Photograph by Ben Russell
So it’s 10pm when Marcus and I go into Ma Murphy’s Bar and Grocery Store in Bantry, as invited. Our eyes ache from tiredness (we got up at 4am this morning) and it’s noisy with Sunday-night locals, so we know it’s got the craic, despite its Facebook credentials. We congregate in the less-remarkable back room and shout, strain to hear each other, strain to remember whether we’ve read that person’s piece: ‘Oh, you’re THE Helen,’ and we reverentially pass round a single copy of the Fish Anthology 2018, surreptitiously checking for our own names. After half an hour I admit defeat and we slope away, only to find later that we weren’t the only ones to leave early.
On Monday at 6pm, cheered by a day spent exploring gorgeous Bantry Bay and the faded gentility of Bantry House, we congregate in The Windward Room of the hotel and receive copies of the Anthology. It is beautiful, and I flick back and forth through mine, reading the bios. What follows is excellent. All the attending writers in the Anthology – poetry, flash fiction, memoir and short fiction - are to read one page, and one page only of their piece. As winner, I go last. Some pieces are familiar – I remember them from when I read the proofs. They are varied and superb, and, ninety minutes later when it’s finally my turn, I have become very nervous. Everyone is so talented. My writing is no better than theirs. I was lucky the judge plumped for mine. They’ve largely funded their own trips, and mine is largely paid for (well, it will be, if and when I get my cheque!).
Some authors have just launched straight into their writing; some have explained and justified it; more frequently they have handed out bountiful thanks. They’re getting fidgety and they want to get to the bar by the time it’s my turn. I walk to the front aware I am shaking, and that my voice will wobble. I need to control myself. I pull an ex-teacher joke out of my foggy brain: ‘As a retired teacher, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be reading to a room of grown-ups who aren’t going to need the loo in the middle,’ and it gets a laugh and some friendly heckles. I laugh too. It’ll be OK. Now I can relax – I think this is the precise moment when the photo is taken, and I am smiling, thank goodness – and I read my page from Clippings, from the start, no explanations, no thanks (I did that when I found out I won), just straight into it. The applause at the end is far warmer.
After, that we mill around for a group photo and chat, and this time, I can match faces to stories. We chat longer in the bar. They are a fantastic group. I meet the radio-play writer who was shortlisted for flash fiction, the short-story writer who came second in the memoir, the guy who’d never written before, the accomplished writer who had two pieces in the top ten (and has been previously published by Fish). Some comment intelligently about my piece; some vow to go off and read it. This is a prize for ‘emerging writers’ but we’re none of us spring chickens! We connect on social media, such is the way of the world.
The next day, Marcus and I head North up the Wild Atlantic Way to the beautiful Dingle peninsula – County Kerry proper, and holiday proper – before two nights in fascinating Cork city. I read the Anthology at every opportunity and now it means so much more. I exchange messages with other writers and receive and send unsolicited messages of praise. I have had a fantastic time, and truly have had the luck of the Irish. Thank you, Tilly Emmerson and Fish Publishing!
Copies of the Fish Anthology 2018 will soon be available at the Wivenhoe Bookshop, and direct from fishpublishing.com. The anthology is the 'culmination of a year's work, trawling through thousands of submissions to the Fish Short Story, Short Memoir, Flash Fiction and Poetry Prizes. The judges were Billy O'Callaghan, Marti Leimback, Sherrie Flick and Ellen Bass respectively.'