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Bugged! An Anthology of Overhearings

SoBugged cover I said like
‘How many people have you slept with?’
And he said like one
And I said like who
And he said like YOU!
And I said
Oh.

That’s the conversation I overheard on the train home, after running a workshop with novelist David Calcutt. I texted him and by the time I got off the train, we had invented Bugged.

The idea was this: writers all over the UK would go forth and eavesdrop on July 1st. They then had six weeks to submit a piece of writing – poetry, short story, script – based on their overhearings. David and I had a further eight weeks to select the best, make them into a book and launch it at literature festivals in Manchester and Birmingham.

No agenda: no Arts Council evaluation, no community cohesion remit, no obligation to write about recycling or social inclusion. No fee for entering, ergo no prize money. We did it, dear reader, for fun and not for funding.

And fun it was. Bugged gave writers at all levels a shared mission and a virtual meeting place. Overheard comments are not of the writer’s choosing, so we were led into new subjects and forms. I wrote my first ever short story. Stuart Maconie, broadcaster and doyen of non-fiction, sent us a long poem. In an act of supreme dedication to her craft, Jenn Ashworth wrote from the maternity hospital where she was about to give birth. Work came in from Ian Duhig, Alison Brackenbury, Roz Goddard. Who would make it into the book? We mused. We discussed (see photo for proof).

In crDavid and Jo at EATeative terms, our aim was to connect the stratosphere with the earth-dwellers. There are those who regularly enter competitions or submit to journals like Magma: and there are those who share their competence, but not their confidence. These writers stay in the shadows, not through a lack of talent but a lack of aspiration. We aimed to combine a friendly, approachable tone with a ruthless standard of editing – a democratic project with a meritocratic output.

Apart from the book itself, no trees were harmed in the making of Bugged. We recruited by email, by social networks: we added a line to our email signatures. The book is published via print-on-demand (POD), a technology often reserved for self-publishing egomaniacs. Professionally designed and edited, it is still cheap enough for a beginning writer to buy a handful of copies to sell at readings, and yet we won’t have a garage full of unsold copies. POD has shortcomings too. Our book will not be marketed through a publishing house, but by the best efforts of its 54 contributors. It will not be sent to Waterstones on a sale-or-return basis, but ordered copy by copy: and the special-edition version, for sale at the two launches, is superior to the standard POD version available on or Completely Novel.

We’re proud of our book and its content. A UK-wide community of writers was galvanised around a single happening; they had a ball and generated some great new writing. The book looks wonderful and we think it’s a good read. It’s a great model, too, of how to produce a fine book cheaply, and raise the profile of unknown writers by association with well-known names and discerning editors. We have another project twinkling in our eye… watch this space.

Jo Bell is Director of National Poetry Day. Her website is http://www.bell-jar.co.uk.

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. Was the conversation word for word as printed or is this your poetic interpretation? Either way it’s perfect. What a great idea, wish I’d been involved. I will go out later with my ears a litle more open.

  2. What a brilliant idea for inspiring writing …have you copyrighted it? *wonders if she could nick the idea for her writers group….* lol! Well done, am off to order a copy at least for library stock …..

  3. Caroline – the conversation is reported exactly as I heard it. Denise – it’s all yours, and if we prompt your writers to pay a little more attention to what they hear (and what they say!) then it’s all been worthwhile.

    To order, email me – jo@bugged.org.uk and you will get the special edition version.

  4. Marvellous idea. I eavesdrop on ‘buses, trains, in shops &etc. so I wish I had known about it too.

  5. That was a wonderful quote, because it leads you so far beyond it – has the speaker actually forgotten the guy slept with him/her, and what does that say for the performance…

    The first 2 lines of that Gillian Clarke poem “I married a man from the County Roscommon
    And I live at the back of beyond” are exactly as she overheard them on a bus, perfect ballad rhythm and all!

  6. A couple of months ago, during a long bus ride, I was forced to listen to the conversation of a group of young (late twenties), obviously upper-class men going to a bachelor’s party. Among the many stupidities I heard, this one made me want to jump from my seat and hit them:
    (Talking about someone’s girlfriend, who insisted on graduating before they got married): ‘What does a girl need to graduate for? If she marries a guy who can more or less make his way into the world… then, whatever would she finish college for?’
    At the time I was so angry I could just write about it in my diary and nothing more. It reminded me so much of an ex-boyfriend who constantly derided my desire to work and (more worryingly) to learn. But now you’re confirming my idea that even these ugly glimpses into other people’s minds can be turned into good poetry 🙂

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