Bradford’s Buzzing: a weekend at the literature festival

This weekend OneMonkey and I went to a few events at the second annual Bradford Literature Festival (which a friend of mine this week suggested should really be known as a festival of ideas as there’s a lot of current affairs programming in it). The events covered authors talking about writing (and reading, and the power of libraries),  political discussion facilitated by academics, a social history of coffee and Islam, and how the historical King Arthur may well have been based in York. Quite a contrast, and a nice illustration of the variety on the programme (though as another friend complained yesterday, there isn’t enough science or philosophy). The city centre itself was packed, helped no doubt by the dry, mild weather which broke out into sunshine occasionally. A long way to go perhaps, but it feels like Bradford is on the up.

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Variety, as embodied by my Bottle o’ Bangles

Writing and Adversity was a panel of three writers. Andrew McMillan is a poet from South Yorkshire with a noticeable accent, which is refreshing (I don’t run across many successful poets though, maybe none of them sound as posh as I expect). Melinda Salisbury writes high fantasy for young adults, where the main teenage character is a ‘real’ girl who’s easily manipulated and sometimes a coward, not one of these carbon copy sword-wielding heroines. Jerry Pinto from Mumbai has written all sorts and sees himself primarily as a poet but was talking about the autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom which took him 25 years to write, inspired by his mother’s depression. They talked about writing through and about adversity based on work with ‘challenging’ children or young offenders, and their own writing drawing on their own lives.

Trying to take unobtrusive notes during an event means I’ve jotted words and phrases that struck me but not necessarily who said them, so apologies for the largely unattributed nature of this. Nevertheless, among the ideas that were thrown around by the panel were:

    • How do you know your story is worth telling if your sort of person is never represented in books? (Which became a short diversion into diversity in publishing)
    • There is a certain amount of arrogance needed to write for others to read: you are saying this is worth your money, more importantly this is worth taking some part of your short life to read.
    • Non-fiction doesn’t require plausibility, but if you turn your experiences into fiction you have to come up with plausible characters, which can make you cut half of what made those people interesting to you in the first place.
    • If you want kids to read, ban books (Jerry’s dad banned the buying though not the reading of books and they therefore attained status as illicit items).
    • If you want adults to read, don’t try and tell them reading is a great improving, moral endeavour. It’s another flavour of having fun, like dancing.
    • The personal must become universal as you write it, the more honest and specific you are, the more general appeal it has (Andrew doesn’t enjoy writing, often finds it painful but then that emotion comes through to the reader).
    • There is a difference between Poetic Truth and What Really Happened Truth (Andrew quoting an Irish poet whose name I didn’t catch) and sometimes you can pin down the former without having to rigidly stick to the latter.
    • If you want to know who you are, write something. Writing can help you come to terms with something even if you never show that writing to anyone else. It can allow you to look back and say it wasn’t that bad, here’s the moment of beauty in it. Jerry also mentioned a kind of distancing, being able to revisit the memories of his mother slashing her wrists again, and cleaning up the blood and calling the police – attempted suicide still a criminal offence – by telling himself he’s writing fiction and his job is to get words down on the page.
    • Art comes in the calm aftermath of the storm, what you write in the middle is too raw. You have to take out some of your own pain to leave a gap in which the reader inserts their own painful experiences. Catharsis occurs for the reader when they bring this pain to the reading and find release.
    • Writing about the bad stuff can be seen as either exorcising demons, or losing a part of yourself. However, the sea feeds the iceberg even as other bits of it are breaking off (i.e. you’re continuing to build up other experiences and store up new bits of yourself)

 

A thought-provoking hour and a half. As was the next event, but that was on quite a different topic.

Leaving aside what I think of the word ‘mainstreaming’, the Mainstreaming Hate Speech discussion was about the rise of the far right in Europe (though it was pointed out that it’s not only happening in Europe. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump). Three Professors, a diplomat, a local author and the head of an NGO, plus a roomful of thoughtful and interested people who were let loose with a roving microphone for half an hour. Could have been chaos but it was well chaired and polite, with a whole host of interesting points made (and AA Dhand was in the audience, Bradford pharmacist by day, noir author appearing in The Observer in his spare time). I did make some notes but as some of it strays into contentious issues and I don’t guarantee I’ll represent it accurately I’m going to take the easy way out and skim over most of it. As with the earlier event I’ll throw a few topics out there that came up:

  • The far-right doesn’t create ideas in a vacuum, they’re echoing what’s in society.
    All societies are tribal to some extent, and are suspicious of The Other.
  • Bigots shouldn’t be banned (e.g. NUS no-platform): let them speak then expose and hence humiliate them in front of society (OneMonkey kicked off the round of applause at this point).
  • Interact with people who aren’t like you, don’t walk away from people who don’t share your views (I find this one hard, personally). Bring things into the open and discuss them. Build bridges, talk, stop living in your own culture’s cocoon.
  • Protesting has its place, but if shouting and screaming wouldn’t stop you being an activist it won’t stop your opponents either.

 

They talked among other things about the misguided Prevent strategy, media portrayal of Muslims, and what it means to be a British Muslim. Mention was made of one of my favourite news stories of recent years, where the mosque in York invited the lads on the far right demo inside for tea and biscuits. How very British, everyone said (though I wonder if it’s really How very Yorkshire).

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Tea, still nicer than coffee despite being a relic of imperialism

Tea may be very British but coffee is from the Yemen, apparently (the plant is originally from Ethiopia but as I understand it the drink originates in fifteenth century Yemen). OneMonkey doesn’t even like the smell of coffee let alone the taste, and I only occasionally break out the jar of (Fairtrade) instant, but we do like a bit of history, so The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee sounded like a treat. Abdul-Rehman Malik was a most enthusiastic and engaging speaker with a love of coffee that added sparkle to his talk. We got a sprint through fatwas, riots, sieges, the spread of coffee via medieval universities in the arabic world, and coffee houses in seventeenth century London. I love the idea of Turkish coffee houses with storytellers, musicians, chess-players, and the democratising effect of rich and poor mingling to enjoy their (apparently affordable) drink. I’m really looking forward to his BBC Radio 4 documentary (also called The Muhammadan Bean) this autumn.

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Finally we went to Pennine Dragon, a talk about King Arthur and historical evidence pointing to him being Arthwys, a 6th century king based in York. OneMonkey (proud Geordie) was disappointed that he wasn’t from the north east, but slightly mollified by the idea that Avalon might be a place on Hadrian’s Wall. Simon Keegan didn’t claim to be the first to notice Arthwys, but earlier historians as he put it ‘say oh yeah there’s an Arthwys who lived at the same time as King Arthur but it can’t be him, he’s northern’. I’m not going to rise to that one, I’ve had a lovely informative weekend and it’s time to settle down with a cup of tea.

Quick news and reviews round-up

This is the first of 10 days off work for me, and while it’s going to get busy soon I thought I’d take a few minutes out to update you all (because I know you’re all eagerly awaiting my news).

I wrote a review for The Bookbag a couple of weeks ago, which I seem to have forgotten to point out. It was a fabulous crime novel called Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street, translated from Estonian and set in medieval Tallinn. If you’re at all partial to Cadfael or Shardlake (or enjoyed The Name of the Rose) I’d urge you to go read my review then find yourself a copy of the book. I need to get hold of the first in the series now, as the one I reviewed was the second.

The busy period I alluded to above is caused by my forthcoming evening at the York Festival of Ideas with French friend Alice, we’re on at 7.30pm on June 9th and that is scarily close now. If you recall, we did a similar event last year, but that was (loosely) a play within which we read out stories or recounted myths and legends. This year there’ll be a bit more of a lecture-like feel to it I think, with snippets of physics and history as well as stories read out by me and told free-form by Alice. Come along if you’re in the vicinity and you might be interested in time travel, calendar adjustments, and the standardisation of time.

On top of that, Ilkley Writers are going to be at Morley Arts Festival at the end of September. We began planning our performance in detail yesterday and I’m particularly looking forward to it because of my long association with the town. Big Brother practically lives at Morley library.

Right, back to the fine-tuning for York. Accompanied by a cup of tea, naturally.

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

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Bill Bryson’s eminently readable style makes this doorstopper of a book about one spectacular summer most enjoyable. It was much more focused than At Home and I learnt all kinds of fascinating things. Mainly about early aircraft.

He managed to highlight the web of connections between all the big players at the time – politicians, newspaper men, aviators, inventors, sports stars. He also used the summer of 1927 as a gateway to other history (this laid the foundations for that or was the culmination of this) though it does seem to have been a particularly packed season. I wondered if you could get a similar book out of any year or if there really was something special about this one.

Charles Lindbergh and various attempts at long-distance flights are the unifying thread to the book but even though I’m not especially interested in that, Bill Bryson made it captivating. It’s the baseball sections that mystified me – he did throw in the odd explanation but I’m so unfamiliar with baseball that it didn’t help. I’m afraid I sort of skimmed them in the same way I do the hunting interludes in Anthony Trollope, or cricket matches in PG Wodehouse.

All in all though, an entertaining book about an age and a place that much has been written about. Certainly read it if you’ve enjoyed Bryson’s previous books regardless of subject matter, and give it a go if (like me) you have a certain fascination for 1920s America.

Aftermath of moorland fire

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An afternoon stroll interrupted by dark lunar landscape. Swathes of burnt bracken and heather, an oasis of green and one unscathed tree. Why stop there? What’s so special about this grassy peninsula, tongue of flameless ground licking the slope?

One small step, as walking boots raise puffs of black, disturb the November smell out of place in summer sunshine, reminiscent of the fire-damaged stock in a long-closed second-hand record shop. One giant leap, crunching through dark crust like a bite into royal icing, like slicing into a macabre wedding cake. Do it again, sink into a pile of burnt twigs.

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Bend to sift through ashy debris, looking for ready-to-use charcoal sticks to draw this scene later. Pick them up and they crumble to flakes. Hints of living browns and greens among the grey, as well as cracked and scorched eggshell.

Later, on the ridge, look down and see the tracks left behind.

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Northern underclass

I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but sometimes there’s nothing for it but to stand up and roar ‘I am northern and I am proud’. What’s got my goat today, I hear you ask (those of you who aren’t already tutting and turning away), well settle in with a mug of something hot and I’ll tell you.

The immediate trigger for incoherent rage (which hopefully has now subsided into coherence) was an article in The Guardian yesterday about trainee teachers from the north being told to tone down their accents in the classroom. Now, the scientifically trained bit of my brain is jumping up and down about small sample size and all the rest of it (really it doesn’t seem much better than anecdotal evidence), but for today’s purposes it doesn’t matter exactly how many people this happened to, or whether it was more prevalent with certain accents than others. The point is that any headteacher saw fit to tell anyone that their accent was not fit for a teaching role.

During a lengthy rant in the pub this week, Mark the artist made the point that (northern) working class culture is being eroded (Paul Mason wrote an article in The Guardian on similar lines not long ago) – imagine, he said, going back in time to somewhere the British colonised long ago and saying don’t worry about it all dying out, it’s called globalisation and progress. Well at the time they probably did say that but among the liberal intelligentsia now that would be unthinkable, traditions and dying languages need preserving at all costs. And yet, this doesn’t seem to extend to regional accents or dialects within Britain.

Those of you who’ve been around here a while will know of my fondness for and interest in accents (though not necessarily the written rendering of them). Since pretty much everyone I know is northern (or Scottish) I mostly talk about the north in relation to this but I’m all for retaining regional accents regardless of where you’re from. I had my first 2 or 3 years of school down south (East Midlands then Cornwall) and not surprisingly I got laughed at for my accent, and particularly for bits of dialect I didn’t even know were dialect. That drove part of my accent and dialect use away, but what was even worse was returning to Yorkshire and being told by teachers that, to paraphrase, well-educated young ladies did not have Yorkshire accents. Thankfully I have a strong rebellious streak, and my determination to hang onto my accent was helped by my Grandma warning me against sounding like sister number 2 (who worked in a mill, when there were still mills to work in).

What does it say to working class kids if all the teachers sound accentless and posh? It says people like you do not become teachers. I’m one of those in-betweeners, working class family with a middle class education and I still find comfort when I go into a meeting at the day job and find some academic or senior manager with a noticeable accent, it means I’m not automatically going to ruin my credibility by opening my mouth.

It might seem like a small thing, but accents are family-bonding, they’re how you show you belong, and they’re part of our heritage and who we are. To demand that someone gives that up to conform to a centralised ideal of the perfect teacher, and in the process set themselves apart from the pupils they’re supposed to be a role model for is cruel and pointless. I haven’t even got onto the spelling and grammar tests that are confusing for certain regions (I think Michael Rosen had a mention of the differing uses of ‘until’ recently) but I think I should get back to enjoying my day off and listening to rock n roll.

 

Morrissey’s infamous novel List of the Lost

I wavered for a while but in the end I couldn’t resist List of the Lost, Morrissey’s 2015 novel, particularly after enjoying his autobiography so much. I’d heard a lot about it but not what it was about, everyone had been so busy writing about the author and his style, and there was no synopsis on the paperback cover. For the first 42 of its 118 pages (that being where I gave up on it) List of the Lost is ostensibly about four young men in a relay team in 1975, in America. What it might really be about is a love of words, a hymn to lost youth, a regret for inexpert fumblings both in the arena of lust (physical) and love (mental).

It’s not so much a novel as one long (no chapters), melancholy (naturally) Morrissey song, supply your own music. There are flashes of lyrical brilliance, there’s some good imagery but as a piece of prose it’s overblown and hard to read, you end up breathless. It kind of wants to be a poem, and it spreads its poetic wordage like weeds across the pages, becoming uncontrolled and a touch repetitive. The dialogue is far from realistic but I didn’t get the impression that it was meant to be.

I have a feeling that if it was written by some lauded writer it would be nodded sagely over and dissected by undergraduates, whereas from Morrissey (a mere pop singer) it’s dismissed (and I veer towards the latter as the correct response in both cases). Either way I couldn’t finish it, but that’s at least as much to do with my complete lack of interest in narcissistic young American athletes as the way it’s written.

Approach with caution (borrow it from your local library, as I did, rather than buying a copy) but it may hold interest both for the Morrissey fans and the melancholy poets.

Summertime and the writing is easy

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Less than a week after snow I’m breaking my sandals out, as we seem to have accelerated through Spring and into Summer this week. Fittingly, my summer working hours kicked in this week so I have slightly more time outside of the day job in which to wander on the moor, in the woods, or by the river, or read a book with the cat sprawled on me. Or, of course, write.

I don’t seem to have written much fiction lately (or this blog, come to think of it). Book reviews, an essay (which will probably appear here if it doesn’t get accepted where it’s been submitted), spontaneous and natural links for the radio programme, but not much in the way of stories except a couple of pieces of flash fiction. I wrote one of those for a competition and it’s already not been shortlisted, and the other I wrote because I felt like it, then sent it to a magazine that doesn’t mention on its website that it’s closed to submissions for a while. They will both now sit in my pending folder for another few months till I go through another bout of enthusiasm.

I love writing, as you can no doubt tell. I even finish things sometimes, though it can take a while (I finished the first draft of a novella a few weeks ago, first started in 2012 I think). What I don’t like so much is submitting stories to competitions and magazines. All those fiddly guidelines, subtly different from one place to the next. All those cover emails where I’m never quite sure what to say (or submission forms where a cover letter is optional. Does it look bad if I don’t? Will they read it if I do?). I’d be a lot happier sometimes if I could just get on and write and not worry about submitting, re-submitting, reformatting and all that jazz. But then, what’s the point of writing it all if no-one reads it?