Friday, November 27, 2009

MLF Brochure Scoops Gold and Silver Design Awards

Manchester Literature Festival’s 2009 brochure has recently scooped Gold and Silver Awards in two prestigious design competitions: Fresh Creative Awards and Roses Design Awards. The bold and minimalist art work was produced by Manchester design agency Mark Studio. The design builds on the iconic new MLF branding introduced last year.

The 64 page brochure was printed on recycled newspaper – making it very environmentally friendly and economically viable, enabling us to dedicate full page attention to every event in this year’s festival. One of our guest authors, Joan Bakewell, loved the concept so much she wanted to recommend all arts organisations follow our lead. Not everyone loved the funky design as much as we did, but out and about at festival events, audiences were certainly engaging in animated discussions about the brochure and the intriguing logos gracing volunteer T-shirts, posters and banners. “Did you go to the Long Division?” was one of my favourite, overheard snippets of conversation.

This is the third year that MLF has worked with Mark Studio, and each time they’ve produced stand-out art work, helping to raise awareness of the festival within the wider zeitgeist. The 2008 new branding was featured in Design Week, and selected for inclusion in the Creative Review 2009 Annual and the industry bible, Design and Art Direction Annual 2009. The 2007 MLF brochure, which you may remember, featured photographs of people having sneaky reads in corners of the rain-washed city, was selected for inclusion in the Big Book of Brochures published by HarperCollins. We can’t wait to see what imaginative new concept they’ll come up with next year!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chorlton Book Festival stirs the suburbs

Manchester Literature Festival is apparently not the only book festival in town – our festival blogger Clare Conlon picks her highlights at this month's Chorlton Book Festival...

Less than a week after Guo Yue and Clare Farrow wrapped up the Manchester Literature Festival with their magical Children’s Bookshow bookend, the city isn’t ready to close its dustcovers just yet. Even The Guardian has picked up on the bookish buzz of the place with an article about Manchester’s Literary Renaissance by Manchester University lecturer and MLF trustee Jerome de Groot, which the city’s literati and Twitterati have been proudly disseminating (see The Manchizzle and The Art of Fiction blogs for starters). In it, Manchester is described as ‘one of Europe’s most creative and dynamic cities’, so it’s no surprise that even the sleepy suburbs are a hotbed of talent.

Yesterday, down in the south of the city, the fifth annual Chorlton Book Festival got off to a flying start with the local launch of Too Many Magpies, the new novel by Didsbury-based author Elizabeth Baines. When she’s not a prizewinning prose fiction and script writer, Baines likes to tread the boards, so she had her 20-strong audience hooked as she treated them to two excerpts from the haunting story set in an imperfect future heavily influenced by the local area. An acclaimed short story writer, she also read from one of her more light-hearted pieces – the tale of a writer getting a script mentored, it was well received by those gathered (many of whom were writers themselves) in the relaxing environs of Chorlton’s Lounge bar.

Baines’s fellow Salt author Robert Graham will be appearing at the Festival later in the week, reading from his latest collection of short stories, The Only Living Boy, in the cosy Lloyds Hotel. Heartwarming and quirky, Graham’s work draws inspiration from the people and places of Manchester, and one of the anthology’s stories, Fruit Or Vegetable, revisits the principal characters of his novel Holy Joe, which is largely set in Chorlton, where he lives. Graham also teaches at MMU Cheshire and is the author of a number of creative writing guides, including How To Write Fiction (And Think About It), and his workshops and readings are always well attended.

Not surprisingly, the lovely old Chorlton Library building is playing a big part in the festival, hosting a number of events over the 13 days (click here for the full programme). It will provide the backdrop next Tuesday as Manchester-based crime writer Bill Rogers reads from his thriller The Cleansing, which follows a killer clown who is haunting the city’s streets. Rogers may also have a few real-life local horror stories to reveal – having worked as a schools inspector in the Chorlton area, who knows what tales he has to tell!

As well as novelists, short story writers, poets, playwrights, historians and non-fiction authors, Chorlton Book Festival will this year include bloggers, so even the most modern forms of writing are explored. Didsbury-based writer and blogger Adrian Slatcher works for the Manchester Digital Development Agency, advising arts organisations on how best to use social media to improve their online presence. As part of the festival, he will be presenting a workshop on social media for writers, showing how the web can be exploited for writing, marketing and publishing purposes.

Also bringing the festival bang up to date is a poetry slam, compered by street poet and MLF's own Call Busker Mike Garry, whose latest work includes Mancunian Meander and features the unforgettable verse: Gorton girls / Know all the words / To songs by Chaka Khan. The best performance will win £50 and the contest (one of a number of events aimed at young people) is open to anyone aged 13 to 19.

Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her blog, Words & Fixtures, won Best New Blog in the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Guo Yue Knows Why the Caged Bird Doesn't Sing

For the very final event of this year’s Manchester Literature Festival, we take over the Library Theatre for a double showing of the Children’s Bookshow, featuring the internationally acclaimed flautist Gue Yue and his writer wife Clare Farrow. Over the next hour the husband and wife team bring to life their collaboratively written book Little Leap Forward, which tells the story of Yue’s own childhood in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution.

Yue and Clare are positioned amongst corrugated metal sheets, the stark set for the theatre’s current production of The Good Soul of Szechuan, which conveniently helps conjure the narrow maze of alleys – hutongs – of 60’s Beijing. Yue’s leg is in plaster due to a recent footballing injury (he says he still feels like the eight year old Little Leap Forward inside, and he certainly has the exuberance of youth both on and off stage). Behind them there’s a screen showing old photos, interspersed with some of Helen Cann’s beautiful illustrations.

Clare reads poetic passages from the book and Yue elaborates on the story with fascinating details of his childhood, explaining how being very poor did not stop him and his enterprising friends from having fun: inventing games using apricot stones and making kites with their mothers’ message paper. I’m starting to reminisce about my Blue Peter days now, but I’m sensing a certain amount of panic from the younger members of the audience – is someone about to confiscate my Nintendo?

From an early age Yue wanted to be a musician and begged his mother for a violin, a cello, and finally, a more affordable bamboo flute; threatening to lie down in the deep snow until she relented. He now has a case full of flutes of varying sizes, some with jade tips, which he plays entrancingly, but it’s a tune on his first penny flute which gets the biggest cheer from the kids.

At one point Yue demonstrates how to catch a bird using a chopstick, a bowl, a piece of string and a very fast reaction. In the story, Little Leap Forward keeps his wild songbird, Little Cloud, in a small cage (a common practice in China until very recently) but despite his best efforts he can’t get it to sing to him. His friend Little Little, now living under the frightening new order imposed by Mao’s Red Guards, has a great empathy with the bird and asks, ‘Wouldn’t you rather be free, just for a day, than spend a lifetime in a cage?’ No prizes for guessing what happens next.

By the end of the session the theatre full of children and their handful of teachers are feeling entertained and educated in equal measure.
Cathy Bolton, Festival Director

Monday, October 26, 2009

Seeing War through a Child’s Eyes: Michelle Magorian

Fans of Michelle Magorian gather this evening in the cafe of the Imperial War Museum , in anticipation of hearing the author talk about her 1940’s–based children’s books. When the daytime visitors to this popular attraction have left the building, we are ushered up to the atmospheric exhibition area to take our seats. The next hour sees us enoying a dramatic performance, history lesson, and insight into the writing process of an award winning writer, all rolled into one.

If anyone was unaware that Magorian is an actress as well as author, this would become obvious as she read her first extract, from her book Back Home. She tells the story through the eyes of Rusty, a young girl returning to war-torn England after spending 5 years in the USA. Rusty responds to explanations of her new boarding school uniform including bloomers, girdles and flannel pyjamas in much the same way as one of Magorians modern young readers might – she is as unfamiliar with 1940’s Britain as they are.

We are then given a series of readings as Magorian explains that each of her novels has been triggered by someting in a previous one. For example, Back Home was inspired by a picture she found when conducting research for Goodnight Mister Tom of young children waving from the deck of a liner. She didn’t have time to conduct research at the time, but felt compelled to go back to it later and write a novel based on the experiences of these youngsters. Cuckoo in the Nest was then inspired by a director who told her the story of his own wartime experiences, and then A Spoonful of Jam continued the story of Elsie, a character from Cuckoo in the Nest! Magorian later divulges that her latest book will tell the story of a character in A Spoonful of Jam some years later and will represent a minor departure, given that it will be set in the 1950’s.

It is clear during the evening that Magorian has an incredibly lively mind, both from her explanations of how her stories continually trigger new tales which she has to come back to, and in her descriptions of how some of her characters “appear” in her mind. She tells us that her Costa Children’s Book Prize-winning novel Just Henry was triggered by a picture of a cinema which came into her head at 3am.

One might wonder then, how Magorian came up with the idea for her first novel Goodnight Mister Tom, with no previous novels to be inspired by? Again, Magorian explains the train of thought leading to this much loved classic. She was appearing in Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and was trying to find a catalyst for a series of short stories. The colours of the dreamcoat became her inspiration, and the first pair of colours she chose to write about were green and brown. Into her head popped a boy standing in a graveyard wearing a label – he became William Beech and the short story was about his first day as an evacuee. When the short stories were finished, she returned to William and Tom, the old man who takes him in, and conducted further research into the experiences of evacuees. The result was Goodnight Mister Tom.

There are many questions for the author at the end of her talk, reflecting the affection in which the audience hold her writing. She is quite sure that her background as an actress plays a key role in her ability to make her characters so authentic. She is used to getting into the head of a character and looking at the world through their eyes . She also shares with us that she has to take frequent breaks when writing unpleasant scenes because she finds them upsetting . It seems clear that her own response to her plots and characters demonstrate why she is able to make her audience believe in her characters and feel affected by their experiences, both good and bad.

A queue quickly forms at the end of the evening, with audience members keen to get their favourite books signed. Magorian should have a new book out next year - but which parts of previous stories will trigger ideas for new plots after that? What kind of scenes and characters will appear in Magorian’s mind at 3 in the morning? Or perhaps she will make a return to acting? Wherever her train of thought takes her in the future, it is sure to be gripping and engaging!

Kath Horwill was formerly Head of History at a large comprehensive. She writes the blog Parklover.

When it Changed: Science into Fiction

I associated the moment of ‘change’ with scientific breakthrough. It was surprising to learn that the title came from a favourite short story of Geoff Ryman’s. As chair of the panel and editor of the collection from Comma Press, he told the audience that not only was it the name of Joanna Russ’ story, but should be the title of every story. This synthesis of science and fiction was something mentioned by each of the panelists. The great imaginative leap required to shape both fiction and scientific research was the point of contact for each of the pairs.

The idea was a simple, but fantastic one; to team a writer with a scientist. Each pair collaborated on a story based as accurately as possible on current scientific thinking. The other people on the panel were: Steve Furber, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering. Adam Marek, a writer who has been nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award. Tim O’Brien, an astrophysicist working at Jodrell Bank. Patricia Duncker, a writer of fiction and Professor of English Literature at Manchester University. Liz Williams could not make the launch due to illness, but her short story was performed by Geoff Ryman.

Steve Furber was self-deprecating and humorous. He talked in an accessible way about his work with microprocessors, explaining that there are now more microprocessors than human beings on the planet. He is interested in artificial intelligence and is currently building a machine with one million microprocessors to attempt to recreate one percent of the function of the brain. This interest in intelligent machines and their similarity to the human brain is represented by his favourite film – 2001: A Space Odyssey. Steve explained that HAL had the right mixture of logic and emotional subtlety to be one of the most sinister fictional robots. He also told the audience that he felt the best science fiction left things unsaid. His concluding comments on the similarity between fiction and research summed up the points of contact between the collaborators. He said that both required ‘imaginative speculation, creativity and risk-taking’.

Geoff Ryman explained that Liz Williams was a writer who also had a PhD in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Her story came about as a result of working with Tim Furber. He then began, quite unexpectedly, to perform the part of Wittgenstein in Liz’s story in a German accent.

The story was quite beautiful. Liz used mathematical and logical concepts to set the scene in an alternative Cambridge where Wittgenstein was living. The windows were perfectly proportioned, the light golden, the stones grey and ‘more like bone than stone’. This glorious symmetry hints at something sinister which becomes apparent. The other character in the story is an imagined Alan Turing. Wittgenstein becomes upset by the sight of an apple core in the room, which he does not remember eating. He talks of a mathematician named Alan whom he ‘recognised for what he was’. The eating of the apple is surely in reference to Turing’s scientific and symbolic death by eating poisoned fruit as a result of his persecution on account of his homosexuality. The opening of the story sets up a challenge to binaries – The characters both are and are not historical figures, Cambridge is both beautiful and a prison, The intelligent machine can be caught out by a ‘false note’ but it is not certain what this might be. There is a sense that in questioning the philosophy behind artificial intelligence, wider issues of discrimination and violation can be explored. In the last line of the section, nature had been inverted. The sky was black.

Tim O’Brien dates his interest in science to a fancy dress party when he was five or six. He had arrived wearing cardboard boxes covered in tin foil, dressed as either an astronaut or a robot. He worked with two writers: Patricia Duncker and Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Patricia and Tim spent some time together at Jodrell Bank where Tim works as an astrophysicist who, in his own words, ‘discovers galaxies all the time’. When Patricia was there they discovered one together. Patricia described the telescope as a kind of ‘unicorn’ which is surrounded by smaller telescopes, almost as though it has spawned. She said that she has spent many nights out on the Cheshire plain, watching the telescope move in time with the stars.
Patricia has written a narrative which blends religious experience with scientific accuracy. Both Patricia and Tim describe religion and science as a kind of ‘working through doubt’ as opposed to the certainty of faith. The religious vision which her young protagonist experiences at the end of the story takes elements of the ‘woman in the wilderness’ of Revelations and combines it with a scientifically accurate description of the life of a star.

Tim’s mind-blowing prophecy that in a few years from now we will have evidence of a planet much like Earth, containing life forms is tempered by the fact that there is no way that humans can travel more than a little way from the planet. He reminded the audience that though scientists may be able to tell that there are life forms much like ourselves by testing the atmospheres, colours and temperatures here on Earth in laboratories, it is frustrating as we will never be able to advance any further in our knowledge.

This unknowing, was a subject of Geoff Ryman’s questions at the end, directed at Tim, Steve and Patricia. All three agreed that the amount we do not know is increasing all of the time, and that the term ‘dark matter’ is there to fill the void. Dark energy is said to account for 96% of what is on the earth. Patricia Duncker suggested the term ‘dark knowledge’ could be used to cover what we do not know.

Adam Marek’s story was called Without a Shout and blended two ideas which he learned from a professor at Liverpool University. He works in nanotechnology and is developing a suit which measures heart rate, blood pressure, temperature etc. He is also developing face cream which can repair damaged skin. Adam Marek imagined a world where these ‘intelligent’ products were used to protect middle-class school kids from terrorist attacks. In the story, suicide bombers attacked the school children on an increasingly larger scale when they were fitted with suits which repaired their bodies. The chaos and horror of being blown to bits and then rearranged by ‘intelligent’ clothing is nicely contrasted with the more normal fights they have with the poorer school down the road. An audience member mentioned that what works so well about the story is that it follows normal laws and logic. Technology changes some aspects of the children’s lives, but so many others are universal and remain the same. Adam said that he has long ‘danced on the edge of science fiction’ and enjoyed the process of basing a story on actual science.

Geoff Ryman closed the readings by performing the first part of his story You. His concept of ‘life blogs’ concertinaing out of one another and allowing the spectator to experience virtual lives, the lives of celebrities and even of those long dead was fascinating. As a comment on the way in which technology has changed communication, it was not straightforward . Rather there was wonder in the proliferation of aspects. There are some beautiful images in You– ‘red soil bare of plants’, ‘silhouettes of cliffs’ and ‘shadows long and cold’ show the expanse of this unknown world. Perhaps in this space, behind the shadows and the silhouettes, there is a place for dark knowledge.


Laura Joyce runs the Red Shoes Workshop in Manchester and has a blog at

Long Division: Atef Abu Saif and Bernard MacLaverty

Alice Guthrie opened the event, standing in for Atef Abu Saif who had been detained in Gaza, unable to cross a checkpoint. Alice, Atef’s translator, was visibly angry and upset at the situation, and her emotion came out when she read out his stories. Bernard MacLaverty, a short story writer originally from Belfast, was the other reader. Both Atef and Bernard shared points of similarity, writing stories against the backdrop of sectarian violence. Yet both were keen to point out that what they captured was the everyday, it just happened that their everyday was a little different to most of the audience.

Alice Guthrie described the video footage that we had of Atef Abu Saif as ‘miraculous’ due to the restrictions on electricity in Gaza. Though only one or two audience members could understand Arabic, there was something beautiful about his rhythm and flow. I was sad that it was such a short segment.

Alice Guthrie read two short stories that she had translated into English. An Exclusive Mourning and The Portrait Years. The atmosphere for both stories was subdued. There was some humour in An Exclusive Mourning. It is the story of a film crew who wanted to film the protagonist weeping at the funeral of ‘the next child to be killed’ in order that they have the exclusive footage. The humour is uncomfortable, laughing at the absurdity of the media who want to fake horror in order that people will believe it. As though what is happening is not quite enough. It is hard not to identify in some way with that voyeurism, that appetite for drama.

The Portrait Years was an elegy to Palestinians incarcerated by Israel. Alice Guthrie offered a gloss for those of us unfamiliar with the system and explained that the prisoners are never allowed any form of physical contact with visitors. The heroine of the story, a mother of one of the incarcerated boys, dies without ever having touched him. Her thoughts are consumed with holding him, cooking for him, talking to him when he is released. She dies before her dreams can be realised. Her husband says that ‘time had a sharp axe’, the fifteen years since his son had been taken had all disappeared. Again, in this story, Atef shows us the everyday horrors of living in Gaza without ever making overtly political references. He tells us about the ‘everyday’ in his world.

To finish the section with Atef Abu Said, there was a pre-recorded interview with between him and Alice Guthrie. He referred several times to miracles. He mentioned the miracle of leaving Gaza, the miracle of having enough electricity to record the interview. He said that ‘nothing is regular, it is hard to reply to emails, to have paper to write, to find a loaf of bread. Things happen in bursts or do not happen at all. He said that in Gaza people ‘feel disconnected, unplugged’. He does not wait for miracles but tries to ‘pursue life, to feed his children, to write articles, to publish in journals, to write fiction and prepare for classes’.

He talked a little about the crossover and connection between himself and Bernard MacLaverty; that they both wrote from conflict areas. He said that national feelings and heroic values can adversely affect people’s lives. Atef said that he did not wish to be a politician in his writing but rather to be ‘as vivid as life on the street is’. Bernard Mac Laverty later echoed this sentiment when he said that he wrote from a position of anger, but that anger must be sculpted into something more than simple sloganeering if it is to have any intrinsic artistic value.

Bernard MacLaverty read out his short story A Belfast Memory. The story was set in Belfast during the narrator’s childhood. At the very end of the story he tells you that he is looking back fifty years or more.

The details are carefully chosen and you can see the ‘serious Hugo’ who is ‘trying to grow a beard’ and Tom Lennon ‘the human ashtray’ who tilts his head to the ceiling so that you can only see the whites of his eyes and dislodges ash on to his waistcoat. The importance of the narrator’s father is established early on and the image of paint from his brush dispersing through a jar of water is beautiful. It is only at the end, when the main action is apparently over, that you hear again about the father. Perhaps in reference to the Kipling story as well as the Bible, the end hinges on the goodness of the boy’s father and really it feels as though it is he, and not the facsimile of his work, which is valued ‘above rubies’.

Though the reading had already run over by five minutes, Bernard opened the floor up for questions and it was wonderful to hear him turn round fairly mundane queries about writing habits in order to conjure the peculiar magic of his storytelling methods. He made it sound like a kind of archaeological dig – reaching within himself for ideas and associations and coming up with something original ‘out of the dereliction ‘of his mind. I would have liked for him to have continued for a little longer but there was no time left. Though there was a lot to be said for the contrast between the two writers and the way in which they complemented each other, it might have been even better to have them individually. There was so much material that they could easily have filled two rooms and two hours.

Laura Joyce runs the Red Shoes Workshop in Manchester and has a blog at

Six by Six

Six by Six is a collaborative project between MMU Cheshire’s creative writing and Stockport University’s illustration courses. The result is a self-published zine modestly held together by a staple.

Collaboration between author and illustrator is no new thing, but it's not so often that two schools within a university cross over and work together, let alone two separate universities. No doubt both illustrator and author were slightly apprehensive about the venture; The illustrator coming face to face with their first client, visions of a demanding author unwilling to give the illustrator creative freedom, and wanting complete control. The writers fearing to place their babies into the arms of a wayward illustrator who will perceive things incorrectly or take the visuals too far. But the collaborations worked and that is why I find myself here, in the grand setting of Manchester’s Town Hall. It was my first visit and I was immediately filled with awe and emotion which I had never previously felt for a building. The architecture set my expectations high.

A glass of wine grounded my emotions and I sat before a slideshow projection of the illustrations featured within the zine. It was a shame to see that the room was not full, a small gathering of mostly students. Fortunately, like most student events, there was free wine to relax everyone into the evening. I felt like climbing to the tip of the Town Hall’s clock and calling “Come on Manchester, show your support! These kids are your creative future.” But I didn’t drink enough wine to do that.

Both authors and illustrators approached the microphone to speak about their work, for a lot of them this seemed to be their first experience of public speaking. It is always a daunting task but, despite the odd hunched over figure reading into their chests, the majority spoke confidently and clearly. I was seduced by the voice of one particular young man who read about war, his tone was soothing and spaced, if his career in fiction did not take off I am sure he will make his million reading audio books!

Each author read a short extract of their work and were asked questions regarding their approach to writing and their feelings towards collaboration.The illustrators fit the stereotype: They gave modest responses to questions posed to them by the creative writing course leader (who acted confidently as host for the evening). I was interested to see the variety of collage and vectorised illustrations skillfully accomplished with the aid of a computer and Adobe Creative Suite. Yet I was slightly disappointed by the lack of hand rendered illustration given the rising trend in hand made craft, and fragile drawings. However this does not dampen their talent and ability as illustrators.

The event was slightly clumsily put together but this can be put down to the inexperience of the organisers. Illustrations flickered on the white sheet-like screens, not quite appropriate to the fiction being read. The microphone popped and cackled as it was placed in and out of the stand. But it all added to the charm of the evening, along with these fresh-faced and nervous beings about to embark on their careers as a creative. All in all the students showed great potential.

As I entered the stairwell I was once again struck with awe. Vast arches, intricate design detail that becomes lost and found. The architecture seemed to represent endless possiblities, not only for these students, but for all of Manchester’s creative students. All of whom will one day go on to form their own part of the beatutiful and complex architecture of Manchester’s creative industry. Another thing for our city to be proud of.


Mandi Goodier is a graphic designer and artist bookmaker.

Rainy City Stories: Writing About Place

A creative writing workshop with David Gaffney

It would be appropriate to begin by writing about the place, but I feel this may mislead you. The weather was dull and wet, appropriate as it was a Rainy City Stories event, the venue itself, Friends Meeting House, was a little bland, white walls, brown carpet, a cluster of tables formed into one large one. None of this reflects the mood of the event. Torn-out pages from a Manchester road atlas lay scattered across the table for no other purpose than to add a bit of ambiance. Pretty soon we were all sat around the cluster of tables and people became the walls, people from a multitude of backgrounds - journalists, screen writers, wannabe novelists, academic writers, self publishers.

Writer David Gaffney, largely associated with the ‘flash fiction’ genre, sat at the head of the table with a check list of points for this flash course in writing about place. Our first exercise was to write down three things we noticed on our journey to the Friends Meeting House, and share our observations. A variety of things were mentioned: big issue sellers, filmy street pavements, the old disused Odeon, the hat shop opposite Albert Square. Most were somehow personal to the person; the places associated with memories or with things that interested them. We learned that in order to write convincingly about place we need to separate ourselves from the environment and put a character in our place. What would they see on that same journey?

Gaffney then proceeded to tell us an anecdote regarding a lady who sadly lost her sight. She asked her husband to describe the streets, what was happening on them, what could he see? He began “Well there’s a sign over there 10 to 1 on United vs Liverpool game. That pub has an offer, two main courses for a fiver,” and so on. She stopped him and said, “Now start again, only this time tell me what I would see.”

Gaffney spoke comprehensively on the subject, mentioning how other authors approached writing about place. How authors such as Ballard and Will Self would use psychogeography and algorithmic walking. He also showed a few examples of how not to write about place. Much to my personal pleasure one example was taken from Dan Brown’s The De Vinci Code . We discussed a passage and decided it was too heavy in information, it didn't tell us anything about the story or how the protagonist was seeing the surrounding section of Paris. Gaffney then informed us that it was what is known as a ‘research dump.’ It doesn’t really have a place in the text, but it does show that the author has researched.

Another ‘how not to...’ came from Bill Bryson. We all scowled when Gaffney spoke of how he dismissed our beloved city in print. His point was that everyone perceives things differently, so when writing about place try to explore the place yourself, do not rely on the words and opinions of a (unreliable and very very incredibly wrong) travel writer.

Our final task was to write a few sentences about a character and their mood within a place. Gaffney handed us a list of variables which we then selected and swapped with our neighbours. I was handed this combination of variables: a 20-year-old girl, who is an art student, situated in a snowy church yard, feeling happy. I had it easy, I was a 20-year-old art student not so long ago. Others found themselves writing about divorced 40-year-old taxi drivers in an art gallery or an unhappily married man on a Sunday afternoon in Eccles. We shared our flash fictions. It was great to see that in the space of ten minutes everyone had managed to conjure up a glimpse of a story and the beginnings of a character.

If you want to know how to write, well, I am afraid nobody can answer that. If you want to know how to write about place, David Gaffney can take you halfway there. There are no rules, but there are devices, tools and methods that can help you. The best way to write about place is to experience the place yourself and view it through another's eyes. That, and this little equation I wrote down: Story + Character + Place = Whole.

Now I am off to write a short fiction which I will the submit to


Mandi Goodier is a graphic designer and artist bookmaker.

Paint A Vulgar Picture: The Smiths return to Salford Lads Club

It's a wet and windy Saturday night as the taxi draws up beneath the iconic frontage of the Salford Lads (and also now, girls') Club. Once inside the legendary venue, we dash along the echoey tiled corridors and into the Dutch barn-style Concert Hall, where Peter Wild is introducing tonight's event. It's the launch of Paint A Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired By The Smiths, hosted by Wild, who edited the collection (he has previously worked on similar projects for The Fall and Sonic Youth), and featuring readings by some of the authors who submitted short stories to the volume.

Wild decided to put the book together, despite certain reservations ('The last thing I needed was hordes of Smiths fans camped outside my house telling me why my plan to have writers use Smiths songs as the jumping-off point for an anthology of short stories was not a wise one'), largely because he's a big fan of the band and also because there are so many allusions to authors within the lyrics that a literary project inspired by the group seemed like an obvious thing to do. Of lead singer-cum-poet Morrissey, Wild enthuses: 'Reader! The man is a reader!'

Paint A Vulgar Picture, itself taking the name of one of the band's songs, is an anthology comprising stories influenced one way or another by the Manchester foursome and provided by various writers, both established and up and coming. Contributors include Mike Gayle, Scarlett Thomas, Mil Millington, Chris Killen, Kate Pullinger, Matt Beaumont and Helen Walsh.

This evening, we are treated to readings by James Hopkin, Jeff Noon and Catherine O'Flynn. Hopkin, first up, presents: 'A radio edit, if you like, of my story, Jeane.' It takes as its point of reference the B-side to the original seven-inch single of This Charming Man, and its Northern voice bears its own charm: mentions of Joy Division, Tetley tea and The Britons Protection are bound to find friends among the onlookers tonight.

Jeff Noon is on next, and it's something of a homecoming for the Droylsden-born writer after being in Brighton for coming up to a decade. His tragic tale of Johnny Boy and William tends towards violence and (as Noon himself admits) Sylvia Plath, but his animated delivery keeps us pinned to The Queen Is Dead, despite the shouting kids and blaring patrol car sirens outside.

What Was Lost author Catherine O'Flynn tells us, in her lilting Midlands accent, how The Smiths provided the soundtrack to her teenage years, and her school-based story, You've Got Everything Now, feels very real with its description of Millsy and Banks and the bullying of fellow pupil and enigma Quinn.

The three writers now come together for a question-and-answer session, revealing, among other points, their favourite Smiths songs (O'Flynn: I Know It's Over; Hopkin: Frankly Mr Shankly) and whether they work while listening to music (Noon: 'I can't actually write without it.'). We're tempted to finish off the free drink and 'retro nibbles', but venture instead to the special Smiths room set aside by the extremely friendly Salford Lads Club volunteers in a former squash court. It's a fitting tribute to end an evening of fitting tributes.

Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her blog, Words & Fixtures, won Best New Blog in the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

MMU's Manchester Fiction Prize Gala delivers few surprises but a lot of good writing

The first Manchester Fiction Prize kicks off with a pop as the champagne is uncorked at the gala reception this Friday night. Already there's a buzz of excitement and anticipation filling the immense Town Hall room where the six shortlisted writers and their guests are gathered.

Once the statutory group photos have been taken, we make our way to the plush Lord Mayor's Parlour up the corridor. Here James Draper of Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School fills us in on the background to The Manchester Fiction Prize and its umbrella award, the Manchester Writing Competition. The brainchild of Carol Ann Duffy, Creative Director at The Writing School when she's not busy being Poet Laureate (which she is tonight), the Manchester Writing Competition alternates annually between poetry and fiction, and aims to celebrate excellence in creative writing and act as a launchpad for up-and-coming writers. It's open to new and established writers internationally, with £10,000 awarded to overall winner and a bursary for study at MMU awarded to an entrant aged 18 to 25 as part of the Jeffrey Wainwright Manchester Young Writer Of The Year Award.

The first-ever Fiction Prize received a staggering 1,700 entries and, reveals Draper, 'Collectively the stories contained four million words, more words than the Bible – I know because I counted them!' The submissions (all brand-new short stories of no more than 5,000 words in length) were judged by novelists and short story writers M. John Harrison, Sarah Hall and The Writing School's Nicholas Royle (these last two both read examples of their work: Hall gives us The Agency; Royle presents Very Shortly), who whittled them down, first to an 'unofficial long list' of 30 or 40, then to the final six.

So, in alphabetical order, each of the six shortlisted writers takes to the stage and reads from their entries (full stories will be published on the Manchester Writing Competition site). First up is Peter Deadman, with a touching childhood tale of swimming, cycling and communism during the long summer holidays. Next, 24-year-old Michael E. Halmshaw reads from They Cover Him With Leaves, a dark but funny description of two immigrants, Petrov and 'Frank'. Edinburgh-based Vicki Jarrett's story of 'mental cases' in a chippy is a definite page-turner, while the ultra-confident Toby Litt (pictured), author of a clutch of novels including Adventures In Capitalism, gives us a very well written but rather offensive piece called John And John. Australian author Jennifer Mills couldn't be with us, but her brother, Alex Mills, reads from Prospect, her intriguing study of rising rain waters in the New Mexican desert, and last up is Alison Moore, who presents the sad demise of married couple Dorothy and Wilfrid in Static.

Hall and Royle step forward again (Harrison is unfortunately ill and has been unable to attend), envelopes at the ready. 'Judging this competition has been very hard work, but enormous fun and enormously inspiring,' says Hall. 'The short story is one of the most exacting forms of writing and the stories on the shortlist are all wonderful examples of this form. The judges' decision was very difficult.' She announces the winner of the Young Writer Of The Year Award as Michael E. Halmshaw then reveals the winner of the Manchester Fiction Prize 2009 to be Toby Litt. Neither comes as a big surprise, although all the work presented tonight has been interesting enough to warrant a full read.

Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her blog, Words & Fixtures, won Best New Blog in the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards.

Manchester Blog Awards

It's Wednesday night and time for the long-awaited and much-Twittered-about glittering prize-giving ceremony of the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards, held in conjunction with the Manchester Literature Festival, Arts Council England, Manchester Digital Development Agency (MDDA) and

The show is being held in the newly spruced Band On The Wall, where the tables, set out cabaret club style, soon fill up with the brightest and best from Manchester's burgeoning social media scene. The soundtrack is provided by the reborn (for one night only!) Bloggerpalooza mp3 bloggers, while compere for the soiree is self-proclaimed Manchester media princess Maria Ruban, squeezed into a very tight, very red dress and hitting something of an impasse trying to extract catchphrases from a rather unforthcoming audience. Various shortlisted bloggers present their favourite posts, including Emily Morris of My Shitty Twenties, Dave Hartley of Dave Hartley's Weblog and Katherine Woodfine of Follow The Yellow Brick Road, while author and judge Jenn Ashworth also reads an extract of her work.

Eventually, it's prize-giving time and the mic is handed over to Manchester Blog Awards organiser Kate Feld, who came up with the idea for the event in 2006 'in response to the growing numbers of writers, artists and photographers in the city who use blogs to publish their work online'. Kate expresses her delight at the record number of entries this year (topping 200) and explains that the panel of judges included (as well as her good self): author and columnist of The Guardian Naomi Alderman; Dave Carter, head of MDDA; Richard Fair of BBC Manchester; Mike Noon of Arts Council England North West, and author (and last year's winner of the Best Writing On A Blog category) Jenn Ashworth.

So, without further ado, here's the list of (and links to) the winners and runners-up at the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards. Drum roll, please...

Best City and Neighbourhood Blog: Lost in Manchester (anonymous). One of the judges said: 'Sometimes it's easy to forget to look at what's right under your nose. I love its unashamed raw passion for Manchester.'
Runner-up was The Manchester Zedders (Liam Purcell and Marie Pattison).

Best Personal Blog: My Shitty Twenties (Emily Morris). One of the judges said: 'Moving, thoughtful, funny and wise. Sometimes heartbreaking, always uplifting.'
Runner-up was Cynical Ben (Benjamin Judge).

Best New Blog: Words & Fixtures (Clare Conlon). One of the judges said: 'It was the only blog out of the twenty-four shortlisted that made me laugh out loud.'
Runner-up was Songs From Under the Floorboards (Andy Wake).

Best Writing On A Blog: My Shitty Twenties (Emily Morris again). One of the judges said: 'It's almost impossible not to get drawn into the story that this blog tells.'
Dual runners-up were I Thought I Told You To Wait in the Car (Richard Vivmeister Hirst) and Dave Hartley's Weblog (Dave Hartley).

Best Arts And Culture Blog, sponsored by Run Paint Run Run (Ella Wredenfors). One of the judges said: 'Opinionated, heartfelt and pleasantly rough-around-the-edges, a blog with an infectious enthusiasm for art.'
Runner-up was The Manchester Hermit (Ansuman Biswas).

Blog Of The Year: Lost in Manchester (still anonymous). This was awarded to the blog with the highest aggregate score in the competition. One of the judges said: 'Quirky, original and focused, with an eye for detail. Putting the extra into extraordinary.'

Well done to everyone involved, and long may the tradition continue!


Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her blog, Words & Fixtures, won Best New Blog at the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards.

Photo by Brian Slater

Friday, October 23, 2009

Evolving words: bringing the past to life

Evolving Words is the second of three Manchester Literature Festival events to be held at The Manchester Museum in conjunction with its Darwin extravanza: The Evolutionist (the third is The Bird Book, on Saturday).

As we gather this evening (22 October) in the Animal Life Gallery, the event's organiser Elizabeth Lynch explains that the Evolving Words project is funded by the Wellcome Trust and is running in six cities around the country, bringing together poets and scientists with young people to explore the impact of Charles Darwin’s ideas and his example as a scientist. Where could be more appropriate to perform the resulting work than surrounded by a variety of stuffed species and with an audience sat beneath the bones of a sperm whale?

We are introduced to the Young Identity young people's collective by Shirley May of Speakeasy and Ali Gadema (aka Frisko Dan), whose show Contradictions will be at the Contact Theatre in November. Shirley and Ali are the Manchester poets who have worked with these young people to produce tonight’s performance.

For the next 30 minutes or so, a transformation happens and the gallery is brought to life with a blast of youthful energy and enthusiasm. Thoughtful, humorous and reflective words ring out in performances which show off talent and confidence in spades.

The subject matter has sparked a range of themes, from personal struggles reconciling evolution with religion to ponderings on how technology will affect future evolution.

There are many highlights, but as Saquib Chowdhury walks down the staircase at the front of the room reciting his poem on the supposed conflict between religion and evolution, he has the audience hanging off every word. His conclusion – 'Evolution does not interfere with morality' – is met with cheers from the audience.

Touching on the same theme but with a very different interpretation is Elmi Ali, who makes us laugh as well as think through his words on Darwin’s struggles with those who shunned his theories. Fascinating and funny, this enthusiastic performance is impressive.

One of tonight's most prolific poets is Bethany Hermitt, who gives a biting delivery of her carefully crafted lines in three separate performances.

The response of the performers and the audience at the end of the evening shows that everyone has enjoyed themselves tonight. This has clearly been a labour of love for everyone involved and it would be impossible not to feel uplifted and inspired by the results of young people taking the time to think about science, history and ideas, and then to articulate their own thoughts so eloquently. At the end of the performances, Manchester Literature Festival Director Cathy Bolton sums up what many of the audience must be feeling when she tells us: 'I can’t remember the last time I was in a room with so much talent.'

Kath Horwill was formerly Head Of History at a large comprehensive in Bury and writes the blog Parklover.

A Gratuitous Act of Violence and the Patron Saint of Elsewhere - MJ Hyland & Nick Laird at the Martin Harris Centre

We find ourselves in the John Thaw Studio of the Martin Harris Centre on this typical Manchester evening (read: cold, wet and, as Maria Hyland puts it when she thanks us all for coming out, ‘grim’) to hear Mssrs Hyland and Laird read from their most recent publications. There is a table set up at the front of the hall and a lectern – Hyland chooses the table, Laird prefers the lectern. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

First up is Maria Hyland herself who reads from her third and latest novel, This is How, introducing things by touching on the difficulty she had writing it (the novel went through three versions, was Hyland’s attempt at writing a novel based around a ‘gratuitous act’, inspired in part by a trilogy of books, The Outsider by Albert Camus, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke and Andre Gide’s The Vatican Cellars and didn’t really bed down until she found ‘the voice’ – first person, present tense, ‘as always’ she affirmed). The novel opens with a man arriving at a guest house carrying two bags, one of which contains a toolkit which itself contains an instrument that will commit a terrible act of violence later in the novel. I wrote in my notebook that Hyland’s sparse prose felt ‘loaded’ and then crossed out ‘loaded’ because it didn’t seem to do the job; in the end I settled for ‘rich with a loaded brevity’ but even that doesn’t really do the trick. What she does accomplish – and it’s a good trick for a writer performing at a reading and, perhaps surprisingly, not something you see all that often – is this: she makes you want to go out and buy the book and carry on reading. This is How has moved up my books-to-be-read-soonish list.

Afterwards, talking about the difficulties she experienced during the three years it took to write the book, she referred to the ‘circus’ surrounding the Man Booker prize (Hyland’s second novel Carry Me Down was shortlisted) and the unsettling effect it had upon her writing (how she tried using ‘fancy language’ and ‘affected prose’). Even after finding the voice, though, even during the reading, she tells us, she can still see things she’d change, things she would improve on if she still could – ‘it’s never finished’ she explains before telling us that she can only learn and look not to make the same mistakes again. It’s the old Beckettian dictum of ‘Fail better’ so beloved by writers of all stripes.

Nick Laird is a different kind of writer to Hyland: he has written novels and he has written poems and, as the lovely lady who introduced things (whose name escaped me) said, has bagged all manner of awards this last two or three years for his books. He begins by reading from his poetry, a poem called ‘Light Pollution’ that absolutely blows me away (this is what I’m like with poetry – either it touches me or it leaves me cold). ‘You’re the patron saint of elsewhere,’ the poem begins, which I think is a great line. He follows this with a poem about his dog (admitting that poets have a tendency to do this kind of thing that he usually resists but on this occasion couldn’t), a pug called Maude. Pugs, Laird informs us, are a breed you’re not supposed to get because they have trouble breathing and, often, with Maude (he tells us) he can’t tell if she’s having a good time or having a fit – and it’s usually the latter. Once again, the poem is full of beautiful images (like the description of the pug’s tongue as being ‘salmon pink and coastal rock’). It strikes me that, as a poet, Laird is like Raymond Carver. There are poems in Near Klamath, say, that could happily stand shoulder to shoulder with the poems Laird reads. Again, the reading is such: I want to go out and treat myself to Laird’s two collections, To a Fault & On Purpose.

After the poetry, Laird reads an excerpt from his latest novel, Glover’s Mistake. I should admit something at this point. I’ve read Laird’s first novel, Utterly Monkey and – whisper it – I didn’t like it. There was something a little grey and lifeless and mordant about it to me. It never came alive on (or should that be ‘from’) the page. The excerpt he reads from the new novel leads me to believe that if I didn’t like the first novel I’m not going to like the second either. We are treated to two short excerpts – each of which contain great images (a girl has toes that are not beautiful, ‘misshapen like pebbles’; our narrator David has an ‘elliptical face’) and bursts of good writing (there is a sustained passage concerning the hour – which Laird pronounces ‘are’ – which goes ‘It was the dog walking are, the are of a blue plastic bag…’ – which captivated me) but each of which seem to share the ‘grimace’ and the ‘heavy gait’ of our narrator. There is a certain amount of shifting about in the audience that leads me to write, ‘Think Laird is a better poet than a novelist’ in my notebook. But then Laird is scooping bags of prizes for pretty much everything he does so what do I know?

Later Laird talks about his relationship with his poetry and his prose – in prose he tells us it’s easier to be funny because fiction is something ‘you can drag around by the scruff of the neck’ whereas poetry, he feels, marches to its own tune. ‘Poetry you have to follow,’ he says. He wonders if poems are a bit like short stories in that way.

Hyland and Laird take seats at the table and subject themselves to a smattering of questions from the audience. I ask a sort of clumsy question about the trouble Hyland had writing This is How and if she ever felt like she wanted to throw the thing at the wall and write a screenplay instead. She tries to qualify the question (‘Am I interested in writing a screenplay? Do I think it’s easier to write a screenplay?’) and I qualify again myself, saying I’m interested in whether there ever comes a point when a writer thinks: this thing just doesn’t want to be written. She looks a little cross with me and then says, ‘No. If I thought that I wouldn’t publish.’ I say thanks but I feel like I should apologise for asking one of those questions (you know, the kinds of awkward questions that writers don't want, that confuse the atmosphere of the room). Other people ask about influences (Hyland says Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Gogol and Dostoefski). Laird doesn’t really answer. He spends a lot of time looking down at the table. At one point he says, ‘I hate my books. I find it hard to read. I mean, there are phrases I like…’ People laugh. He goes on: ‘I find it hard to read any fiction. When you write, you just see the nuts and bolts.’ Again people laugh. He seems like a nice guy. It strikes me that he's a little like the patron saint of elsewhere himself.

All told, a good night, a night that challenges my views of Laird, that introduced me to the writing of Hyland. I fully intend to chase up other books by each of them. I’d recommend you do the same.

Peter Wild is the host of the Paint a Vulgar Picture event at Salford Lad's Club on Saturday 24 October featuring James Hopkin, Jeff Noon, Catherine O'Flynn & Helen Walsh. He's also the editor of the Bookmunch blog.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Claire Harman expertly discusses Jane Austen (and Colin Firth!)

The wood-panelled Committee Room at the Central Library has been the venue for many of the events that the Manchester Literature encompasses and today (21 October) it is brimming with people as it plays host to biographer Claire Harman. Professor Of Creative Writing at New York's Columbia University, she is also the author of Jane’s Fame, her latest book, which looks into the life and work of Jane Austen and which Libby Tempest, Cultural Services Manager at the Library, describes as 'part biography, part cultural history'.

After outlining Claire Harman’s achievements, Libby goes on to ask the author a number of questions about Jane's Fame and Jane Austen, one of the undisputed literary greats. Claire, elegantly dressed in a velvet jacket, answers every question wittily, even throwing in jokes from the book for good measure.

Libby asks Claire about the attitudes of Jane Austen’s family, specifically her siblings, to her writing. 'I have no intention of demonising them,' Claire replies, asserting that Jane’s father, George Austen, had gone to great lengths to solicit publishers to peruse his daughter's work and, hopefully, to print it, although one of his letters 'was subsequently sent back with “declined by return of post” written on it'. The issue of family was naturally of great importance to Jane, says Claire, explaining that one of Jane’s older brothers was also involved in literature and was a poet. 'That said, families are queer things, aren’t they?', she laughs.

Libby inquires about the mind-set of Jane’s peers and of book clubs in the 18th century, and Claire tells how Jane zealously kept notes on what her friends or indeed anyone thought of her and her novels, even those with a negative view. 'A particular one was “Pride And Prejudice was bearable”, which she kept in the spirit of satire.' Claire explains that this was a typical view of the very snobbish people in book clubs of the day.

Moving on to her treatment, I am not surprised at the intensity of research done by Claire, as she somberly describes how Jane 'was often gawked at' and eclipsed by her brothers. Claire describes, animatedly, how Jane got a small measure of retribution from being an author as people began to become tentative around her, thinking they would be portrayed as a character in one of her novels: 'She was described as "a poker of whom everybody is afraid".' A few members of the audience show a smile at these words.

'Completely transparent. There is no complexity and she’s an author everyone can read.' This is Claire's answer to Libby’s question on the readability of Jane Austen and the breadth of her appeal. Claire goes on: 'Her novels exist in a temporal vacuum and there is a timeless quality.' Part of this, Claire goes on to explain, is down to the lack of any sort of political storylines, nor mention of the Napoleonic wars or French Revolution, along with her ability to focus solely on the families and plots in her novels. This 'intricate prose influences the reader' believes Claire.

There is something of an air of anticipation as Libby asks her last question, which inevitably is about the modern adaptations of Jane Austen's novels. Claire grins widely as she mentions Colin Firth and the BBC adaptation of Pride And Prejudice, before reinforcing Libby’s view that the quality of acting in today’s age of adaptations was almost secondary to the ‘fix’ of watching one, and how the public seems to have an almost insatiable appetite for more Jane Austen adaptations.

Claire now stands at the podium and reads one of the last chapters of her book. She chats about scholarly criticism and of how Jane’s books were unpublished for 20 years after her death, then moves on to discuss the genres that Jane Austen’s novels encapsulate: the romance and typical storyline of 'boy meets girl', and the very masculine features of the ‘hero’ in her novels, reeling off a whole bunch of jokes and making the audience laugh. Her last portion of the extract deals mainly with the subject of sexuality, and she talks in depth about the supposed lack of it.

As Libby brings the event to a close, I feel Claire has illustrated a great deal about the writing of Jane Austen and there was a sense around the room that some of the audience members have indeed had their ‘fix’ of Jane Austen for the day.

Mohsin Iqbal is a freelance tech writer and blogger. Read his blog at Sabres Length At Peterloo.

Slamming night at greenroom

The funky greenroom is the venue for tonight's Superheroes Of Slam Final (21 October), hosted by the Manchester Literature Festival and Commonword Cultureword. For those of you who have never been to a poetry slam before, this is where poetry meets performance, where the wordsmith meets the rapper; it's a literature event where the audience is allowed to heckle the performers!

So, in the all-black auditorium, after a rather suspenseful pause, Spiderman arrives. He prowls around the stage, creeping into the audience, before finally revealing himself as the legendary Julian Daniel. Julian oversees the evening’s revelry with a deadpan, understated humour, and a complete disregard for technical issues. Assisted by Catwoman, and in front of a lively and enthusiastic audience, Julian describes poetry slam as ‘half poetry, half wrestling’.

The performers tonight have battled through heats in Oldham, Bolton, Hebden Bridge, Wigan, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester to make it through to the final. So, with £250 and the Dike Omeje Award at stake, let’s get on with the show. We are treated to two poems from each performer, all scored by the judges on performance and content.

Azalia Anisko's performance is vibrant and exuberant and her delivery is passionate and committed, although her first poem is a slightly laboured metaphor of poetry as pregnancy. Her next is a more interesting biscuit metaphor which culminates in the man dipping his chocolate finger into another girl.

Mark Mace Smith shows clever use of language and has a husky, fluent delivery, but the subject matter is a little clichéd.

Chanje Kunda gives melodic and physical performances. Incorporating humorous references to popular songs, and even some funky dance moves, Chanje is witty and extremely popular with the increasingly rowdy audience.

Dominic Berry makes good use of the performance space, engaging with the audience and providing one-man physical theatre. What’s more, Julian credits him with inventing ‘poetry-cise’. Keep fit and create rhymes… it’ll be all the rage next year. Dominic really brings his poetry to life, savouring the language. Beautiful sentiments, passionately delivered, he gains lively cheers from the audience.

Sophie Hall has a vibrant personality and an even more vibrant jumper, and presents a witty and likeable display of her hatred of Davina McCall. It's a nice idea, with catchy lines such as: ‘You bought her shampoo and now she’s coming to get you’, but it unfortunately lacks substance somewhat. There are some amusing pieces of word play, but otherwise it's rather bland.

Sean Karoonian uses effective word play and strong imagery, but it's all on a political theme, and one audience member protests that he's ‘too preachy’. He gives a fantastic technical performance, using rhythm, rhyme and syntax with great skill. Sean has a great deal of potential, but I would like to see him talk about something personal to himself.

Entering into the superhero spirit with a Batman T-shirt, the final competitor, Chris Jam, bombards us with a torrent of wordplay. At one point he claims ‘the Tower Of Babel would seem like a safe haven for other lyricists’ – I would think so! The performance evokes more a rap battle than a literary event with its confrontational, cheeky style, and it proves popular with the audience.

We are also treated to a performance by Shamshad Khan, whose beautiful and delicate pieces are deeply rooted in her Asian heritage, and use song and mythology as well as vividly evocative language. Her rich, sensuous voice has us all spell-bound. Shamshad is involved in a workshop on 26 October at Isis Café on Stockport Road – it should be worth investigating!

The top two scorers who go into a play-off are Chanje Kunda and Dominic Berry. Chanje provides a heart-warming piece about the beauty of learning to love yourself for who you are. Dominic encourages some audience participation, engaging us all by announcing: ‘It’s a love poem for a girl, also a vegetable.’ I don’t think any of us expected to spend our evening shouting, ‘Oh aubergine!’ Exuberant, lively, expressive and totally nuts, Dominic owns the stage and is crowned champion.

Dike Omeje’s sister presents Dominic with the trophy, which I later see him clutching as he rushes excitedly up and down the street outside!

So congratulations to our Superhero Dominic Berry, and thanks to the legendary Julian Daniel and everyone at Commonword and the greenroom for a fun and exhilarating night!

Allegra Holbrook is a fiction writer, and a member of Writers Connect Manchester. Allegra also writes the Community Fundraiser blog for Dr Kershaw’s Hospice in Oldham.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An unprecedented audience with the Faber New Poets (October 19)

It's quite a crowd that squeezes into the curved, wood-panelled room inscribed, aptly, with the names of past Chairmen of the Cultural Committee. And as the four Faber New Poets take their seats at the front, they look ever so slightly caught in the headlamps at the sheer number that has turned out to hear them. Despite it being a Monday lunchtime, and despite these being rising stars not established ones, it's a full house and, rather than be turned away, a good number of onlookers choose to remain standing at the sidelines or crouching on the floor.

We're in the Central Library, to which Cultural Services Manager Libby Tempest now welcomes the guests and explains how it's something of a tradition for the venue to offer a platform for new literary talent. She promptly hands over to Faber & Faber Commissioning Editor, Matthew Hollis, who introduces the project and the people involved, namely: Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Fiona Benson, Jack Underwood and Heather Phillipson. He also explains the fifth person in the row: guest poet Emma Jones, who battles a runny nose to read from her most recent collection The Striped World.

Manchester is the last stop on the week-long Faber New Poets tour; an idea, says Hollis, that is 'perhaps more rock than poetry', but one that offers a great opportunity for the four young poets to showcase their work to new audiences. The 'roadshow' also aims to promote the foursome's newly published pamphlets of poems, launched to coincide with National Poetry Day a couple of weeks ago.

As well as the pamphlets, the Faber New Poets have received editorial input, a mentorship with the poet of their choice and a bursary to let them concentrate on their writing. This lucky lot are the first batch in the new initiative, which receives funding from the Arts Council and also marks the prestigious poetry press' 80th anniversary. One by one, the two boys and two girls step up to the lectern and recite five or six pieces each. There's quite a range of voices, and while some are stylistically and thematically grounded in the fairly traditional, some are more unusual, including the Scottish-accented Free Dialect Poem With Every Collection by the swaggeringly confident Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who is first up.

Fiona Benson follows, presenting a collection of nature-soaked poems delivered in a rather serious way and a 'fuck' that cuts like a knife. Next is Jack Underwood, the youngest and funniest with his between-poem banter and offering, Maths. Heather Phillipson comes last, baring her soul with talk of streaking round north London and serving up an ode to her favourite coat, stolen at a party.

The four round off proceedings by reading from each other's pamphlets: Toby from Heather's, Fiona from Toby's, Jack from Fiona's and Heather from Jack's. 'We've been together a long time and have got to know each other's poems, and we thought – this being the last day of the tour – it would be nice to choose and read each other's work,' says Toby. He's right – it gives the event further depth and shows how the four have grown together as writers.

Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her blog, Words & Fixtures, has been shortlisted for the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards.

"There’s a little Livingstone in even the youngest Mancunian so we go explore."

Walking in the Rain: Rainy City Stories Live! (October 20)

The quote in the header is from Mike Duff's excellent short story, Rats and Mice, which he read in Victoria Station, but we aren't there yet.

Let's start at the start.

We meet up at Urbis. The tears of rain dripping onto the floor from people's umbrellas hint that we might be taking the concept of walking in the rain a little too literally for my taste. It would be fittingly poetic to accompany our walk with a downpour but it would also be wet. Luckily, as we wait for stragglers, the clouds clear. It looks like I’m not going to spend the next couple of hours regretting removing my detachable hood because it makes me look like a quilt. Fashion 1: Weather 0. In your face, weather!

So, following the twin markers of Kate Feld’s umbrella and Chris Horkan’s beautifully luxurious beard, we set of on our literary tour of Manchester. Kate and Chris are the people responsible for the Rainy City Stories website, a collection of writing on Manchester. If, or rather when, you visit the site, you will be greeted by a map covered in little clouds. Each cloud is a story or a poem and it hovers over the location that it is written about. Today, we are visiting some of the central Manchester locations, and at each one there will be a reading from someone published on the website.

First stop is Victoria Station. There, in the bar, we hear Mike Duff's tale of unpoliced-youth, Rats and Mice, the coarse language of the story’s protagonists cutting like a knife through the chatter of businessmen and tourists. Next, we fight against the traffic and the clatter of diners in Croma to hear Anyonita Green reading her lovely poem, A House of Cards.

This tour is quite exciting. Seeing the work read in its location, in its inspiration, makes it that much more intimate. It is one less barrier between writer and reader.

The location of the next stop is a real treat, for we descend into the central courtyard of Manchester Town Hall. Here, in the belly of this opulent Victorian Gothic revival masterpiece, even the drainpipes are ornate, their length a lazy mulberry spiral attached to the wall by eight symmetrical curls. We are surrounded by mosaic and stained glass. As Anne Hill Fernie reads Big Shout to Malmy Hatchman, the bell in the clock tower tolls.

We move onto Manchester Art Gallery, where David Gaffney reads Live Feed. In the next gallery, a party of schoolchildren, fascinated by the possibility of mischief, stare at us through glass doors. In David's story art is as popular as football, and attracts the same level of partisanship and violence. It is witty and fun and again the location adds to the experience of listening to the reading.

Our final port of call is Chinatown, where we hear Socrates Adams-Florou read his very funny poem called, rather appropriately, Chinatown. The tour over, we spread out over the map of Manchester with new eyes and ears for this wonderful city. The stories have given us a new glimpse of our home and the passersby and the cars and the drills, the noise, competing for our attention have not distracted from but added to the experience. Rainy City Stories has produced what the website so often does; a mini masterpiece from the chaos of the city.

Benjamin Judge collects his thoughts on his blog Cynical Ben, which has been shortlisted at this year's Manchester Blog Awards. He also writes very short fiction at Carp Glob.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Pinch Of Salt: Northern Salt (Whitworth Art Gallery, October 18)

The Whitworth Art Gallery is a near perfect location for a reading. Through the windows the park breathes, behind us the art awaits. The fragrance of new tastes drifts towards us from the cafe. Autumn, in the form of flat orange leaves, falls slowly from the trees outside. The hand-driers in the bathrooms whisper sweet nothings to our hands. (Actually, if anyone from Whitworth is reading this, you might want to look into that - they seem to be on half-blow or something.)

Where was I? Oh yes...

Location. The backdrop of the park is so perfect because the glimpses of people’s lives as they meander through the trees complements the snapshots of life we get from the writers visiting Manchester today: Robert Graham, Elizabeth Baines, John Siddique and Mark Illis. I must admit that all four names were unfamiliar when I decided to come along to the event. Although, of course, it is a great pleasure to listen to a favourite writer read from their work, one of the best things about having a literature festival on your doorstep is the opportunity to find new writers. New favourites. And with so many of the events being free, it is an unusual reader who isn't tempted to explore. This is doubly true when you consider that much of this new talent will not be published by companies that can afford huge advertising campaigns. Salt is a case in point. Literature is like everything else; you can make a little effort and find real treasures, or you can go to the supermarket and buy what everyone else is buying.

If you do go to the supermarket you will miss Robert Graham's short story collection, The Only Living Boy, with its witty tales of life in Manchester and Northern Ireland. You will not find Elizabeth Baines’ novel, Too Many Magpies, a tale of an unnamed woman's encounter with a mysterious stranger that reflects the author's belief that we are living in a newly precarious world. You will have to live without John Siddique's heartfelt and powerful poetry, the latest collection of which, Recital, is a combination of lunar almanac, love poetry and an investigation of modern Britain.

Most of all, though, you will miss out on Mark Illis' new work, Tender. This is a novel as a series of short stories. Mark admits during the question and answer section at this event that his writing may be subconsciously influenced by his work in television. He says, perhaps, you could view his new book as working in a similar way to a television series in which the episodes form a coherent narrative arc but at the same time work individually, too. Certainly, the story he read - There's A Hole In Everything - didn't seem at all lost when separated from the collection. It was writing of the very highest order and those of you who were there will know why I am picking my words very deliberately when I say I 'beseech' you to buy a copy.

Of course, going to the supermarket isn't the only way you can miss out on these writers. By the time Jo and I got to the front of the queue at the book stall, we were greeted by an empty table. I will be making a visit to - may I suggest you do the same? And don't forget too that there is still a week of the festival left – that’s a whole week's worth of new writers to find.

Benjamin Judge collects his thoughts on his blog Cynical Ben, which has been shortlisted at this year's Manchester Blog Awards. He also writes very short fiction at Carp Glob.

Eoin Colfer: Another Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Contact Theatre, October 15)

Eoin Colfer is a brave, brave man. Practically everyone in Britain loves the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, and at some point in their lives formed a strong attachment to the five books of the late Douglas Adams’ trilogy, the BBC radio adaptations, or the recent feature film with that guy from The Office (oh, who am I kidding, nobody liked that movie.)

Incredibly beloved books don’t have a good track record when it comes to posthumous sequels. This particular gig becomes even less appealing when you consider that Adams killed off all the main characters at the end of Mostly Harmless. So why on earth would Colfer, a man with a wildly successful series of his own in Artemis Fowl, willingly step up to write what could potentially be The Wind Done Gone of Science Fiction?

He did it because he thought it would be fun, and a challenge. And because Adams’ wife and son asked him to, through Adams’ late agent, as the author candidly explained during the event. Colfer is a fine comedic writer by any measure, but he also comes with legions of 13-year-old boys devoted to Artemis Fowl. They wanted Colfer to introduce a new generation of 13-year-old boys to the Hitchhikers, by writing a book that they would enjoy as a standalone read, but presumably also might get them interested enough to add all five Adams books to their Christmas list. Hmmm. Is this all sounding a little bit like the whole thing originated in a marketing department somewhere? We’ll move swiftly on.

I haven’t read And Another Thing, and I have very little idea what it’s like. Naming a Vogon officer Constant Mown seems heavy-handed to me, not as gonzo nor as immediately convincing as, say, Prostetnic Jeltz. But that’s all I can say about the book, since Colfer read a single short scene involving a conversation between the two aforementioned Vogons. Anyone who came, like me, expecting a beefy book launch reading, one in which I could get a good sample of the writing and decide if I wanted to commit to actually reading the thing, left slightly puzzled.

But charmed all the same. It must be said that Colfer is a wonderful speaker. Unassuming, friendly, and very, very funny. He showed these qualities to their best advantage in the event, which was essentially a big Q&A. He told funny stories about writing the book; the best one was about how he quelled the fanboy naysayers online by joining a Facebook group of People Who Wanted to Stop Eoin Colfer Writing The Hitchhikers’ Sequel, as himself, and topping the members’ own horrendous lies about his own awfulness.

Eoin Colfer is the kind of guy you want holding court at your corner of the pub, or keeping your dinner party in stitches. But is he the kind of guy you want writing your Adams sequel? No clue. Still, I had a lot of fun.

To watch a video of the Eoin Colfer reading at Contact, click here.

Kate Feld is the organiser of the Manchester Blog Awards and the editor of Rainy City Stories. She blogs at The Manchizzle.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Out of the darkness comes enlightenment through Michael Schmidt's poetry

All glass, metal, wood and exposed brickwork, with twinkling lights and background jazz, the Epernay Champagne & Cocktail Bar is a suitably urbane setting for the launch of Michael Schmidt's Collected Poems. There's a hum of Saturday-evening chatter from the other end of the establishment, as this side of the bar hushes, all eyes facing front.

After an effusive introduction by his editor and 'dear, dear friend' Peter Sansom, Schmidt takes to the floor and begins reading from the new collection, starting with his earlier work, including 'From Mexico' and 'A Dream', and moving on towards the here and now. In dark trousers and a light blue open-collared shirt, his attention to detail is obvious in his super shiny shoes, while his warmth comes across through his soft, grey corduroy jacket and round smiling face.

But his body is betraying him and the butterflies are perceptible, despite having a lengthy career behind him (his first collection, Black Buildings, was published in 1969, when he also started up Carcanet Press) and even though he holds the post of Professor Of Poetry at the University of Glasgow. His left leg is jiggling, and he shifts the tome from one hand to the other as he reads aloud from it. Some of the words get muddled, and his delivery, in his smooth Scottish-cum-American accent, is ever so slightly stilted.

Then we realise why: this usually confident man can't actually see the text in the failing light! 'I'm sorry if I'm holding my book in a funny way,' he explains. 'It's because there's a street light casting a certain light.' He is handed (what else?) a candle in a champagne bottle, but the hot wax drips inconveniently, and a kind soul steps forward with a torch. The effect is rather like reading under the covers as a child, and it adds to the intimate feeling of the event. He struggles on, but eventually gives in: 'I'm sorry, my eyes are going out now.' It's as good a time as any to take a break, he says, 'while I organise some better illumination'.

Despite the difficulties, Schmidt is very engaging, and frequently raises a laugh as he explains his poems. I mention the obvious warmth that emanates from him to some of his fans and fellow poets in the interval, and am met with enthusiastic nods all round. As the second half gets under way, the well-turned-out turnout (not everyone manages to get a seat) hangs on his every word, heads reverently tilted to one side. Schmidt, you can tell, does enjoy the devotion despite his jangling nerves, and treats those congregated to some 'poems that have come most recently': firstly 'Desire', chockablock with boat metaphors, and another ('I'll just do one more as my battery is running low'), based around Shakespeare's Yorick; one of a number referencing fellow writers.

As he switches off the torch and steps away from the mic, Schmidt looks visibly relieved that the 'most extraordinary launch event ever' is over. But sometimes it's nice to see people in a new light.

Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her blog, Words & Fixtures, is shortlisted for the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards.

‘Coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen’ - Kate Atkinson

Sitting at the rear of the Kate Atkinson event I had a really good view of the whole room and watched as the place filled up. It was remarkably busy for four on a Friday and it looked as if people had taken time off work to come to the event. Two women sitting beside me anticipated what Kate would look like and seemed disappointed to find that she had walked right past us and was sat on the stage with her handbag. She was introduced by Jerome de Groot as ‘one of the best writers of the festival’ and there seemed to be a big expectation from the audience. Her semi-confessional approach went down well but they heckled mildly when the microphone started to feed back.

When an audience member asked Kate whether she stood by the words of her protagonist Jackson Brodie and believed that ‘every coincidence is an explanation waiting to happen’, she agreed with a look of sincere amusement, as though she hadn’t expected such a question. She told us that she was ‘defiant’ about coincidence, believing it to be necessary to novelwriting, and art in general. The discussion moved on to the imaginative process and how coincidence is essential to it. She said that something which had the power to shock so much in real life ought to be exploited in fiction.

The extract which Kate read from her novel When Will There Be Good News was concerned with coincidence. The silver locket which symbolises the cheapness of Reggie’s mother’s relationship with her new boyfriend, Gary, is also the catalyst for her death. The first time her mother leaves the country on holiday in twenty years she dies a tragic, picturesque death. There is a direct parallel with Ms MacDonald’s inability to eat and the tumour which is ‘eating’ her. There is no way that you can forget this is literature, it is an artificial construction. Kate Atkinson later emphasised how she believes that there is no such thing as realism, fiction is all artifice.

The novel was also full of myths. The mug representing Charles and Diana’s fairytale wedding, the mermaid-like death of Reggie’s mother and the ‘Rapture’ all symbolise/represent different kinds of myth. Even the description of Mrs. MacDonald’s bloodshot eye is described as ‘like a red star’. This use of myth is bracketed in a strong way with religion. There is no sense that Ms MacDonald’s wild, apocalyptic faith has anything to do with reality. In an interesting aside, Kate Atkinson mentioned that the reason she became interested in the ‘Rapture’ was because she discovered that George W Bush’s belief in it led directly to his anti-environmentalist stance. He sincerely believes that the world must be utterly annihilated before the Second Coming. This violence in the novel is offset by Reggie’s innocent wish for a religion which nurtures rather than a god who destroys people via a demented ‘lottery’ of destruction.

Another issue which came up was that of genre fiction. As Kate Atkinson has written a series of novels with a recurring detective character, there was some interest in discovering whether she considers herself a ‘crime’ writer. It is hard to know what constitutes a crime writer, a literary writer or even a literary crime writer. Is Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel Inherent Vice classed as genre fiction even as it parodies and transcends those tropes? There are lots of other examples - Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. It is an interesting question to think about whether a novel with a detective is necessarily detective fiction. Kate Atkinson said that she writes the book that she wants to and does not consider those kinds of false classifications. She made the point that Dostoevsky and Dickens both wrote crime novels, before adding that she did not compare herself to either of those. The comparison, however, was left hanging.

When you go to an event at a literary festival, it seems more than likely that you will make some attempt to come to an understanding of ‘the literary’. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement between Kate Atkinson and the audience that everyone in the room was ‘literary’ by virtue of being there, but I was more interested in who was considered outside that description. During the discussion, there was mention of Virgil, Dostoevsky, Emily Bronte and Dickens. Reggie was described as a self-consciously literary heroine; a Dickensian orphan. Where things became more complicated were at the description of Gary, Reggie’s mother’s boyfriend. Once he was said to be someone who did not fully believe in joined-up handwriting. Later, he is seen straining under the weight of a decision between two cans of soup. Both times the festival audience laughed, and they were the moments when they seemed to laugh the loudest. Was this uncomfortable laughter at someone different, or defensive laughter or something slightly more sinister? Perhaps it was simply the enjoyment of comic writing, of the order which fiction can place on a world of disarray. This decidedly non-literary character allowed Reggie’s character to exist. Like Kate Atkinson said, fiction has endings where none should really exist. This kind of world can also provide easily classifiable characters to make us feel safe.

My favourite question was a slightly odd one. Someone asked Kate Atkinson what music she listened to whilst she was writing this book. She said that she listened to a lot of Beethoven and ‘dismal Country’. The idea of the landscapes of those songs made sense in the context of the romance and myth of When Will There Be Good News. I loved the idea that the songs she was listening to bled into the writing in some way. It had to be more than a coincidence.

Laura Joyce runs the Red Shoes Workshop in Manchester and has a blog at