history

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).

Tea

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.

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

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Set mainly in November 1912 among the chaos of suffragette-besieged London, this debut novel is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a romp through Edwardian society.

Frankie George (Francesca to her mother) is a trouser-wearing twenty-something reporter for the London Evening Gazette, relegated to the Ladies’ Page due to her gender (and, if we’re honest, her inexperience). With ageing ex-courtesan ‘Twinkle’ she writes week after week about fashion and high society when what she really wants is breaking news. Ebony Diamond is a suffragette who is also a trapeze artist, and when she goes missing shortly after Frankie tries to interview her, Frankie decides she could be on to something.

What follows is an adventure through hidden London, taking in the circus, Soho clubs, fetishists, suffragettes and sensationalist reporters. It’s done with a light touch despite featuring a couple of murders, and the outrageous character of Twinkle provides some highly amusing interludes.

Although the suffragettes feature heavily, I would say this novel is more about independence than about suffragettes specifically. Working women, trouser-wearing women, women who’ve left their husbands or want the vote, but in all cases don’t want the conventional life set down for them at birth. It makes for some odd alliances, and shows how it’s possible to be forward-thinking in one respect but utterly closed-minded in others.

Frankie was an endearingly flawed character, liable to go off half-cocked, untidy and disorganised, constantly broke and seemingly forever noticing how bad she smelt (sleeping in her only clean shirt yet again). The ‘Sapphic tendencies’ people kept accusing her of were never explicitly confirmed, but it added an extra dimension to the struggle for independence. She was generally optimistic and trying hard to help others and further her career.

That dilemma at the heart of her journalistic efforts was another good strand of the book. Just because it’s a good story doesn’t mean you should publish it, it could ruin lives. How far is she willing to go for her newspaper career?

Lucy Ribchester had obviously done plenty of historical research (and then played fast and loose with bits of it, as any good historic fiction writer needs to), but at times it did feel a bit like she’d thrown everything and the kitchen sink at the book. There were a couple of circumstances or sub-plots that I assumed would become relevant later, but never seemed to.

I wouldn’t be sure how to categorise this novel. Historical fiction yes, but with humour and a modern touch that made me (who has read a fair bit of steampunk) keep expecting it to take off on a flight of fancy. In a way that was supplied by the trapeze element, I certainly learnt more about circus performers than suffragettes from reading The Hourglass Factory. There was a murder investigation running through the book, but it wasn’t really a whodunnit. There is an element of thriller later on as facts come together and the race is on. In the end it’s about Frankie trying to get on with life on her own terms, and landing herself in varying amounts of trouble and friendship along the way.

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.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

Or An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as it seems to be called. I read this a couple of years ago (another illustration of the benefits of free out-of-copyright books for e-readers) but with all the Corbynomics kerfuffle it seemed a good time to mention it.

I read it in the spirit of Know Your Enemy, since Adam Smith seems to get blamed/credited with everything free market from Thatcher onwards that I oppose, but I was pleasantly surprised. His views were not quite what I expected, I even agreed with a fair bit of it (though some might have worked with a smaller population and a different system of banking etc but isn’t applicable today. And sometimes he seems almost naive in thinking people will do what’s fair or best for the country rather than what provides most short-term advantage to themselves).

He’s by no means a socialist but the provision of a living wage and progressive taxes seem to fall naturally out of his style of pragmatism. He doesn’t have much time for the idle rich, or greedy merchants who whisper in government ears to make sure their own interests come before those of the nation. Which I’m sure would come as a great disappointment to half the people who point to him as the foundation of their economic beliefs, but haven’t actually read this book.

What’s the moral of this tale? That Tories aren’t always as bad as you think? Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far… However, go to the original source whenever possible, that could be one lesson to learn. Like reading Corbyn’s economic policy for yourself instead of believing the doom merchants.