Ilkley Literature Festival Review: What Lies Beneath

Is it cheeky to review your own event? Naturally I’m going to say that the eight members of Ilkley Writers (there are more of us, but only eight on stage last night) gave a wonderful performance at the festival fringe, and if you weren’t there then you completely missed out, but that in a way is by the by.

What I can offer is a backstage view, at least from my perspective. Last night’s performance of eight stories, with a backdrop of a 50-minute silent film of the river Wharfe at various points through Ilkley and Ben Rhydding, accompanied by a glossy programme to say who’s who, and a booklet of seven of the stories for the bargain price of £2, was the culmination of at least three months’ work. All the stories we read in front of the audience had been through several drafts, and not all of them were the stories we started out with – I had written another beforehand, someone else was on their third I think.

We read our stories to each other at a dozen or so meetings, suggested improvements or reassured each other as the self-doubt set in. We laughed a lot, despaired occasionally, and spent a fair amount of time in the pub (we did set out for an evening picnic by the river some time in the summer, but it turned chilly that teatime and we ended up in a pub a stone’s throw from the river, complete with a variety of camping stools and blankets). Yesterday the nerves set in, some suffering far more than others (with a certain amount of gin and red wine being consumed in the hour or two before curtain-up. Not by me, I might add), but for me at least, the excitement as we sat on a line of wooden chairs in the wings and glimpsed the audience filing into the auditorium through a gap in the curtains, washed everything else away.

From where I sat I couldn’t see the film properly, but I listened to each story as though I was in the audience, enjoying the performance, being caught up by the characters and noticing where yet another change had been made since I last heard it. When I stepped out onto the stage and adjusted the microphone (being probably six inches taller than the person before me), I realised to my horror that I couldn’t see the audience at all, just blackness with a dazzling spotlight shining forth. All that looking up and making eye contact I’d been practising at home, wasted! I tried it anyway, guessing at where OneMonkey was and aiming my gaze there from time to time (I missed, apparently, and was looking intently at the side aisle) as well as peering into the gloom here and there. It was a surreal experience (we were in a studio theatre last year, sitting among the audience ourselves until we went to the front to read) and I did have a dizzying moment of belief that I’d somehow managed to go through the wrong curtain or point in the wrong direction, and wasn’t standing in front of 80-odd people at all.

Afterwards in the foyer, people I didn’t know came up and said nice things (some of them were connected to other members of Ilkley Writers but some seemed unknown). OneMonkey and Mark the artist exuded enough pride to light up the town, and I was half a grin away from dancing up the hill singing I Feel Pretty from West Side Story (thankfully, I didn’t, but I do have a character who does in one of the stories in my SF collection Cracks in the Foundations, which you can download free here. Seamless plug).

The Ilkley Writers literary festival appearance is over for this season, but I’ve got another crack at it, at the Open Mic night on Sunday October 18th. I’ll let you know how that one goes.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie – writer, broadcaster, unashamed wearer of red trousers – provided well over the allotted hour of insight and mirth this evening in Ilkley’s King’s Hall. The event was billed as relating to his most recent book, The Pie at Night (which even he keeps calling Pies and Prejudice by accident) but although he did keep referring back to it in passing, and read a short extract eventually, the bulk of his readings were from earlier works and the bulk of the delivery was comedic and anecdotal.

Particular stand-outs for me both revolved around his mum. The wonderful tale of him interviewing her some years ago about her taking the two-year-old Stuart to see The Beatles in 1964: she can’t remember what the band played or who supported them, but can recount at length the weather, the neighbours in the queue, the refreshments, and what the family had for tea later.

The other one was a trait which all northern women (used to) have, of relational story-telling such as ‘you know, Gladys. Worked with your mum at the chip shop before she married that feller from Rotherham with the false leg. He had a caravan two berths down from your Norman at Brid that summer, when Flo and Arthur won the teddy bear on the front’. It wasn’t his mum’s long-winded argument about Blackpool so much as the way Stuart Maconie linked it with Icelandic sagas, and northerners being the true inheritors of our forefathers’ means of expression (instead of Agbard son of Gimli who slew the troll, we have Ethel wife of Peter who drove the bus. He put it better than I have though…). I like that idea, I shall return to it at some point, I’m sure.

Interestingly, the hall was only about two-thirds full, and I do wonder if it’s the prices that are the problem. There was a list of ‘over 100 events with tickets remaining’, including some big names. I bought a whole raft of tickets weeks ago, and I got a shock pulling these ones out of the pack tonight and realising in some moment of madness in late summer I’d handed over nearly thirty quid for OneMonkey and I to sit and listen to an admittedly amusing raconteur for an hour. There are so many events packed into such a short time at the Ilkley litfest, and so much I’m interested in every year, but only so much I can afford to go to (and don’t expect me to have any left over to buy the books).

As for Stuart Maconie’s latest book, this evening’s left me none the wiser as to whether I should read it. It has made me want to go borrow Pies and Prejudice from Big Brother though.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Writing and Reading in the Digital Age

More from New Writing North this evening, as Claire Malcolm chaired a discussion on connecting readers and writers in the era of the internet. Book blogger/podcaster Simon Savidge, author and book vlogger Jen Campbell, and Rachael Kerr from Unbound (crowdfunded publisher) shared their views on reviewing books, the dominance (and distance from modern reality) of mainstream publishers and national newspapers, and lots more besides.

An important point made about blogs/vlogs (incidentally, vlogs and vlogging are hard to say and ugly to write – is there another term out there?) is that the reader/viewer can get to know the personality and taste of the writer/presenter in a way that’s not possible with sparse (often faceless) book reviewing in print media, and in this way come to know which recommendations to trust. This can help people read out of their comfort zone, which is probably a good thing.

Despite dire predictions, people are continuing to read print books, children are reading more than they have in years, and book sales are up lately (though no-one on the panel mentioned that that might just be a result of closing libraries…). Jen offered the interesting snippet (from her new book on the history of bookshops) that a late medieval bookseller in Florence declared the advent of printed books ‘the death of the book’ and shut up shop, so basically there have been dire predictions for about as long as there have been books.

The other part of the discussion (though really everything melded together quite well) was about crowdfunding, and that direct link between author and readership. On the face of it (having not had time to look into it at all) Unbound sounds like a great idea: authors submit a manuscript or book project idea, if Unbound decide they like it they set a funding target (the cost to print X number of copies, or for instance the cost to print plus the cost of giving the author a couple of months off the day-job so they can finish the thing) and interested readers pledge money. Anything made over the funding target gets split fifty-fifty between Unbound and the author, and they’ve already had some critical and commercial successes like The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.

I came away with many things to think about, some of which I may write about here soon. Or perhaps I should branch out into podcasting. Don’t expect me to make videos anytime soon, however.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: New Writing North roadshow

The first event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was a free hour with New Writing North, talking about their Northern Writers’ Awards. I was genuinely astonished that the audience was so small (in fact without a few late arrivals it would barely have outnumbered the panel of five) as this seemed like a great opportunity to find out more about a clutch of awards that for some of the former winners on the panel have been career-defining, and indeed life-changing.

The main impression I walked out of the room with was that to win one of these awards is to be welcomed into a warm and supportive family. For a notably gruff Yorkshireman (albeit female, I’ve said before Yorkshirewoman just doesn’t seem to trip off the tongue) that sounds like a sentimental reaction, but they genuinely seem to stay in touch with former winners as long as possible, to lend a hand (or receptive ear) where necessary, and to be thoroughly chuffed when said former winners do well elsewhere. I’ve been signed up for the New Writing North newsletter for a while now and seen various updates, but they could seem like bald marketing ‘hey look, this writer we tipped a couple of years ago has done well. Aren’t we clever for being ahead of the curve’ – once you’ve heard Claire Malcolm in person, enthusing so sincerely, you know it’s not like that at all.

Practically speaking, there were plenty of tips on making an application, but actually they’re quite laid back about it. Reading the rules in the past and finding there are no specific guidelines I’ve wondered if it’s something ‘insiders’ somehow know, and I’m going to reveal my ignorance if I genuinely do my own thing, but no, they’re just not that precious about things like word count, or what you feel the money would best be spent on. If the writing’s good (and apparently they read extracts/stories before synopses, so a poor synopsis isn’t necessarily the end of the road) that’s all you’ve got to worry about. Don’t know all the technicalities of script formatting? Fine, that’s part of what the award would help you with.

All in all, a reassuring experience and after 2 years where I wavered over applying and then decided against it, the 2016 awards might be the batch where I actually send something in. Applications open next month.

Sally Heathcote Suffragette

Bryan and Mary Talbot were at last year’s Ilkley literature festival talking about this graphic novel, and since then it’s been part of the Read Regional promotion in northern libraries. Particularly with the forthcoming suffragette film focusing people’s attention on the subject at the moment, Sally Heathcote Suffragette deserves a wide audience.

Cover of Sally Heathcote Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

As you’d expect given who produced it (Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, and Kate Charlesworth) it’s a high quality affair, with beautifully detailed artwork. I’m almost sorry that I borrowed it from the library, as there are some pages in particular I’d love to keep. The colours are generally muted, except for the purple and green of the WSPU, and the flaming ginger of Sally’s hair, that allows her to be spotted easily in a crowd. The background is full of authentic reproductions of railway posters, advertising boards and the like, and the era is conjured magnificently.

I found myself thinking early on ‘That Mrs Pankhurst is a right piece of work’ and I can’t say my opinion changed. The character of Sally is a good one to see the development of the story through, but I didn’t have much sympathy for Sally myself, as she gets involved in violence and destruction, and goes along with the absolute outrage at the idea of working men possibly getting the vote (that’s the trouble with groups that want the advancement of one section of society, rather than improvements for all). If you have a Northern and/or working class chip prepare to get it exercised, with Londoners patronising Sally for being from Lancashire and middle class women patronising her for being poor. Also, whether this was the intention or not, as it starts and ends with Sally as an old lady it did make me stop and think about the invisibility of the old, who knows what extraordinary things they did before they were so frail.

There are notes and a timeline at the back to really propel you into the history but I learnt a lot from the story itself (Sylvia Pankhurst’s split from her mother and Christabel for instance). Coincidentally, I read it in the week of the centenary of Keir Hardie’s death (thus getting a reminder of his involvement with trying to expand the franchise), and immediately before I started on Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (which covers both female and working male suffrage in the first chapter) so it all slotted into place nicely.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

Cover of Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

When I booked a ticket for the Ilkley Literature Festival event featuring Jami Attenberg and Liza Klaussmann, I hadn’t heard of either author and my main interest was as a writer. I keep dabbling in historical fiction inspired by family history research, and both Attenberg’s Saint Mazie and Klaussmann’s Villa America were set in the first half of the twentieth century and featured real people (Mazie Philips in the one, a host of well-known artists, writers etc in the other) as characters. Since Saint Mazie was available in my local library (I plucked it from the midst of their literature festival display) I started reading it, and I fell for Mazie Philips in a big way.

Saint Mazie is of course billed as being about helping homeless men during the Depression, since that’s what the real Mazie was known for, but actually the Wall Street Crash doesn’t happen till page 242 (of 321). What the novel is really about is Mazie herself, her extraordinary life, what drove her, how she became the woman she was known as. I don’t know how much of it is based in fact, or how much is really known about Mazie’s background, but as a novel it was captivating. The poverty all around, the difficulties and tragedy of everyday life, and Mazie pushing through the lot, just keeping going and helping out, wisecracking and drinking her way through another day. She’s what you’d call a strong female character and she becomes kind of a bedrock for other people to build their lives on. In a way she reminded me of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, never getting to follow his own dreams or live his own life because he has to be there for other people.

The format of the novel is unusual and works well. Snippets of Mazie’s (fictional) diary interweave with (fictional) interviews with an old friend of hers, descendants of those who knew her, local historians and other tangential connections who all have different takes or know different parts of her story. At first I found the rapidly switching points of view a little disorienting but it settled down into longer stints with Mazie’s diary and by then I was hooked by the story anyway. I did find it easier to read once I’d started voicing it as Mary Beth from Cagney and Lacey in my head (it might not be quite the right accent, but it helped me with the rhythm of Mazie’s speech patterns).

This is a novel full of love, loss, loyalty and humour. It has heartbreaking moments when I really wondered how Mazie could carry on, but she did. It’s the story of the New York poor as much as it’s about one individual, and I would recommend it widely. If, like me, you’re fond of F Scott Fitzgerald, and Cary Grant films, and think of New York in the twenties as one long glamorous party full of socialites, reflect as you read this that it’s largely happening in the same city at the same time.