Saturday, 25 March 2017

Amanda Owen - the Yorkshire Shepherdess #amandaowen

Amanda Owen          Photos Richard Wilcocks
Flock Star! by Sally Bavage:
Amanda Owen, also known as the Yorkshire Shepherdess, arrives in a whirl of activity fresh from a book-signing at a city centre bookshop and sets up her photomontage.  Hundreds – literally – of beautiful images of Ravenseat farm, her nine children (yes, you read that right), her two thousand sheep, her dogs, her horses, and the stunning landscape throughout all seasons.  And as if this wasn't entertaining enough, she answered first the interviewer's question and then those of the audience with complete openness, honesty, down-to-earth humour and great charm.

Born and brought up in Huddersfield, she was inspired by the James Herriot books and decided she would become a contract shepherdess.  As you do.  Whilst on a visit to deliver a prime ram to a very isolated farm high up in Swaledale, near the Tan Hill pub (the highest in England), she met the incumbent, Clive Owen.  And her destiny -  they got married, farm Ravenseat together as a partnership and have managed to produce nine youngsters ranging in age from fifteen years to nine months. And with no live-in or part-time help of any kind – “I have no Spanish au pairs hidden away.”

Every time you ask her about what is a good day, or her ambitions for the future, she comes back to her children, wishing for them to become, or do, what they wish in life – though she suspects one son is a born engineer, another a farmer and a daughter will be a doctor.  She glows with pride as she mentions them.

Although realistic about farming – “livestock can sometimes be deadstock” - she is in fact a soft-hearted shepherdess, giving little lambs born too soon the warmth of the aga to try to bring them round, and hand-rearing a good number of lambs each year with the help of the children.  And all this before they set off for school just gone 7 am – there are horses and ponies to feed and muck out, sheep to feed and check, other chores to do all before they go off to school.  They all have a long and tiring day, but as she says “That is the reality of hill farming.”

She has continued to diversify the enterprises that make Ravenseat economically successful – for there is no fortune to be made from hill farming.  Cream tea for walkers on the Coast to Coast path (I have had one of these, scones fresh from the oven were simply delicious, and served with great aplomb by some of her children).  A shepherd's hut down by the river as a tiny B&B (Ade Edmondson stayed in this when interviewing her for ITV).  A locally-purchased farmhouse has just become a more conventional B&B.  A film is to be made of the lives they lead at Ravenseat.  She has written the foreword to a new print-run of the James Herriot books.  As she says, life's dream became a reality as they filmed some scenes for a commemoration of Alf Wight's (James Herriot) centenary birthday.

Her books sell in their thousands, giving pleasure to many who enjoy reading about her life and her choices.  From the comfort of a fireside chair, I suspect, for it is indeed a gritty and determined lady who can sustain such a tough and uncompromising life. 

The Yorkshire Shepherdess, by Amanda Owen, paperback pub 2014, ISBN 978-0-283-07196-6

A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, paperback pub 2017, ISBN 978-1-4472-95-26-6

Sally Bavage adds:
Thank you, too, to the army of LitFest home bakers (especially Mary Francis and Rachel Harkess) who provided such a delicious array of cakes for the refreshments: almond and orange; chocolate Guinness; coffee and walnut; lemon drizzle; marmalade; stem ginger; tea loaf; treacle, walnut and date; Victoria sandwich. 

Mark Connors at The Chemic

Partnership event with Word Club

Mark Connors
The Chemic Tavern was heaving more than usual for the Word Club Special where Mark Connors launched his first full length poetry collection Nothing is Meant to be Broken. People (most of them poets of one stripe or another) stood shoulder to shoulder at the back in support, while others crammed on to chairs behind tables papered with poetry print-outs and green brochures advertising Headingley LitFest, which has only a couple of events left now. It's a good thing there's no smoking nowadays in back rooms like this.

Gill Lambert

Poet Gill Lambert, who was the amiable and efficient compere for the evening, mentioned smoking: she said she imagined, at one time, that poets were private, meditative characters who lived in small, book-lined rooms and puffed on pipes. Some of them no doubt did that, but they were not in evidence at this event.

The first and third sections were for open mic performers to strut their stuff, and Mark Connors had the middle - the jam in the sandwich as it were. He usually gives his work some exposure in the course of a session, delivered from the heart and well-rehearsed, but on this occasion he gave himself the airing he deserves, with a series of poems from the new book, to rich effect. The themes included love, sex and mental health - and there can be no instant, detailed scrutiny on a blog like this. Look elsewhere for that. It's enough to say that the audience loved it. He sang as well, and it is obvious that he should do more of that in future.

Mark Connors is a widely published poet who won the Ilkley Literature Festival Open Mic Competition in both 2014 and 2015. His debut pamphlet, Life is a Long Song (OWF Press, 2015) and debut novel, Stickleback (Armley Press, 2016) are both now in their second editions. 

Emily Gibbons writes:
One of Headingley LitFest’s last events was in conjunction with Word Club, banding together to create a platform for local poet Mark Connors to perform poems from his first poetry collection, Nothing is Meant to be Broken. The turn-out for the event was simply astounding, and the atmosphere was cosy and full of camaraderie.

The event was split into three sections, with open mic slots at the beginning and end, and the middle slot reserved for Connors. The variety of people performing was inspiring, and in the second half there were brilliant poems by various women from Word Club. In particular Samar Shahdad made an impression with her empowering poem for International Women’s Day, in which she declared ‘I am a woman of no man’.

Of course the star of the night was Mark Connors himself, prepared with copies of his novel Stickleback, Nothing is Meant to be Broken, and a splash of dark humour. Performing poems both old and new, most of which are in the collection, Connors owned the spotlight with words crossing the boundaries between love, sex, tragedy, death, and humour. Since the event I have devoured the entire contents of Nothing is Meant to be Broken, and his wordsmithery is obvious on the written page, although his deliberate, humorous delivery when performing really shows the true essence of his poetry.


Friday, 24 March 2017

Poetry at Lawnswood School - with Khadijah Ibrahim

Gail Alvarez writes:
We Are Poets – They Are Poets
Khadijah Ibrahim    Photos Richard Wilcocks
A jazz cafe somewhere in north Leeds.  Background music, a medley of Steph's mood music, greets the patrons who have come to have a serious word.  With dramatic intent.  Yes, it's the annual poetry event at Lawnswood School, held in the Drama Studio made over with low lighting and high ideals to form an intimate venue for poetry performance.

Lawnswood's Year 9 poets perform their own words, written in classroom workshops with Khadijah Ibrahim over the past two months.  Khadijah founded the Leeds Young Authors in 2003; you may have seen the film We Are Poets when it was screened in Leeds a couple of years ago – it was based on the work she initiated with local young poets who went to America to perform their work. Widely published, Khadijah both writes and coaches with amazing style and encouragement. 

Some well-know poetry by luminaries such as Langston Hughes and Sylvia Plath showed the sort of material that the youngsters had worked with to get them in creative mode.  And then they took it and ran with it.  Powerful, original, thought-provoking, building on observation, feeling and teenage dreams.

A monologue on Petit Pois by drama teacher Kate Mitchell dwelt on the petty life of a disappointed wife whose dreams of a firepit, eating quinoa and going on a road trip to Memphis had dwindled to a dull life with Derek. He likes the TV quiet; she turns its commentators' voices up loud as Derek's is stilled by inhaling peas. Macabre but compelling.

An interval challenged the audience to a haiku competition – 17 syllables arranged in 5,7,5 formation – and was spiced up by Basil and his card tricks.  Sleight of hand led to sleight of words as the youngsters performed more of their own work.  Envy, childhood, war, name games, carnival – it was all here and beautifully performed with barely a note needed as these poets knew their words, inhabited their poems, spoke with such confidence.

Khadijah performed some of her own original writing too: work commissioned for the Leeds Film Festival, ghosts in Jamaica and some reminiscing about school in the 1980s.  Games, lessons, music, sweets, friends – so evocative of a past these young poets were living in the present.

Thanks to Richard Wilcocks of the LitFest who worked with Khadijah and the young poets and their class for a couple of months to put the evening together.  Thanks to the staff who supported their hard work.  And thanks too to the young poets themselves: alphabetically, Amelia, Christabel, Isra, Lara, Martha, Nell and Raul.

Audience Comments
The evening was very good, the acts were very well thought out.  The setting was one of my favourites about the night.

The night was great.  We all had an opportunity to show off our talents.

How lovely to see young people performing their own work with such confidence and style.  Well done Khadijah.

What a lovely evening.  A real mix of styles and performers

The room setting was warm, welcoming, cosy – and a brilliant young person playing the keyboard as we came in.  The young people had worked with Khadijah Ibrahim and very confidently spoke about the inspiration for their poems which they then performed with a professional flair.   Audience participation was great and a monologue inspired by Alan Bennett was amazing.  Khadijah was brilliant, showed her creative talent and encouraged and inspired the young poets. An excellent event.

Beautifully hosted event.  Great to see the fruition of sessions building towards a performance.  Some beautiful poems.  Great event to build confidence with the children presenting their own poems.


Very good poems by the pupils and teachers at the school.  This was the first time I had been to the school to see the students perform and I was quite impressed.  I particularly thought it was nice that there was a magician going round at the interval.