounts with a spare pencil behind her ear. A black-and-yellow-striped pencil, vivid as a bee, with a pink eraser fastened to its tip, a bit chewed. And a hole in her tights that is bothering her toe and the smell of flounder – not unpleasant – in the kitchen, and a thought about the doctor, and aspirin, and one more fag before putting the books away and going to bed. The lodgers – our boys, we call them – are laughing on the upstairs landing. When was this? No matter – it’s all happening now. As if we were never away.

The boys?

There. Look.

They’re traipsing in through the hall right past our daughter, who’s all grown up now, though she does not see them, and the house fills up with these young men in hats and ties and jackets, good boys, their rooms chock full with card games and cigarette smoke and Radio Luxembourg. The amount they eat! Constant trips back and forth to May’s, and the bill from the milkman has to be seen to be believed. It comes back: aftershave and soap bags and women being snuck in and Jack, helping himself to the Christmas whiskey, turning a blind eye towards the girls because he was young once too and what’s the harm in it now and again on a Friday night so long as they don’t use up all the hot water or give the house a bad name?

This is what boys will be like.

Will be boys?

Yes. That’s it. There it is.

Our daughter (Annette, we called her, and we’d know her anywhere – we never forgot her) wipes the dust from the hall mirror and stares at herself, then examines the glass in the front door, a little cracked but still there. She notices a leaflet from the town council half poking through the letterbox and she pulls it out and looks around again, then lets it fall to the floor with the others. She has a rucksack and a carrier bag and a sleeping bag with her and she puts them down at the bottom of the stairs and goes into the dining room.

The house empties again. Empties slowly, this house of ours, the overcoats and cardboard suitcases disappearing along the garden path and through the creaky gate and onto the street and off, until it’s just Jack and little Annette, eating Candy’s reheated stew and not speaking. Time passes, or it doesn’t. Now there’s just Jack, drunk in the daytime and smoking in front of the horseracing with the dishes not done. That’s My Lady’s Slipper very nicely turned out and up on her toes today looking a real treat in the paddock and here comes . . . but now the race is over and there’s nobody left at all. Just the damp and the trees and the leaks and the dust. The wallpaper falls off the walls and one of the little windows in the kitchen shatters. Time works differently now.

We hear Annette coughing in the dining room. We were proud of the three-piece dining set. Table, chairs and sideboard, which we spent a year saving up for. When we finally got the set we realised it was all a bit too big and a bit too grand for the room, and either the table was out or the floor was, because it always wobbled. But having it was important, to give the right impression. To signal to the boys what kind of house we ran. Annette takes off her coat and puts it on the back of one of the chairs. The tablecloth is gone but the table only needs a proper scrub and it will be as good as new. She sees the little pink chair in the bay window. Not as pink as it was, but it could be rescued. She does not sit in it, but stares at it, frowning. She puts her hand against her throat, against her cheek. Rubs her eyes. But this is what the years do.

We expected her to come home to us eventually but we never thought it would take her so long. We never thought at all, if we’re really being honest. It was a no-time, a dark-time, until the key in the lock jangled us back to the trees. But there she is, breathing in the stale air. She touches the walls, shakes her head. What did she think would happen? Time has not been kind – we know that – and we know there were things that should have been done in the house that were not done. Repairs and improvements should have been made that were not made. Things have declined somewhat. But what could we do?

She tries the light switch once, twice, and yes, it works, she must have made arrangements. She’s taking in the ripped nets, yellow and sagging on their wires, and the black mould that has crept along the folds in the curtains. She covers her mouth and nose with one hand and pulls them open with the other. The light comes in. She sighs. She takes a notebook out of her pocket and starts a list – filler and paint, things to do, things to buy. She has plans. This is good. After a while she stops writing things in the notebook and takes a little silver box out of her pocket. She strokes it with her finger then holds it to her ear and starts to speak. A telephone? One that works without wires – her voice travelling silently through the air to someone else, someone far away. Of course things have changed but this, the sleek shiny box swallowing up her words and sending them elsewhere, this is . . . but what does it matter?

Her voice.

Her voice is.

We’re lost for.

Well, the fact is, we have not heard her speak for a long time.

Commissions & Articles

Out of the Garret

Jenn Ashworth discusses the challenges and opportunities around collaboration.