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 This is doubly true when you consider that much of this new talent will not be published by companies that can afford huge advertising campaigns.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.


Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you for this, Ben: what a lovely account. I saw someone scribbling like mad in the audience, so it must have been you - quite scary!

Just wanted to say that what I was trying to say was that the world SEEMS newly precarious (rather than that I actually believe it is). My book Too Many Magpies is about what we do with such perceptions and feelings, and how we cope and live with them

Benjamin Judge said...

Ah, the problem with short readings. My sincerest apologies if I have mis-represented you.

I think I will buy your book as way of an apology. Is that ok?