Pages Ago Historical Readers’ Day
Manchester Mechanics Institute, 11am – 5pm Saturday 16th October
The Mechanics Institute on Princess Street in Manchester was founded in 1824, its aim being to educate the working classes in the basic principles of science via part-time study. How fitting that a building with so much history should provide the venue for the Pages Ago Historical Readers’ Day, part of this year’s extensive programme for the Manchester Literature Festival.
Historical fiction – often broadly defined as any novel that is set in a time period at least sixty years earlier than its publication date – is big business at the moment, a fact reflected in the excellent turnout for the event. A mixed crowd of men and women of all ages, many clutching books to be signed later by the featured authors, and all buzzing with the anticipation that the opportunity to get close to your favourite writers brings.
The day began at 11am with all-important tea and coffee (thirsty work, this festival lark), and an extremely genteel, mannerly version of the usual bun-fight that workshop registration often brings – the most popular were already full by ten past the hour. At £18 including lunch, the day offered excellent value, with general talks in the morning and two workshops from a selection in the afternoon; although I suspect many will have spent their £18 again many times over at the temptingly laden bookstall available throughout the day.
The highlight of the morning session was the key note lecture by Alison Weir, a writer of both fiction and non-fiction historical books. In an interesting talk, Weir refuted the notion that popular history has been “dumbed down”, pointing out that she and other successful historical writers draw on exactly the same sources as their more rigidly academic counterparts, and simply choose to present the events of the past in a narrative that makes history accessible to all.
The importance was research was a theme that continued throughout the morning, with a lively panel discussion chaired by University of Manchester lecturer Jerome de Groot on the “Place and Popularity of Historical Fiction”. Weir was joined on the panel by fellow writers Sarah Dunant, Maria McCann, Douglas Jackson and Robyn Young, and all spoke of the need to build a sense of trust with the reader through the accuracy of their work.
As well as expressing horror at the rise of the e-book – seemingly a compulsory part of any literary gathering these days – the panel also discussed the reasons for the current popularity of historical fiction, agreeing that perhaps modern readers wish to escape into the past as a reflex against the relentless march of technology. It was also suggested that events popularly depicted in historical writing such as The Reformation may hold more relevance for a modern audience now familiar with fundamentalism in the wake of 9/11.
But never mind all these engaging and thought-provoking ideas, because by now it was lunchtime. Hoards of hungry historians must be given sustenance, and this was duly provided in the form of a buffet table full of party food that was swiftly dealt with before everyone took their seats once more for the afternoon session.
Having arrived too late to book a place in the Sarah Dunant workshop, I spent a pleasant 40 minutes with Douglas Jackson, who talked about his transition from mild-mannered assistant editor of The Scotsman to a writer of visceral novels depicting the violent streets of ancient Rome. Rather inspiringly, Jackson got his big break when he posted the first 10,000 words of his novel on the Arts Council sponsored website YouWriteOn, proving that it is still possible for an unknown writer to get recognised in these competitive times.
For the final workshop of the day a new batch of writers was wheeled in, presumably on the basis that the others had been worked hard over the course of the day and deserved a rest. I signed up for an interesting session with Mary Sharratt, who spoke engagingly about how moving to Pendle had prompted her to write about the famous witch trials in her novel Daughters of Witching Hill. Other sessions were provided by Adele Geras, Sarah Mallory and Andrew Martin; this foursome then made up the final panel of the day.
And this was where I left them, for my next event was calling me from across town. As Manchester Libraries’ main contribution to Pages Ago, the nationwide promotion of historical writing that has been running all year, the event was a resounding success: well-run, good value and with high-calibre speakers open to any questions. And of course, it goes without saying that at least half the audience, me included, will be inspired to run home and try their hand at knocking up a historical bestseller…
by Liz Gregory