Monday, 28 March 2011

Food for thought

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Food appears to be playing an increasingly important part in the LitFest. We began in a restaurant this year, compliments about the home-made cakes and dainties provided last year were commonplace, and similar praise has been drizzled upon us this time around. Perhaps we should finish in a restaurant as well. Or in a house with a good cook in residence.

This particular house event on Sunday afternoon was so successful that there had to be a repeat performance. Fortunately, the first lot through the door did not scoff everything, and there was plenty of Oyster Bay left to drink, because I was there for the second session. Lis Bertolla and Doug Sandle performed a well thought-out poetry programme, Maria Sandle sang and played guitar, and a couple called The Retrolettes sang and played the ukelele. At one point, Doug played a Jew’s Harp!

There were poems written by Lis and Doug themselves and by the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, Jonathan Swift, John Keats, Edward Lear and Roger McGough, and occasional ventures into prose, with short extracts from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. Maria was particularly charming with her rendition of Junk Food Junkie, and the Retrolettes brought us Trinidadian sunshine with the Andrews Sisters’ version of Rum and Coca Cola.

The session concluded with Lis’s own beautiful poem After the Poetry Reading. Then it was time for the nosh. We’ll have to do this every Sunday afternoon now.

Words and music melted together

Sheila Chapman writes:
A member of the audience said that The Shire Oak Room at HEART ‘had the enticing atmosphere of a New York Jazz Club’ on Saturday night and thus the stage was set for a very special event .

When I was researching the evening I had checked out reviews of The Fruit Tree Project jazz band  (Dave Evans on keys, Colin Sutton on Bass and Alex Wibrow on drums), and came across this comment:  ‘...they take on grooves and at times semi-free excitement equally to create a thrilling array of sounds’. Not knowing a great deal about jazz I was a bit puzzled by these words, but as the band kicked off the night, playing compositions by Dave Evans, I began to understand exactly what they meant. As one member of the audience (Terry Bridges) commented, they were ‘polished and consummate performers’. They entranced the audience and I, for one, found their array of sounds both thrilling and absorbing.

After a few numbers they were joined by the poet Rommi Smith, who explained that her poems for the night were taken from her pamphlet Mornings and Midnights. These poems are based on the lives of female legends such as Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker. They do not seek to tell the biography of these women, because that would demand too much ‘truth’, but rather to illuminate and narrate their lives through the life of Gloria Silver, a mythical diva whose experience and history is the backbone of the book.

Rommi’s collection of mornings and midnights poems is growing. We were treated to some poems from the pamphlet such as: Any Old Death Will Do, ‘...and maggots are the jewels against my skin’,  which explores Gloria’s reaction when she reads her own obituary while still very much alive (apparently something that actually happened to Peggy Lee); and when Bessie Smith Came Face to Face with the Klan ‘... stark white hooded exclamation marks’. We also heard new poems such as Fur Coat, Moonsong Jelly, and Rain  - where the musical rendition of the sound of rain in the intro was restrained, and incredibly evocative.

The poems, whether spoken or sung, were interwoven with the music with power and passion, and true musicality. Some written comments from the audience will tell you what it was like:

Words and music melted together like an ice-cream fruit sundae. But do not be misled as the core is as hard-hitting as a bullet (Glo Simons)

Moving, angry, engaged. The coherence of music & word & song was the best I’ve heard. (Murray Edscer)

Such professionalism in the execution of performance. Such knowledge in the poetry and background itself. (Jane Austwick)

It was a brilliant night. Once again some members of the audience say it all:

A moving and exciting performance ... more please.  (Anon)

Overall, a wonderful & moving performance – very inspiring! (Anon)

What a fantastic combination of the spoken word and fab music. (Bev Robinson)

Rommi so soulful. (Selina)

This event was absolutely outstanding. (Jane Austwick)

An inspiring evening and wonderful to have this on our doorstep! (Anon)

Inspired – a great addition to a literary festival. (Beatrice Schofield)

As Murray Edsecar said: "This was inspirational. ... an entrancing evening."

The Fruit Tree Project: Mornings and Midnights by Rommi Smith is published by Peepal Tree Press, Leeds (2005, 2008)

Ben Okri in Headingley

Cocktail in the Café

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Trio Literati provided plenty of gourmet material on Friday evening. Everything was professionally prepared and served up stylishly.

The key word for it? Zingy, like the excellent cocktail, which had something of everything appropriate in it, along with an ingredient which can not, should not be identified. The venue – Hawker’s Green Café in the Heart Centre – was ideal, lacking only a few directional lights, but that didn’t matter because this was delicious entertainment for a discerning audience.

I arrived from the evening with Persephone Books in the nearby library, accompanied by the speaker and several others, to find people already browsing on the delicacies on every table, waiting for the main courses from the group. Here is an idea of what they were like:

The first course was poems from Wendy Cope, June Carruthers, Philip Larkin, Stevie Smith and Frank Polite. Frank Polite? His Carmen Miranda was beautifully, fruitfully performed by Maggie Mash. We saw the pineapples and the bananas. The second course was about acting, stage uncertainties and thinking on your feet as the boards are trodden, with pieces by Nicolas Craig, Hugo Williams (Richard Rastell in Waiting to Go On... “they recast the suit”), George Burns (on faking sincerity), Victoria Wood (advice to the Piecrust Players... Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on a tandem) and Hillaire Belloc.

The poem with the longest title was performed during the third course – On seeing a collection of ironmongery in the Tate Gallery labelled “Woman” – written by Richard Rastell’s father, performed by his son. Other poems were by Frank O’Hara, Steve Ellis, Helen Burke, Roger McGough, and William Carlos Williams (The Artist, an inspired choice).

After a chatty interval, there were substantial servings in fourth and fifth courses of Paul Munden, head chef Carol Ann Duffy (Big Sue and Now Voyager), Roger McGough, Liz Lochhead, Lee L Berkson (the shade of Humphrey Bogart appeared), Linda France, Louis McNeice, Margaret Hobbs, Peter Spafford, Elizabeth Alexander and Alfred Brendel, who turns out to have been a closet poet as well as a rather famous pianist: his The Coughers of Cologne proves that he was rather good at it as well.

By the end, we were all happily pogged. Jane Oakshott, Richard Rastell and Maggi Mash (pictured below) were exquisite. See their website here.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

An evening with Persephone Books

Mary Francis writes:
Persephone Books reprints neglected novels, diaries, short stories and cookery books by women writers such as Dorothy Whipple and Katherine Mansfield. They are all carefully designed with a clear typeface, a dove-grey jacket, a ‘fabric’ endpaper and bookmark and a preface by writers such as Jilly Cooper, Adam Gopnik and Jacqueline Wilson.

Founder Nicola Beauman was due to talk to us on Friday, at Headingley Library, about the origins of Persephone, how books are chosen and about some of the authors. Unfortunately, Nicola then had a pressing commitment across the Atlantic, but in her place came one of her team, Miki Footman.

Miki told us something of the beginnings of Persephone - of how Nicola Beauman, while researching for her own book - A very great profession: the women’s novel 1914-39 - realised how very many titles from that period were out of print. She founded Persephone Books in 1998 to reprint (mostly) women writers and (mostly) of the inter-war period - and now has 90 titles in print.

Persephone is an unusual publishing house. It has remained small and independent - and its books are distinctive. For those who love the feel and the look of a well-produced book, they are a delight. The quality paper and the jacket, the typeface and those beautiful endpapers - and also the wonderful binding (apparently called Dispersion Binding - I hope I have that right) that enables the book to lie quite flat when open, without any cracking of the spine. 

There is now also the Persephone Classics series, with illustrated jackets, which may appeal more to those who are slightly unnerved by a plain dove-grey cover.

Waxing lyrical about book production is wont to provoke some puzzled looks from e-book enthusiasts - and, indeed, it was a surprise to hear from Miki that nowadays Persephone is not only producing audiobooks (very worthwhile) - but is venturing into the field of e-books also, in response to at least five email requests per day. So it seems there is definitely a demand for these titles, written so long ago, to be read with the current technology.

Miki told us a bit about working for Persephone. The staff consists of just five people, including Nicola, and the office where they work is also a shop, in Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, where passers-by are ‘encouraged to come in and take notice’. It sounds a delightful place to work, with everyone doing a bit of everything ... actually, Miki referred to painting the toilet floor as one job she’d undertaken recently!

Persephone also produces a free magazine twice a year. Called Biannually, it contains articles, reviews, details of forthcoming titles and any events - and usually a short story.

So how do Persephone choose their titles? They concentrate mainly on books that reflect women’s everyday lives. Their titles are ‘realistic, not idealistic,’ ‘more accessible, more domestic’ and they see the feminism in them as ‘softer’ than that from the other feminist publishers. They try to have many different genres, they do include books by men (generally ones concerning women’s lives) and they don’t overlap with other publishing houses. They also have to love every book they publish. There is no hope of a book selling well ‘unless someone is passionately behind it’.

Miki talked about some of their titles, such as the best-selling Miss Pettigrew lives for a day. There were Monica Dickens and Marghanita Laski - names I knew - and others, like Mollie Panter-Downes, that I did not. Nor did I know about Noel Streatfield, other than as a writer for children, or Betty Miller, mother of Jonathan. And I must read some Dorothy Whipple sometime .... she is a favourite of Nicola’s, it seems.

The session ended with lots of interesting questions from the audience - and only the slightest whiff of controversy as to whether their list might be a little middle-class and why works such as Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance (that featured in one of the LitFest events last year) were still out of print. Or might it be that such works simply don’t fit with the criteria? But it was obvious there was a lot of interest in the great work that Persephone is doing in rescuing some splendid titles from obscurity and bringing them to our attention.

Many thanks to Miki. Thanks also to Radish Bookshop, who regularly stock Persephone titles, for bringing along some books for us to buy. And for anyone who couldn’t get to the talk, do take a look at - and maybe, if one day you have some spare time in London, why not visit that intriguing shop in Lamb's Conduit Street?

Saturday, 26 March 2011

I wish I was in Dublin then

 Brendan Behan

 Flann O'Brien

Patrick Kavanagh

Sheila Chapman writes:
I was at Flux gallery again last night (Thursday) as part of my, not all onerous, LitFest duties. As I entered the room, (is it a hall, a Tardis or a wedge of cake?) the stage was being set for a great evening. The usual Flux Gallery hospitality was on display and we were ready to be treated to a night on the theme of A Literary Dublin, which is appropriate as Dan Lyons is a Dubliner who brings the literary life to Leeds.

First of all there was music from Des Hurley, Chris O’Malley, Jim Doody and  friends and songs from Jim too - unaccompanied of course.

Jim Doody introduced the theme of the film, the literary life of Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, and Brendan Behan in the Dublin of the 1950s/1960s. Dan Lyons then stood up and apologised for the poor quality of the film – picture and sound – and its tendency to stop at random intervals. But he thought it was worth watching. Of course he was right because what it lacked in packaging it more than made up for in content.

The film, in the form of a documentary,  was narrated by Anthony Cronin and he guided us through a feast of song, humour and history where the main characters spoke for themselves and were amply supported by contributions from friends and family and by the Dubliners and Dublin of yesteryear.

I had meant to take copious notes about the film but, as the lights were turned out,  I realised that this was a bad plan and so I am relying solely on my impressions and memories for this blog.

The first thing  I remember is that Bloomsday, that annual Joycean pilgrimage around Dublin,  was instituted by the characters in this film, although it seems that Brendan Beehan never actually got started as there were shots of him sound asleep (head flung back, mouth open) in a car. I think the others just dumped him. They then went on to follow the route of the funeral procession, succumbing in the end to some mysterious ailment which caused them to urinate copiously (against the nearest wall), laugh uproariously and generally fall about.

This set the tone for the rest of the film showing, as it did, the way in which the lives of these three literary greats were defined by their surroundings, their passion for the written word and their increasing involvement with alcohol.  In one scene a very courteous Irish civil servant, when talking about Flann O’Brien referred to this as ‘his little problem’.

Flann O’Brien, real name Brian O’Nolan,  wrote under many pseudonyms including that of Miles na gCopaleen, (Miles of the small horse as a member of the audience helpfully translated) who was a columnist for the Irish Times  famed for his satirical wit. O’Brien though, struggled to be accepted as a serious writer during his lifetime although he did eventually leave the civil service to write full time. It was suggested that he was negatively influenced by the fact that his novel, The Third Policeman, was not accepted for publication although it is now an aclaimed piece of work.

Brendan Behan was a Dubliner who came from a family with a strong republican tradition, his uncle wrote the Irish National anthem and his mother said that ‘she didn’t like the English’ - several times. She also sang during her interview and much was made in the film of Behan’s fine singing voice. Beehan also spent time in Mountjoy gaol and there were sequences from the Quare Fellow which was based on his time in the gaol. There were also extracts from interviews with Eamon Andrews who tackled him about his drunkeness on television with suitable unapologetic ripostes from Behan.

In contrast to Behan, Patrick Kavanagh  was a country boy who was born in Monaghan and came to Dublin only later in life. His early poems were based on his country experiences and in one sequence he was shown walking through a field and picking up a small bird, which was so comfortable with his touch it just nestled in the palm of his hand. Kavanagh lived in one of the old Dublin Georgian terraces and he had rigged up a large wing mirror on an outside wall angled to show who was calling so he could decide whether or not to answer the door! After a major operation Kavanagh experienced a renaissance in his writing when he was resting by the side of the Grand Canal in Dublin – the same place which inspired Lines written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.

These three greats swept aside the heavy shadow cast by Yeats and brought about a renaissance in Irish writing. Their lives reflected the creative brilliance of their minds and their enduring love for ‘a pint of plain’.

Des Hurley, of the Irish Arts Foundation made an inspired choice with this film.

A Literary Dublin was a partnership between Irish Arts Foundation and Headingley LitFest.

Eamonn Hamilton brought a display of Irish Literary books to the event

Friday, 25 March 2011

Dig deep to mine gold

Sally Bavage writes:
Lawnswood Poetry Slam yesterday (Thursday) evening was, once again, a heart-warming affair attended by a packed crowd of friends, family and supporters.  A slam features a broad range of voices, styles, cultural traditions and approaches to writing and performance. We got that range.

Welcomed in to the school hall by the talented Lawnswood Steelpans band, Amanda Stevenson, Head of English then introduced us to our compere for the night.  Local performer and poet Michelle Scally-Clarke came yet again to lend her support to this extraordinary event. Her own poetry lays bare her turbulent journey from care, to adoption, to motherhood, to performer – and she encourages the teenagers who go to her preliminary workshops to dig deep and find their own ‘Sense of Self’. She worked with the students for six weeks before the slam, nurturing their talents and offering them her own inimitable style of encouragement. Her hard work paid off. She mined gold.

Extraordinary?  Yes! To hear so many young people talking about their sense of alienation, angst, loss, love, abuse, sadness, differences, families, gangs, revolution .. was a stunningly powerful experience.  And not just talking either.  Some found singing, or rapping, even to their own musical compositions, a way of releasing their innermost feelings and thoughts.  To see the determination on the faces of those on stage, sometimes with shaking paper betraying their nerves, then see them changing visibly as confidence flowered and the power of their own words took them on a journey to a place where they were heard and respected – that’s what made it an extraordinary night.  Some were just on the brink of teenage, others were old beyond their years, but a cross-section of boys and girls from all walks of life were bound together by their commitment to ‘be heard.’  Or be seen – the dance troupe who welcomed us back for the second half were a visual version of showing the power of the words to which they danced.

All the ‘slammers’ received medals for taking part, and received the applause, whoops and hollers from an appreciative crowd.  Three special performances – for Best Performance, Best Poem and Best Personal Achievement – were awarded. Thanks should go too to the judges Richard Wilcocks (Headingley Litfest), Richard Raftery (staff) and Priya Lota (Slam Champion 2010) as well as Stella Litras and Jegbe for the musical support.  All the names of the performers are given below but credit must be given to Michelle Scally Clarke, who managed to inspire such confidence from these young people that they laid bare their ‘inner well’ of honest confessional.  A night to remember, for performers and audience alike.

Theo Bennett
Toni Busby (Best Performance)
Kirsty Crawford
Imogen Chillington
Amy Dawson
Fatima El Jack (Best Personal Achievement)
Polly Foster
Kieran Gately
Tanaka Guzuwe
Jasmine Joseph
Eva Moran
Teo Nistri
Ruvimbo Nyakubaya
Joel O’Mara (Best Poem)
Dione Sheehan
Zoe Kempe Stanners
Shannel Tata
Rosa Weiner
Huanna Witter

Richard Wilcocks adds:
Every year the thought crosses my mind that the most inspiring poets and singers of the entire LitFest can be found at Lawnswood School, at the Slam. This year, the thought was particularly strong. So fresh, so unpretentious, so spontaneous! 

Fatima’s poem about the Arab Spring, or to be more exact, the Egyptian Spring, with its audience participation, was simply astounding, bringing a whiff of the hope and excitement in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Toni’s rich alto voice and her ability to convey real emotion in her own compositions made me think that surely she will be famous one day, and Joel’s honest, open and kind poetic attitude put many adult versifiers to shame. But then, all of the contributions were more than worthy of praise.

Below, Michelle Scally-Clarke with three award-winners:

Thursday, 24 March 2011

How do you picture an author?

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Bob Swindells, the author of Stone Cold, Abomination, Brother in the Land, Daz4Zoe, Follow a Shadow, Room 13 and much, much else read from his work and answered questions from about two hundred Year 9 students at Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School yesterday (Wednesday) morning in an event described by Assistant Head Cathie Brown as “a triumph”. His audience was wonderfully attentive as he read from Room 13, which he later said was his favourite, and ready with questions of all kinds when he talked with them for more than an hour afterwards.

The students were probably most familiar with Stone Cold, the story of Link, a boy from Yorkshire who tries to find work in London but who becomes homeless, and who is then stalked by a serial killer. He spoke about how he had done the research for the novel, writing to organisations like Shelter and actually spending time wearing shabby old clothes sitting on a bench at night amongst real down-and–outs by the Thames. He had encountered some callous, even dangerous people, but also some kind ones, like the man who had walked past him carrying a takeaway meal, who had turned back and left it beside him without saying a word.

“I took ideas from stories in the news, and was thinking of Dennis Nilson, who murdered a number of young people in his flat.”

I asked him whether he was still got at by tabloid journalists for his choice of ‘strong’ subject matter. I remembered one particular screech from someone at the Daily Mail along the lines of “What are we doing to our children?”

“Not so much nowadays,” he said. “All of that happened when I was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Stone Cold. I am not usually that high-profile. It does not bother me.

I am often stimulated to write by things which make me angry, like the fact that there are homeless teenagers sleeping in doorways when there is no need for it. I am angered by the existence of nuclear weapons as well, and the mad threat to use them.”

He talked about when he was arrested for taking part in an anti-nuclear protest which involved getting chained up with others, then padlocking the chains to gates outside the Ministry of Defence. The police cut him free using bolt cutters. When he refused to pay the twenty-five pounds fine (those were the days!) he ended up in Armley Gaol. This was an extremely interesting tale for the audience, with plenty of follow-up questions. An author in a prison cell!

“I don’t know how you picture authors in your minds. Perhaps you think of someone wearing a dressing gown and drifting about the house with a cigarette in a long holder.”

Bob Swindells has officially retired from school visiting, so it was terrific that he agreed to come over to Leeds for the Headingley LitFest. He was much appreciated by the students and teachers.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

New Shoots

Richard Wilcocks writes:
You could feel the electricity in the Shire Oak Room as talented poet after talented poet impressed us, introduced by the efficient Jo Brandon, all of them from the Cadaverine stable. In the photo, see Ian Harker, Amy McCauley, Joe Hobson and Mike Honley. Young blood!

First Joe Hobson read us his selection, all of it tightly-structured, jammed with taut metaphors and startling word-choices. He struck me as a domesticated, rural sort of person, closely observing fuchsia bushes in the garden - touchstone scrolls against all that night.....we blink in full view - and looking at a garden spider as if it was a newly-discovered creature - his many legs folded in his terminals.... towing some memory up a thread - and also as someone who can capture a character in a few words – I’m dizzy as a teaspoon...  all buttonholes, no buttons. 

Ian Harker started with a real tree which had been cut down by his neighbour, then moved on to an invented fire tree. After fire came earth, a Bronze Age earthwork by the sea which fascinated him, dug out laboriously in ancient times – the earth struggles, and we fight it back. He referred to the mysterious Wodwo from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and returned to Medieval times in a poem inspired by an aerial photograph of his parents’ house which revealed marks and shadows in the field next to it – evidence of feudal strips. I liked this one best.

Amy McCauley, who is doing a Poetry MA at Manchester Met, produces short, very short poems, many of them with a Biblical link of some kind. Mary, Mother of God appeared several times, seen from very original viewpoints. I liked her thought that a cow would make a good pope because life should be taken slowly. Birth and conception was a theme, and also the Immaculate Conception – the pearl is formed and released by the dark spring. Another theme was family, with poems to a brother and to parents. She also mused on reaching the age of thirty... no comment.

Mike Conley, a twenty-six year-old teacher, reminded me in his images of the legendary Ivor Cutler (did he listen to him on the legendary John Peel radio programme?) but his delivery was all his own as he gave us a surreal narrative (Aquarium) set in an A&E involving a tank of goldfish. I really liked Ophelia’s view of Hamlet (he taught Hamlet to his Year 8 students) and his revelation that she had her lady in waiting drowned so she could go to her own funeral. This was in the form of a discovered letter signed ‘Mrs O. Fortinbras’.

After an interval involving, so it seems, plenty of networking, King Ink appeared, first of all in the figure of Michael Hann waving a whisky bottle filled with what may have been more than cold tea. He was a sort of cod lecturer raving about the split between Freud and Jung, complete with sanctimonious statements, platitudes and bits out of psychology textbooks. He was at his best when not stumbling about too much, when we could pick out something relatively sober from what became a deliberately incoherent dream sequence.

I was occasionally reminded of a more nightmarish Samuel Beckett, but perhaps that was not the intention. He was followed by John Chadwick as a burlesque mime artist, with a beautifully rubbery face and a mobile beret. Broadcast platitudes and exhortations connected with democracy, the rights of consumers, being independent in thought and much else were accompanied by frantic mouthings. Gute Nacht! Gute Nacht my sweet little demographics! said the background voice as the mime disappeared. Right.

The third apparition also harangued us. This was Tim Marshall as an ostrich-feathered, turbaned Russian professor (oh these damned foreign intellectuals!) with a stream of condemnation and advice – sooth yourself with twenty-four hour TV... beware of greed economics and botched sociology! We were urged to watch out for the use of Freudian ideas in any focus groups we might be invited to join, and watched a Powerpoint full of subliminal suggestiveness, with quickly-flashed images of, for example, a cut-off limb, a Hitler rally and paintings by Joan Miro and Francis Bacon.

It was a wild pantomime, a bit clunky and ready for revision – this was its premiere – but rather wonderful. King Ink can come again!

Let Me Speak

Vivian Lister writes:
On a daffodil sunny spring afternoon, a group  of twenty writers entertained and delighted an audience of friends and visitors with a mixture of poetry and prose that was by turns sad, edifying and funny. 

Some of the work  touched  upon  themes of tragedy and loss  as in the beautiful elegy for the long dead seaman John Torrington  who at just  twenty years old died of TB, malaria  and lead poisoning (Beechey Head by Campion Rollinson) or the poignant empathetic description of a frail widower examining a ‘biscuit tin of memories’: Coconut creams of holidays on tropical beaches/Chocolate bourbons of times in France/ and Lemon Puffs of Acid words /when Mary was alive (Memory Box by Jenny Jones). 

Others focused upon capturing and describing very personal experiences and events.  In Collide, for example, the  poet ( Howard Benn) strives  to pin down  those   very painful ephemeral  thoughts and feelings as ‘fragile as glass’ that accompany lost love, whilst in  vivid  prose B. McLinley describes the hazy thought patterns of the drinker.

Here is the   brisk concreteness of Beans on Toast- by Chris Woodhead:

-       Open the tin with a crocodile snap
-       Pour into the pan with a little tap
-       Into the toaster with bread nice and thick
-       Whilst watching the clock with a tick tick tick  
And here the lyricism of Marlene: She walked slowly towards the beckoning waves –young, beautiful, full of sadness, beyond control

This wide range of subject  and style was welded together by a singleness of purpose - the writers’  desire to create something true and authentic. Each individual had performed that magical language trick of transforming an experience whether of a single event (a day out in Wales , dancing , catching a teapot, a foster child’s temper tantrum, falling asleep) or a series of life shaping  incidents ( first 78 to lifelong love of jazz, the day of the Bradford Valley Parade fire, moving from rural Tanzania to urban Leeds) into  exact  and honest words and went on to deliver them with courage and openness.

The performance was as inspiring as the material . At the end of the programme, a member of the audience said, "Thank you for having me" and I knew exactly what she meant.  The speakers supported each other, creating an easy and relaxed atmosphere - all the more commendable when you know that they came from two  separate creative writing groups, Osmondthorpe and Headingley, and that the first joint run through had been two hours previously.

Becky Cherriman, the WEA tutor of both these groups was pleased that the joint venture had worked so well, although she stressed the  welcoming nature of both these groups. Some people have been attending the groups for several years and they form a supportive centre, always open to  people and ideas so that nervous newcomers quickly feel at home She also talked about the tremendous support of helpers for people with physical disabilities at the Osmondthorpe group  particularly Mary and  Jenna.

Talking to members of both groups revealed just how much they valued the creative experience of their weekly meetings. Here are just a few typical views:
It’s  wonderful to find a way to express yourself creatively , to try something new – and also to make new friends. And the group is local and easy to get to (Jenny)

I like to try out  different genres of writing and it’s great to learn from the different backgrounds and experiences of others in the group. (Howard)

Writing and sharing my experiences helped me to deal with lots of situations in my personal life.(Steven)

The afternoon ended with a rousing ‘seize the day’ poem by Carl Flynn urging us all to experience our lives to the full, to treasure our friends:
 And all the sorrows , all the joys 
 The chance is yours to make the choice 

I am sure that I wasn’t the only audience member who felt inspired by the spirit of these performers to do just that! 

In summary, I shall steal the words of an audience member, Mary Heycock. She wrote: A very entertaining and heart warming experience. I loved every minute!

And so say all!

Beast with Five Fingers

June Diamond writes:
Monday’s event at the Cottage Road Cinema appealed in so many ways. I’m a sucker for old horror films , and we also had local history and significance.

Janet Douglas began by telling us a vivid tale of the early life of the author of the original short story on which the film was based. In We Were Seven, William Fryer Harvey describes how he grew up at Spring Bank House in Headingley, in a Quaker household full of books and stories. His grandparents kept to the old ways and the family eschewed violence in every form, down to not burning a guy at Bonfire Night. It is no surprise that he read Edgar Allan Poe under the dining room table.

It also made sense to learn that he became a doctor, conducting a particularly gruelling amputation to free a trapped sailor during the First World War. This dreadful  episode wrecked his own health, but was retained in his imagination.

Janet’s lively and evocative introduction led brilliantly to the film. They really don’t make them like that any more, from the excellence of Peter Lorre, to the pace and atmosphere that contributed so well to the grisly story.  A terrific evening.

RW adds: We are approaching the hundredth birthday of the Cottage Road Cinema, the oldest operating cinema in Leeds, which opened as The Headingley Picture House on 29 July 1912. The first Leeds cinema was The Assembly Rooms in Briggate (opened 1907) which is now a refurbished space used by Opera North.

Monday, 21 March 2011

So how many would you get right?

Do you think it's too hard - or not? This is the quiz which was on the tables at the launch on Friday. Some people scored high marks without the benefit of Google. Thanks to Mary Francis for putting it together.

1.    Who wrote ʻThe Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christʼ?
2.    What is the name of Peter Robinsonʼs detective character?

3.    Don Quixote, Cervantesʼ famous hero, hailed from which part of Spain?

4.    Although much better known for her novels, she was also a friend of Charlotte Brontë and wrote the first biography of her. Who is she?

5.    Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichieʼs first novel was ʻPurple Hibiscusʼ. Can you name her second one, winner of the 2007 Orange Prize?

6. Who wrote ʻSouth Ridingʼ, recently produced (in shortened form) on TV? 

7. Who was the author of ʻTestament of Youthʼ? 

8. How are the two authors from questions 6 and 7 linked? 

9. Who wrote ʻOde to a Nightingaleʼ?
10. Who is the Scottish author of both contemporary and science fiction, whose name changes with genre by the use of the initial ʻMʼ?
11. Name the Egyptian author of ʻThe Map of Loveʼ who is also a political and social commentator and who reported directly from Tahrir Square, Cairo, recently? Or - name the most famous work by Naguib Mahfouz. [Bonus point if get both answers]

12. Name any novel by Jonathan Coe.

13. From which Kingʼs Cross platform does the Hogwarts Express leave?

14. The name of Kathryn Stockartʼs 2010 bestseller that features the lives of three women, two black and one white, in the Mississippi of 1962.

15. ʻOur Kind of Traitorʼ is the latest title by whom?

16. Can you name the famous Spanish poet who is author of the play ʻYermaʼ, currently on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse?

17. Famous detective series, based on books by R.D.Wingfield, filmed in West Yorkshire. 

18. Name Ben Okriʼs most famous book. [Bonus point for his latest novel, of 2007, also.] 

19. What is Jonathan Franzenʼs latest, highly acclaimed, title?
20. Which of these titles is not an Agatha Christie mystery? (a) 4.50 from Paddington (b) The Mystery of the Blue Train (c) Death on the Tracks (d) Murder on the Orient Express.


Richard Wilcocks writes:
Wes Brown lived in Burley, when he was even younger than he is now (early twenties) and his novel Shark is largely set in the area, which in case you don’t know is right next to Headingley. This evening event took place, appropriately enough, in a large front room in a house in Burley not far from the narrow bridge on St Michael’s Lane. He was interviewed by Mick McCann, author of the encyclopaedic How Leeds Changed the World. They are both in the photo. See Mick's Guardian article on Leeds writers and their rebel-rousing influence here.

Shark, described in its blurb as ‘a story about the dispossessed and how they get by’ has John Usher as its main character. He is an ex-soldier who returns to his boyhood home (in Burley) to find that things have changed drastically. Wes made it clear that he was an admirer of mid-twentieth century writers like Alan Sillitoe and that he hoped Shark would be seen as a genuine working-class novel which came out of real-life experiences, including his own. He talked about his early years, his father’s work as a professional wrestler and bouncer, and how he had spent ages with a guide to pool and snooker, because John Usher spends much of his time in pool halls. “It sounds very authentic to me,” observed Mick McCann, and after we had listened to Wes reading from the opening pages, I think most of those present agreed. Usher’s language is spiced with the right obscenities, and his tough talk could be taken at least partly as a consequence of the time he spent in Iraq.

There were comments from the audience about this and about the flashbacks which deal with Usher’s time in uniform. How can you write about the horror of war if you have never been in one? Well you can, it appears: Stephen Crane’s late nineteenth-century short novel The Red Badge of Courage, which is set in the American Civil War, was greatly admired by citizens who had been soldiers because it sounded credible and authentic. It’s often difficult to interview soldiers, Wes agreed, because traumas and painful memories can be internalised, leading to numbness.

Wes spoke about his interest in the actual shapes of word and sentences, and about how he connects various colours with pieces that he writes, which was picked up by a psychologist in the audience. It’s a benign condition.

There was plenty about influences, the names of Bellow, Updike and De Lillo cropping up frequently. The language has to sound just right, really streetwise. Wes has his own ideas about phonetics , and they work:

“So what abaht that?”
“I’ve got past that. Truss me on’t this, arr know what I yav to do and I’ll do it.”
“Iss too risky for me.”
“Av taken bigger.”
“Who does Fran think abaht all this?”

Wes explained that he is untrammelled by what is sometimes known as ‘political correctness’ and that opinions and statements that issue from the mouths of characters who have been in contact with organisations like the EDL (English Defence League) are just some of those that he has heard in real Burley and in real Leeds. “It’s not my racism. It’s for the readers to judge,” he said. “I didn’t write a manifesto.”

People lingered well past the end of the allotted hour, and a significant number of books were signed and sold by both authors.