Penning Pompey

Local novelist William Sutton reports on some exciting developments in Portsmouth’s small but perfectly formed literary scene.

Portsmouth Writers’ Hub is about to appoint a new coordinator. (Hmm: doesn’t sound that sexy. Consider a rewrite? Let’s try again.) “Pompey Penmonkeys are Go.” (Leave for later editing.)

When I moved here five years ago, I was writing my second novel. I looked around to see if there were any literary goings-on. I joined the library. I wrote to the Council Literacy Services offering workshops and talks that I’d given elsewhere, from High Down Prison to Eton College. What I craved was some kind of writing community – to know that I wasn’t the only idiot sitting alone, working for nothing or next-to-nothing, sending off words into the ether: fiction, articles, drama, all of it. I found nothing.

(In fact, I was wrong. I might have stumbled on Tongues and Grooves, our long established poets’ corner. I might have found the Write-Invite story nights at Rosie’s Vineyard. I could have popped into Blackwell’s Bookshop, or looked up the University’s Creative and Cultural programme.)

I decided I’d just have to sit in my lonely garret, scribbling furiously, sending out typescripts to hapless agents, and travelling to London, Brighton or Bristol for literary events and festivals.

Then Portsmouth Writers’ Hub began to meet, and everything changed.

Portsmouth Book Fest also started up, thanks to Literature Development Officer Dom Kippin (who has now moved on). It was great to have publishers coming to talk shop, to see great writers like Neil Gaiman and James Herbert, and to see that there was an appetite for literary events like the Firestation Bookswap.  I’ve got to admit, I was a little peeved that I wasn’t in it.

But what I really needed was to find some other writers.

The Hub met monthly in the New Theatre Royal Café, organised and run by valiant volunteers. I attended workshops by poets Audi Maserati and Maggie Sawkins, talks by novelist Kay Sexton, travel writer Tom Sykes, and Arts Council guru John Prebble. There were rehearsed dramatic readings on the main stage, and social gatherings in the RMA Tavern. It was at a workshop day in the Guildhall (on writing as performance) by The ReAuthoring Project that I started to get to know some writers. When you share your work, you are vulnerable; when you take risks, you have to trust the people around you.

Since then, I feel proud to have taken part in many events, locally and beyond (more below). But even more satisfying has been seeing my colleagues and contemporaries thrive. Friends have launched their novels with aplomb (coverage on radio, TV and press), had plays produced (at New Theatre Royal, D-Day Museum and Groundlings), collected stories from people around the city (You, Me, Everyone, and DJ Kirkby’s WeLL project), signed book deals and appeared on festival panels (JS Law and Diana Bretherick). I’ve attended talks and events set up by Blackwell’s and by Hayling Island Bookshop, from Portsmouth Grammar School’s atmospheric library to the top of the Spinnaker.

And I’ve got a lot of writing done.

The Hub is currently not operating outside its Facebook page. That seems especially crazy when a Digital Publishing talk at the University in December drew a full house of people intrigued to know how to self-publish. It was a good talk but where can those hundred people go next for support? Were they thinking what I was thinking when I moved here? “Where’s the literary life in this city?”

Thankfully, Portsmouth City Council has allied itself with New Writing South (an umbrella arts organisation based in Brighton) to give the Hub its own coordinator.  It’s a part-time role.  I’m hoping it’s something this city can benefit from, with its literary history and its literacy problems.  The New Theatre Royal wants to involve the Hub in its literature programme.  The University of Portsmouth have also offered support.

Hub meetings should start again soon. Join the Facebook page for updates, and say hello. Dust off your notebook, sharpen your pencil, and get scribbling.

Writing will always be a solitary affair but there is nothing more inspiring than meeting your contemporaries, seeing what they’re up to, and talking freely about the turmoil and trials of writing.


Ten things I hope the Hub will help:

  1. Regular meetings and events to connect, educate and entertain
  2. Coordinating workshops, script surgeries, mentoring, writing groups
  3. Enticing great writers to the city
  4. Authors in schools and colleges
  5. Museum projects
  6. Connecting writers with artists, musicians and scientists
  7. Promotion
  8. Performances
  9. Publications
  10. Putting Pompey back on the map of penmanship


Events and projects I’ve enjoyed participating in:

  • hosting Day of the Dead at the Square Tower
  • readings in Central and Southsea libraries
  • Alver Arts festival, story night
  • my own book launch at Blackwell’s, alongside novelist Diana Bretherick
  • creative writing workshops in the 60+ festival
  • publication and launch of Writers to Watch
  • Firestation Bookswap at Aspex Gallery
  • judging First Fiction, national debut novel award, in Bookfest
  • writing workshops in Portsmouth Festivities
  • publication of Portsmouth Fairy Tales, alongside ten local writers
  • launching this collection at Groundlings and at Guildhall, and a promenade event
  • crime writing workshops at Teatray in the Sky
  • recording podcasts at Rant Studios
  • Icelandic Crime Night, at 101 Reykjavik, with novelists Quentin Bates and JS Law