Book review: Derby Shorts – The Best New Fiction From The Roller Derby Track Presented by For Books’ Sake and London Rollergirls edited by Jane Bradley

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(For Books’ Sake) paperback £5.00 Kindle edition £3.60

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

Pace, power, and panache abound, both thematically and in the manner of their telling, throughout the 14 short stories collected in Derby Shorts. Each story is set in and around, or inspired by modern roller derby which, although it has its origins in the sport developed in the 1930s, began its grassroots revival in the early 2000s as an all-female, self-organised, amateur, full-contact sport which eschewed the solely entertainment spectacle that the original sport had become, with scripted bouts and predetermined winners, in favour of a return to championing athleticism, prowess and a true sporting contest.

By 2006 the revival which had begun in Austin, Texas, was sweeping through the USA and in that year the London Rollergirls were the first league to bring women’s flat-track roller derby to the UK, the first European member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), and also played a key part in engendering the sport’s spread Europe-wide. There are now around 1250 amateur leagues worldwide and the sport is being considered for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics.

London Rollergirls and For Books’ Sake is an inspired pairing. The guiding principles of the former are to “take pride in being a positive character building experience for women, whilst not excluding men but working alongside them in equal respect” and to “endeavour to empower all women by promoting athleticism, good sportsmanship, both teamwork and independence, and positive self-image”. Whilst the acclaimed, intelligent but irreverent UK-based webzine, For Books’ Sake, founded in 2010 by Jane Bradley, is dedicated to promoting and celebrating writing by and for independent women, providing a dedicated platform for readers and writers alike, and “is a response to the systemic and institutionalised sexism which continues to be a problem in publishing, media and beyond”.

London Rollergirls photographed by Steve Newton

London Rollergirls photographed by Steve Newton

Both London Rollergirls and For Books’ Sake are also imbued with an inspiring joie de vivre, energy and a DIY/punk ethic of there being no reason not to do something, whatever the challenges or obstacles might be – if you want to do something, if you want to change something, start doing both. In collaborating and acting as both Pivots (the pacesetters of a roller derby team) and Jammers (roller derby ‘sprint’ skaters) in bringing their anthology to fruition, they have successfully created a book in which every story both celebrates and crackles with that same engaging and energetic joie de vivre.

Compliled following an open call for submissions, Derby Shorts features stories by Kaite Welsh, Cariad Martin, Robyn Frame, Kylie Grant, Steven LaFond, Evangeline Jennings, Magda Knight, Gavin Inglis, Daphne Du Gorier, Elena Morris, Kat M. Gray, Pam Berg, Jemima von Schindelberg and Tom Snowdon… or to put it another way, roller derby players, referees and fanatics from all over the world!

Their passion for the sport and the fun that they have clearly had writing the stories adds to the enjoyableness of each one. For newcomers to roller derby many of the stories are eye-opening (ghoulishly literally in Gavin Inglis’ equally funny and chilling, Derby of the Dead, about a Zombie grudge bout) not least in how all-consuming a passion it can become, highlighted in great style in Jemima von Schindelberg’s My Wife’s Wedding, in which moments after Louise’s wedding to her husband, Cesar, she then puts on her skates and a dress embroidered on the back with her ‘derby name’, Lou de Change, and is wed to her similarly be-skated and name-embroidered ‘derby wife’, The Mel of Fear, aka Mel.

“A derby wife is more than a friend,” von Schindelberg writes, “although friendship plays a crucial role, and a derby wife is different to a lover, although we love our derby wives dearly. Your derby wife is the skater you turn to when you don’t make the team and want to throw in the towel. She talks you down and convinces you that forty push-ups and an hour of plank will make everything better. She is the skater you will happily remind to ‘skate it out’ when everything has become too much. She is the skater you watch out for, who has your back. You defend her, protect her and when necessary slap her back into place if she’s got too big for her boots. She is the missing piece in your puzzle.”

London Rollergirls photographed by

London Rollergirls photographed byJames Laidlaw

There is plenty of love, lust, rivalry and rebellion, both inter- and intra-team, throughout the pages of Derby Shorts. In Cariad Martin’s Cuts and Grazes, a tale of Derby Brats (skaters in the junior roller derby leagues) the rivalry is sibling. Evocatively told through the eyes of ten year old Haf who not only yearns to join The Gosker Lil’ Rockers, the Derby Brats team which her dad coaches, but also to skate faster than her 13 year old sister, Skye, the team’s jammer. Lucie York’s act of rebellion in Kat M. Grey’s Tiptoes is to swap the role of prima ballerina in the making at the Key West Ballet Theatre, for jammer with the Key West Rollin’ Rogues.

The stories in the anthology are also played out through a variety of genres. I particularly enjoyed Kaite Welsh’s riotous and beautifully realised satirical short, This Is Not Your Great-Great-Great Granddaughter’s Derby, which imagines Victorian debutantes scandalising polite society by inventing roller derby on the banks of the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park. Also Magda Knight’s fantastic neo-noir, Dead Girls Don’t Wear Blades, which adeptly conflates Blade Runner and roller blades and is both gripping and amusingly knowing in its tale of a milk drinking assassin’s mission to kill a mutant roller derby coach who secretes biotoxins not sweat.

Staying with noir, Daphne Gorier, entertainingly and effectively creates a new strand, referee noir, or to put it in its specific roller derby terminology and the title of her story, Zebra Noir, as her hard-bitten, Marlowe-esque ‘zebra’, Potomac Ripper, is called in to help the police on a puzzling case.

London Rollergirls photographed by

London Rollergirls photographed by Steve Newton

There is an insightfulness running through Derby Shorts, and for me this was particularly highlighted in Elena Morris’s story, Pivot, which begins and ends with Rory doubled up on a pavement after a violent mugging. On both occasions the physical pain is no less severe, but the first time she’s in shock, in tears, her loneliness in a new town is heightened, and she also realises “that self-defence class turned out to be pretty useless”. The second time, nine months later her response has changed, although “the knee in my stomach hurts just as much as it did before I had washboard abs. But wait! I’m thinking, I didn’t have time to engage my core! He sprints away with my smelly kit bag, my purse and my phone and I’m left doubled over in pain on the pavement again. All I can really think is, wait until he gets a whiff of my wristguards. And then, I needed new skates anyway”.

What has changed in the interim is that she has joined a roller derby team which has completely changed her sense of herself: “When I skate, I feel powerful. I feel the wheels of my skates hit the floor and I feel my calves and shins take that impact and transfer it up to my thighs. I feel my strong arms pumping at my sides. I feel something that two years of working as a general dogsbody on TV sets could never make me feel: I matter. I am important. I am training so that my teammates can depend on me to give them a whip when they need it, and so I can put on that extra burst of speed to get me through a miniscule gap and score that winning point. I am Roary. Hear me roar”.

Inspiring, fun, bittersweet, energetic, all infectiously so, hugely enjoyable and filled with many moments to cheer about… Derby Shorts is very much in the mould of the sport it celebrates.

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In celebration of Derby Shorts, Jane Bradley, Kaite Welsh, and Magda Knight are all appearing at the P-TCP Live Edition: Mustered No.6 on Thursday 30th May 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1. Jane Bradley will be talking jammers, pivots, and zebras, and a world where fierce, fast women are often hell on wheels, Kaite Welsh will be reading This Is Not Your Great-Great-Great Granddaughter’s Derby, and Magda Knight will be reading Dead Girls Don’t Wear Blades, their short stories from the anthology. For more details please click here.

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Links

For Books’ Sake http://forbookssake.net/

London Rollergirls http://www.londonrollergirls.com/

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