literary festivals

Flash Fiction, maps, and a poetry pamphlet

It was the Northern Short Story Festival on Saturday, courtesy of Leeds Big Bookend, and I went along to take part in the Flash Fiction Slam, a kind of competitive open mic. There are lots of photos here on Flickr including an unfortunate/amusing one of me with what can only be described as an expressive reading face on. Masses of variety on show, I was outclassed by Lynn Bauman-Milner doing a dark and intense take on Cinderella while I opted for The Invisible Woman, which you may have read here on Reflex Fiction recently. Neither of us won.

Mark the artist (who’d come along with OneMonkey to be supportive) and I ended up talking to the illustrator Simon Smith for ages. There are photos of that too, if you’re interested. Among other things, Si worked on Stories from the Forests of Leeds with Daniel Ingram-Brown, a genius idea where writers (amateur and otherwise) around Leeds created characters based on area names then developed stories around them. I would love to see a Bradford version (naturally) and if all else fails maybe Mark and I could initiate it ourselves. Hmm…

Coincidentally I was looking at an old map of Haltwhistle this week and the story ideas within the names on that sheet alone were fantastic: Hot Moss, Galloping Rigg, Baty’s Shield, Foul Potts, Clattering Ford, Windy Law, Foul Town, Crooks, New Angerton, Fairy Stairs, Witches House (ruin), not to mention at least 3 castles. I urge you to go look at the fabulous old Ordnance Survey maps there on the National Library of Scotland site, they’re amazing whether you’re interested in history, your neighbourhood, or quirky old places to build a story round.

Lastly, lest I forget, the International Women’s Day poetry pamphlets from Bradford Libraries are out now, with my poem in. Dead excited to get this through the post:

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Looking at the future of Iraq through fiction

On Friday evening a regrettably small audience gathered at the Ilkley Literature Festival to hear about the new book of short stories from Comma Press. Called Iraq+100, it’s an exploration of what Iraq might be like a hundred years after the 2003 invasion, i.e. in 2103. Comma Press founder Ra Page and the book’s editor Hassan Blasim (sometimes with the assistance of an interpreter) talked us through the idea behind the book, what it’s like to be a writer in Iraq, and the lack of a science fiction tradition in the Arab world.

Hassan Blassim is a writer and film-maker who fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and after 4 years on foot across Europe (writing all the way) settled in Finland, where he is still based. He has been published in English by Comma Press for nearly ten years. Hassan made the point that all across Europe ‘international’ literature festivals often mean work from North America or other parts of Europe, there is little African or Arabic literature available, so the Iraq+100 anthology was a good way of getting some Arabic stories translated into English.

The idea for the book arose in 2013, from the 10th anniversary of the invasion and most of the stories in it were written before Isis took Mosul in 2014 thus dramatically changing the narrative. Consequently the book was delayed until some stories dealing with the legacy of Isis had been written, but the result is a mixture of hopeful, dystopian, and satirical writing. Apparently all the writers were hesitant about setting work so far in the future, at first. Since the 1940s there has been a small sci-fi presence, mainly in Lebanon and Egypt, but there wasn’t the nineteenth century industrial revolution in the Arab world that kickstarted the genre in Europe. Hassan’s view also is that there have been so many conflicts in Iraq, everyone’s writing is influenced by war and conflict and they don’t have the luxury of sitting back and letting their imaginations run wild. “Peace is a great laboratory for imagination,” he said.

In Iraq, Hassan said, the ‘official’ writers are affiliated to government bodies and aren’t free to write as they choose, though the most danger for writers there now comes from the religious militia and not the government. He is hopeful for the future as the rise of Isis has made it easier for writers, or young people on Facebook, to criticise religion and religious figures, which would have been unthinkable in 2006. Young people in Iraq are protesting weekly about religious governance, although that appetite for change is rarely (if ever) shown in Western media.

This was an eye-opening evening, which I think shows the importance of literature in translation for getting a true view of situations in other countries.

Ken Livingstone entertains Ilkley

An hour in a surprisingly less than packed King’s Hall with Ken Livingstone and we learn that (to summarise) pretty much everything that’s wrong with Britain can be blamed on Thatcher, bankers, and tax-dodgers, and most things wrong with politics (and in particular the Labour party) are Tony Blair’s fault. Which I think we already knew so it was a largely convivial evening among friends, marred only by interviewer Ruth Pitt’s insistence on asking several questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the Remain campaign. The referendum is long over, time to deal with the aftermath not endlessly dissect the handling of it.

Except as Ken pointed out early on, politicians need to learn from history, so perhaps dissecting it is a good thing in principle, just not in a relatively short interview. He also pointed out that because scientists tend to speak in cautious terms, politicians don’t tend to listen to them, and not many politicians have a scientific background so they remain technically unguided on many science-based issues (climate change is his biggest worry in this regard). In one of many memorable phrases of the evening (several of which it’s probably not a great idea to repeat) he said that when he was young, politicians were old, ugly and dull, concentrating on policies. Thanks to Blair (naturally) it’s all focus groups and telling people what they want to hear, with many MPs going from university to advising an MP to becoming one themselves. “They’ve never run stuff,” he complained – few ex-councillors, trade unionists, even small businessmen compared with say 30 years ago.

Ken Livingstone partly ascribed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn (which came as a surprise to him) to the anger of working class voters all across the Western world, veering either to the left or the right but not sticking to the centre: both Trump and Sanders in America, Podemos in Spain, Marine Le Pen in France for instance. He reckons that if Corbyn wins the 2020 election (which Livingstone believes he can) it will be the most significant election since 1979 and could/should herald real change. He did also point out that some of Corbyn’s ‘extreme’ policies were considered perfectly reasonable by previous governments (not only Labour!) and some of his own far-fetched GLC ideas of the 1980s are now accepted by the mainstream (like gay marriage, which was eventually introduced by a Tory government, unthinkable 40 years ago). He gave us an insight into long-running media smear campaigns and what dissenting voices have to put up with. It’s enough to put you off getting involved in politics in any way.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Ken Livingstone, though we share many political views. While I hadn’t heard of Jeremy Corbyn until he stood for the Labour leadership last year I’ve known about Ken for most of my life (you’d have to ask Big Brother for a rough estimate, but I think it’s since the days of Michael Foot) so it was interesting to go along and see him this evening, being largely amusing and laid back, making serious points, and not being afraid to speak his mind, as usual. And anyone playing the ever-popular Ken Livingstone Hitler Bingo would have scored in the first five minutes. If I was part of the Labour top team I think I’d consider measuring him up for a gag.

Ilkley litfest: Tim Smith photographs Gujarat

This evening in an eerily deserted Ilkley I went to see Bradford-based photographer Tim Smith talk about his Gujarat project. I learnt a lot about the history and geography of that part of India, for instance I had no idea it was about the size of the UK (both in area and in population) or that more than half of British people with Indian backgrounds have their origins there. Interestingly there are specific localities connected, so that Gujaratis from Batley are predominantly connected to one part of Gujarat which is a different area from those who live in Bradford, different again from those in Leicester or Wembley.

Tim began his career in Bradford in the mid-eighties working with the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit (oral history and documentary photographs), and it was from the large numbers of migrants he photographed in Bradford’s mills that he eventually worked so much on documenting migration to Britain. As he said this evening, the textile work was the ‘pull factor’ that encouraged people to come to the UK, but he wanted to see the story from the other end. Hence he spent 2 months in Gujarat in 2014.

His style is photographing ‘ordinary people doing everyday things’ whether that’s in Bradford, Leicester, London or Surat. There was a nice symmetry to some of the pictures he showed: Indian restaurants in Bradford and English-style restaurants or food stalls in India; the interior of a church in Mumbai that could have been anywhere in England, and the interior of a mosque near Bradford that could have been India. One of my favourite pictures was a woman in a shalwar kameez playing cricket on a beach, which happened to be in India but could just as easily have been Blackpool.

Unfortunately an hour proved to be too short a time to fit everything in and sadly Tim had to rush through the last half-dozen photos, but it was an interesting evening with some wonderful photos and I’m sorry I missed the exhibition that arose from this trip (though there is of course a book).

Ilkley Litfest: Mike Jay

The first event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was an eye-opening talk on the history of asylums. Straight away, in my first sentence, I’ve struggled with what to call them, and that difficulty in terminology was the first thing Mike Jay addressed.

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His book is called This Way Madness Lies, and he stressed that none of his word choice is intended to be offensive but when you’re covering hundreds of years of history the words people use change as much as the attitudes. Madness, lunacy, insanity, mental illness. The affliction as permanent and inherent, or able to be treated with rest, electric shocks, drugs. The asylum as prison, hospital, home. All these changes in perspective reflect changes in society or the progress of medicine.

It is not a linear, progressive history and Jay suggested there were cyclical elements and also – which I found particularly thought-provoking – that if you took a snapshot at any one time you would find examples of both good and bad conditions. He also talked about delving into several hundred years worth of the Bethlem hospital (‘bedlam’) archives over the last decade, and gave a very brief overview of the ‘open air asylum’ at Geel in Belgium, which I hadn’t heard of but has about as long a pedigree as Bethlem (Geel is a town in which there is a centuries-old tradition of taking people with mental problems as boarders with families).

All in all, a packed 45 minutes where Mike Jay rattled through a number of topics from his (illustrated) book and showed a selection of slides including art by asylum inmates, some or all of which were taken from the book. As the audience questions about the effects of austerity on mental healthcare today, and the possible future for psychiatric treatment, showed this history illuminates the present and I’ve added this hefty volume to my To Read list.

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.