Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Three times good

Sunday afternoon was just right: words, music, memories and warm sunshine. Three LitFest events took place in houses with capacious front rooms, all of them completely different, under the heading Pieces for Places.

The first was at the new Spafford abode. Three new authors - Jo Brandon, Connor Whelan and Katie Godman - pictured below in that order - bravely stood to read their pieces, introduced by Peter Spafford. All of them are connected with The Cadaverine, an Arts Council funded ezine which brings new authors (under the age of twenty-five) together with an emerging readership. It features interviews with leading authors and regular reviews. This is the official description:

From urban gothic to high modernism, cyberpunk to scathing satire, science fiction to fictitious cookery, Cadaverine is a comprehensive and uncompromising introduction to the new voices of English Literature.

Katie Godman kicked off with extracts from her novel in progress, which is set in Bristol, introducing us to some of its characters and scenes, which included one involving newly arrived slaves, still in chains. She was followed by Jo Brandon, who is the managing editor of The Cadaverine. She read a series of poems stimulated by memories of her vacation job at Balmoral. I would fish out The Linen Cupboard as one which I found particularly memorable. Connor Whelan recited W.B.Yeats's The Lake Isle of Innisfree before getting to his own poems, the best of which was inspired by the loaves which are still available at the legendary Murton Bakery in Cardigan Road. He is the editor of The Scribe, a creative writing mag produced in Leeds University Union. Poetry and Audience, I was reminded, is the product of students in the School of English. I couldn't help thinking of the reading by the veterans in the Brotherton last Thursday. Then and now eh?

So refreshing and enlivening, this session! Young blood! All three were recorded by Peter Spafford for ELFM, so you can listen to the podcast.

Very soon, there is going to be an original writing link for selected items which were first heard during the Headingley Litfest. It will be up on the right.

The second piece for a place, or if you like, piece of a place, was at Maggie Mash's, and it was entitled No Place Like Home.  It was a full programme of poetry, drama and song, complete with a versatile pianist (the excellent John Holt) and a line-up of accomplished performers. It was polished, professional, and superbly entertaining, with a large audience seated in rows on two sides of the room. It included (and this is taken from a long list) an extract from Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent (about getting away from Iowa), Aubade, written and read by James Nash, The Interlopers, written and read by Linda Marshall, part of Forty Years On, written by one-time Headingley resident Alan Bennett and advice on etiquette dating from 1834. Jazz singer Lynn Thonton gave us a hilarious Plastic Recycling Blues.

This sort of thing just has to catch on. So successful! Perhaps this will lead to some June or July events: if we don't have a barbecue summer like the one we didn't have last year, we could do things inside, if necessary with the windows open. Soirées, even, why not?

Below, Jane Oakshott, Dave Robertson, Richard Rastall, Maggie Mash, Lynn Thornton


The third event at the Jones's, Déja-vu, was not a performance, but an opportunity to hear about two extraordinary periods in the life stories of Gaby and John Jones. In 1971, Gaby and John were driving a car beside Lake Como in Italy, on holiday. Gaby knew she had lived somewhere around there when she was three years old in 1938. She said,"Stop the car!" somewhere on the road between Como and Bellagio and then walked up to a villa which she recognised. The door opened, and the elderly lady who answered it told her that this was the Villa Cocini, where Gaby had spent her early childhood. At first, she did not recall much, even though she had lived there since the thirties, because many families had come there on holiday, even during the war. Then she was told the name of Gaby's family - Wulff. She flew at Gaby to embrace her. She had last seen her as a tiny girl.

There followed a tour of the garden, the terraces of which descend to the lake, where there is a view of the renowned Hotel d'Este on the opposite side. Gaby recognised the view, the paths and the little patio where she had been given breakfast al fresco many years previously - and she felt a kind of shudder when she walked up one of the paths, just before a turn to the right. A little further on was a dark grotto with water dripping from its roof. A Blessed Virgin, stars circling her head, was contemplating the distant mountains, enough to induce shudders in a three year-old.

Gaby went on to explain how her father, who worked for an American firm, had transferred to the Milan office from Berlin in 1933, not a bad idea if you were Jewish. In 1938, the family came to England at a time when the German Nazis were putting the tighteners on the Italian Fascists, getting them to step up the racial discrimination. She ended up in Argentina. A slide show followed, showing a selection of photos from a family album. It ended with a postcard with a photo and a message in German inviting people to a birthday party in Buenos Aires. One of the selection is below - Gaby at breakfast in 1938.

John introduced one of the audio tapes he had made about ten years ago when he was recording his autobiography. His voice, sprightlier than nowadays, was heard telling the story of his posting to Knokke in Belgium. He had arrived with the Royal Engineers in 1944 during the last phase of World War Two, and the Germans had not long left. There were macabre scenes: in the damaged streets, the skeletons of horses had not yet been cleared away. Local people had cut off the meat when it was fresh, from the animals the Germans used to pull heavy items, and which they did not film, preferring staged shots of strapping young Aryans atop modern panzers. He remembered the small hotel with inadequate lavatories which was used to cram in as many squaddies as possible and a Café des Artistes, which had walls covered with drawings and paintings. He traded one of his own drawings for beer.

One of his strongest memories was of the events which followed the 'White Parade', when local citizens who had been in various camps and prisons in Germany returned, to walk to the centre of town, reunited with friends and family. As they walked, people broke away to paint black swastikas on certain houses. After the ceremony, many returned to the daubed houses, broke in and systematically smashed everything from window frames to beds. Debris and belongings were thrown on to bonfires in gardens. These were the houses of collaborators, or people said to be collaborators. But, said John on the tape, known collaborators, mostly male, had already been arrested and imprisoned, so the houses were occupied by wives and children. These were hounded, but the troops were forbidden to interfere in domestic affairs. Nevertheless, a sergeant major had at one point barked at a disorderly crowd, telling them to clear off and go home, which is what it did.

John had returned to Knokke a couple of times. No hotel, no Café des Artistes. A new statue. A housing estate. The usual seaside stuff. Ice cream. A large casino with an exhibition of work by Raoul Dufy, the French Fauvist painter.


  1. Hebt u gelijkaardig geheugen? Als u in Knokke leeft, gelieve ons te contacteren.

  2. 'Deja vu'
    What an absolutely fascinating story. There must be a novel or a film in there somewhere!
    I was very interested to read about Mr Jones' memories of Belgium at the end of World War 2. My father went there from North Africa around 1944.I remember him telling me that he was billeted, along with two companions, with a widow- not sure whereabouts in Belgium. They had not had much food and were really enjoying a welcome repast of good home made stew served to them by the worthy widow. Father had nearly finished his substantial plateful when she asked him if he liked 'cat'. Seeing two plump, sleek cats lying in front of the fire he indicated that they seem to be fine specimens of feline- or words to that effect. She soon pointed out that she was not referring to the two supine figures but to the contents of the stew he had just partaken of. Perhaps it is best left to the imagination what happened next but needless to say stew did not feature regularly on Dad's menu or if it did was not received with much enthusiasm by him! Perhaps he did see the horses referred to in your article because he said that he would never eat horse. Neither could I!