Sunday, October 31, 2010

Manchester Cathedral International Poetry Competition 2010

21st October

The Manchester Cathedral’s Religious Poetry competition is in its twelve year, and is an opportunity for poets of every faith and none to compete for a £400 prize. As organiser Rachel Mann informed us as she opened the event, this is a competition that focuses on the spiritual essence of religious faith, on how it informs and affects every aspect of our lives. As such, the competition has been won by individuals of every possible faith, including a Jewish winner, a Buddhist and a Muslim from Katmandu.

Canon Albert Radcliffe, who is stepping down this year from running the competition, gave us an insight into its original foundation. Advised as a young pastor “not to have too many good ideas”, he had then gone on to set up the competition when he arrived at the cathedral. Each year, the competition has grown, and makes a small profit that is donated to the Booth Centre for the Homeless. This year’s donation was £600.80. Past judges have included Archbishop Rowan Williams and Professor Michael Schmidt of Bloodaxe Books.

This year’s presentation event was held in the echoing cathedral itself, with a buffet and celebratory wine provided for the occasion. The highly-respected poet Vona Groarke acted as judge, and offered a reading of a very varied selection of her own work, including the surrealist sonnet “Family”, and the intriguing “Oranges”. This was followed by the presentation of awards to the runners up, winners and first prize. The first and third place winners and one of the runners-up also gave readings of their work.

Nabila Jameel, one of the commended poets, spoke first, offering congratulations to the other competitors and winners. Her work is inspired by her Islamic faith, and she seeks to use her writing to de-mystify a religion that is currently highly controversial. Her poem “The Last Prayer” describes the wealth of the afterlife and the power of love.

Helen Evans then read “Night Crossing”, the second place poem, a short but intense piece of work. A features writer from Exeter, she has just completed a one year course in creative writing and has demonstrated that she has learned well. The poem itself was inspired by crossing to the tidal island of Lindisfarne. She says that the “poem’s further meanings are in your hands.”

The overall winner, John Lindley, is no newcomer, having been 2004 Poet Laureate of Cheshire. He has appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe, and teaches creative writing workshops to a variety of groups. “Annunciation”, his award-winning poem, opens with the arresting line, “You come with your bad news ticking in your mouth”.

Finally, Canon Radcliffe gave his farewell speech, keen to emphasise both the international and the interfaith nature of the competition. This year they received over 900 entries from more than 300 poets, sending in from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia and America. Despite complaints, the competition has remained one that is concerned with faith of all kinds in every day life, rather than being strictly Christian or doctrinal. As a well-respected poetry event in Manchester, which has become the UK’s “second city of poetry”, this is definitely one to consider entering, whatever your level of experience.

by Joely Black

Joely is a freelance writer and author who writes epic fantasy and drinks large quantities of tea. Two of her books, The Execution and The Inheritor, are available as ebooks from Smashwords.

Laugh out loud with Michael Rosen at this year’s Children’s Bookshow

21st October

Manchester Literature Festival teams up with the Children’s Bookshow, now in its eighth year, at the prestigious Royal Exchange Theatre for this morning’s lively event: a perfect location for what is to be an animated morning.

In the lavish entrance of the theatre, clusters of neon-jacketed children arrive. They form skewed lines that are hastily straightened by tense teachers. As the entrance fills up, those that are waiting are guided into the Education theatre.

“Where’s Michael Rosen?” Small voices ask, whilst they are diligently counted and then re-counted. A sense of excitement and anticipation is building.

In the circular tiered theatre, the small bodies are quickly seated. A lone microphone stands in front of a Manchester Literature Festival poster waiting for its speaker. A wooden chair and table stand to one side. The small chair will later feature in Michael Rosen’s childhood memories; at times a seat in a disciplined classroom and at others his Father’s favourite reading chair.

As the lights dim, we shush one another. The festival director steps into the spotlight and introduces Michael Rosen, “one of the UK’s best poets and former Children’s Laureate.”

An excited shuffling ensues.

Michael Rosen bounces into the centre of the room, “Let’s see who’s here.”

He circles the room and in surprise shouts, “Ah people!”

At one point he stops and points out Webster primary and St Ambrose who he had visited earlier in the week. The children wave back excitedly.

“You’re very green”, he points at a teacher.
“Are you a teacher?” He asks another audience member. “I am!” shouts a 7 year old.
“Bossy Pants”, Michael replies.

A ripple of laughter immediately follows. This sets the tone for the next hour as Michael launches into humorous anecdotes about his school days, keeping his little yet vast audience very entertained.

Michael tells us, quite simply, that he writes books; and begins to share the difficulties of coming up with the titles for his earlier books.

We are told that Mind Your Own Business, his first collection of children’s poetry, was given this title on the sole premise of winding up librarians. The children instantly take to this and laugh out loud. Naturally, he thought it would be even funnier to call the next one; Wouldn’t You Like to Know? and better still, his third book, You Tell Me.

He now moves onto the more serious subject of how he got into writing.

He tells us that he would never have written anything if he had not survived at school. Now warmed up, his lively audience follow him on his journey, enraptured.

Michael reveals that when he was at school, ‘during the stone-age’, children were not allowed to breath. Small eyes widen.

We practise holding our breaths for as long as we can, in unison. Lots of little faces turn red in their efforts.

Michael Rosen replicates the thuds of falling students, unable to live on, making it all the more urgent to know his secret for survival. Thankfully, cunning Michael Rosen had found a way around this. (They always called him Michael Rosen at school: never just Michael.)

The best way to survive at school when you were not allowed to breathe would be to use your desk lid, (“when desks had lids back in the stone age”) to discreetly breathe out into your desks and then take another gulp of air. That air should take you through the spelling test, until your next lesson, when desks could be opened again.

Magically, all tiers are silent as we breathe in, open our desk lids, breathe out together and once again, take in as much air as possible. The occasional burst of popping cheeks, followed by snorting laughter echoes in the darkness and Michael continues to ‘thud’ as more and more children fail to survive.

We now needed to master how to return the desk lid without making a sound.

“Place your fingers on the edges and slowly ease them out”, Michael says. We are in deep concentration as we try this; I find myself wincing when I hear an imaginary bang.

We are now introduced to his brother, Dr Brian Rosen, who we are told, identifies fossils. Michael shows us how this is done. He calls out, “Abdul, Dave, Melanie…”, until he gets the correct name for the rock; in this case it’s an ‘Amanite’. Immediately the audience chant; “Abdul, Dave, Melanie…”

Michael continues by amusingly sharing the day he learnt that his Mum and Dad are actually different and the day he threw his mum’s best ring out of the window; all of which are inspirations for works in his new book, The Big Book of Bad Things.

The Children’s Bookshow with Michael Rosen is a literature event, without any reading. Michael’s memories strangely fuse with our own. The stories come alive using sound and movement: all whilst sitting in our tiered seats. Its comedy built on our own lively imaginations, whatever our age, whatever our experiences. One man and his chair, keeps us happily entertained, and patiently queuing to buy more of his books.

by Shaaheda Patel

Shaaheda Patel is a teacher of English in Lancashire. She has also worked with Time to Read and Lancashire Libraries on reading development projects.

The Noël Coward of Communism

20th October

Most people go to the gym to get their abdominal muscles to ache. During Manchester Literature Festival, we just go and see Alexei Sayle at the Met in Bury.

The Met was packed for Alexei Sayle’s reading of his new memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework. Most of us were of the generation who at least remembered Alexei Sayle’s Stuff, which appeared on the BBC in the 80s and 90s, and he had lost none of his humour and capacity to entertain. He has made a successful transition from light entertainment and comedy into writing, and his work is both quirky and funny but also expertly observed.

He began with a reading from Overtaken, an earlier novel, about guest books. The scourge of hotel visitor books everywhere, Alexei explained that he had transitioned from the nondescript “everything was very nice”, to leaving dramatic, melodramatic, or even cryptic messages. Or, simply, “the pies, the pies…”

He went on to read from Stalin Ate My Homework, a memoir about growing up with his extremely Communist parents. His mother, Molly, and his father, Joe, were in thrall to the Communist ideals of the 1950s, naming their son Alexei in tribute to their devotion to the Soviet Republic. By the age of six, Alexei had developed a sense of the ridiculousness of it, calling himself a “six-year-old Noël Coward”, which sowed the seeds for his later comedy career. He describes Stalin as a “heterosexual Jewish Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.”

His childhood was definitely unusual. Like all children, he was desperate to fit in, but was constantly thwarted by his parents’ ideals. Instead of seeing Bambi, which is parents disliked because of Walt Disney’s associations with Senator McCarthy and feared would traumatise the young Alexei with the scene where Bambi’s mother is killed, he was subjected to Alexander Nevsky, a 1938 Russian film featuring several scenes of ritual child sacrifice.

He has brilliantly captured his parents’ oddities, just as he has done with fictional characters in Weeping Women Hotel and Overtaken. As Communists, they were infinitely paranoid, and so fearful that the local “petty bourgeois” taxi company would not rate them as worthy as the Royal Family, that they would call every half an hour to remind them that they had booked a car for holiday trips. Then, of course, they would take the bus anyway.

Arms flailing and pacing up and down the stage, Alexei gave the audience a mix of gags, anecdotes and readings from both the new memoir and its follow-up, on which he’s still working. He is just as lively and energetic as ever, but his temper has mellowed. This was definitely more of a literary than a comedy event, but Alexei kept the audience laughing, his reading brilliant, engaging and at times thunderous. He would occasionally pause during readings to elucidate a point, which was always funny and appropriate.

After reading a short piece from his current work, Alexei took questions. The audience was just as lively as him, one woman even offering him a “comedy tip” that he should “stand still.” Alexei managed questions about his current political beliefs in the manner of a union official of the early 1960s, a being with which he had great familiarity during his childhood. His father’s work as a railway man and strong political beliefs meant that Alexei never missed annual union events.

He also covered questions concerning his difficult relationship with Ben Elton, his time on The Young Ones, his role in Indiana Jones - which involved spilling sauce on the crotch of his gabardine suit right before meeting Steven Spielberg, and his greatest extravagance. He revealed that he once owned nine bicycles, and that his parents had once spent £1000 compensation on a cabin cruiser to take a two-week holiday to Nantwich. In fear that the boat would be stolen, they took the outboard motor home on the bus.

It was a revealing, and thoroughly entertaining evening. Alexei Sayle still has the ability to keep an audience thoroughly engaged, and without the aggressiveness of his earlier years, he’s an excellent author both to read and see live, but you will laugh so hard you hurt.

by Joely Black

Joely Black is a freelance writer and author who writed epic fantasy and drinks large quantities of tea. Two of her books, The Execution and The Inheritor, are available as ebooks from Smashwords.

Breaking Records at the 2010 Manchester Blog Awards

On the 20th October, under the Deaf Institute’s giant glitterball, the great and the good of Manchester’s blogosphere gathered for the 5th annual Manchester Blog Awards. Once again, records were broken as over 200 local bloggers received nominations, whittled down to the very best by the judges and then, for the first time, opened out to a public vote.

The strength of Manchester’s blogging scene is truly something to behold and perhaps the organisers missed a trick in not inviting blog-o-phobe Andrew Marr along to witness it. They got all other aspects bang on the money however as the audience were treated to a bevy of excellent live readings and music provided by one of the shortlisted blogs, The Pigeon Post.

The ever-professional Jon Atkin kicked off the night by diving straight into the entertainments. First off were readings from four Manchester writers, Dave Hartley (that’s me!), Sarah-Clare Conlon, Benjamin Judge and Tom Mason whose work features on the excellent 330 Words blog.

They were followed by former double-winner Emily Morris who read an account from her highly praised blog My Shitty Twenties. We were treated to the story of Gandhi (not Ghandi) the Gerbil and the little problem of how to make his passage into Gerbil Heaven all that more easy for everyone involved. It was a welcome reminder of why Emily’s blog has proved so award-winning!

And thence followed Chris Killen, another former winner, now published novelist and all round good egg. With a little help from willing volunteer Fat Roland, Chris produced a hefty document and offered a new experience in live literature reading; Choose Your Own Adventure (Extreme Romance). Chris took Fat Roland on an awkward blind date in a nightmare world of an empty restaurant with a dodgy menu and no escape route. Fat Roland tried to wriggle his way out of the date. Chris dragged him back in with no mercy. With romantic music playing in the background and a shock revelation concerning the ending, it was truly the highlight of the pre-award preamble.

But then it was down to business. The atmosphere was electric as the audience hushed to await the results. Nominees readied their humble congratulation faces. Hopeful acceptance speeches were hurriedly prepared. All eyes fell on Jon as he announced the winners one by one to a chorus of cheers and involuntary whooping.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls; The results:

Best City and Neighbourhood Blog: Love Levenshulme

Best Arts and Culture Blog (sponsored by Ribbons and Leaves

Best New Blog: 330 Words

Best Writing on a Blog: Fat Roland on Electronica

Best Personal Blog: mightaswell

And finally, chosen by the judges from all the categories, the Blog of the Year was awarded jointly to…

Love Levenshulme and Fat Roland on Electronica

Check the website to see what the judges had to say about the winners and to remind yourself of the other excellent blogs that missed out on the top spot.

All the winners proved to be both worthy of the award and humble in acceptance and their high quality reflects the equally high standard of the blogging scene in our fair city, no matter what subject, no matter what style. And with smiles planted firmly on faces, the gathering turned to the bar to commiserate, congratulate and celebrate a job well done by all.

by Dave Hartley

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ribbons and Leaves

Here's the lovely Catharine Braithwaite talking to Manchester Blog Awards winner Benjamin Thomas. His fantastic blog, Ribbons & Leaves won the prize for best Art and Culture Blog. This category was sponsored by Creative Tourist.

An intriguing collaboration of illustrator, animator and writer

20th October

The Cornerhouse on Oxford Road provided a secluded location for the launch of the new 7x7 anthology, divulging an intriguing collaboration of illustrator, animator and writer.

The evening promised insightful interviews with the participants; a mixture of MMU Cheshire writing talent and Stockport College student artists, all introduced by Robert Graham, the programme leader for the Creative Writing BA over in Crewe. The main event consisted of intimate readings by the writers and the display of animations and artwork that really added a hidden depth not often glimpsed at by readers of fiction, all within the low-hung rafters of the Annexe room.

Following on from the assured success of last year’s 6x6, it was time to take it up a notch (just numerically, don’t worry it wasn’t ridiculously intense) and present 7 writers' creative input with artistic collaborators material like a tasty side dish complementing a filling main course of fictional delight.

Anna Paldanius kicked off the evening with a delicate slice of seduction in her piece, Music Box Ballerina, that carefully described a moment of noir infused passion between a man and a woman, all against the backdrop of a hidden musical score and uncontrollable desire. Anna related her writing to ‘crafting a sculpture’ following the reading and we also got to hear off the illustrator and animator, Chris Howker and Kirsty Newman who worked well together apart from what sounded like an all-nighter to get the material finished.

A lighter-hearted look at being ‘on the pull’, entitled Something Dark and Purplish by Vincent Crimi, was well received and explored the perspective of a character named Jason, considered by the author to be the underdog and totally at odds with his loud, social surroundings. The piece was very entertaining – Jason’s straight to the point, logical musings put the club scene in a sobering perspective and revealed the innocent feelings of a man pouring his heart out at exactly the wrong moment. Jane Richardson and Joanna Brown provided artistic back up.

In the absence of Jennifer Guillard (since she was abroad at the time), Robert Graham stepped in to the fray to deliver her work, entitled A Soft Touch. Many lines brought back images from my own university attendance in Crewe, especially the night club ‘Steam’, which definitely seemed more dilapidated last time I visited. The story itself revealed the hospitality and affection of the Polish population of Crewe some of which I have to say I have witnessed myself in my three years there (apart from the thick hairy legs…did not see that coming). Entertaining visuals were skilfully provided by Nikki Denton and Stephen Brown.

Another absentee, Joanne Key, asked fellow student Angi Holden (who also read her own piece later) to deliver her work entitled When One Door Closes. The extract was a very real, touching account of a struggling relationship coping with the early arrival of a newborn baby, and how the emergence of a new life can make priorities turn on their head. At one point the mother, Kate, is clinging to life after delivering the baby premature due to complications, “As soon as her eyes were shut the view was immaculate. She sailed through the blackness”, beautifully summing up birth, life and death in two short sentences. Gemma Beaven and Katy Anne Jones provided intriguing artwork that did a good job of highlighting the mother’s loneliness at birth and turning to religion that is a focal point of the story.

The most bizarrely original title fell next, A Conversation with Quetzalcoatl, and was made softly verbal by author Johnny Carrington. The story seemed to blend present and past revolving around the thoughts of an aging woman whose fears of losing her mind are quickly becoming a reality as her imagination takes over. It works to the text’s advantage that its conversations and fantastical thoughts are mixed up in an almost insane potion that leads to a strange outcome that has to be deciphered by looking beyond the looking glass. Illustrative support was provided by Liz Parker and Jane Harrison who upon being interviewed explained it was interesting working with ‘Lotharios’.

Angi Holden returned to provide a reading of her own work this time, entitled Continental Drift, a tale of a woman who is house sitting for her parents who are on a cruise, who then proceeds to get a knock at the door from another woman claiming to have the same father. It tackles the subject of family relationships, war turning families upside down and men often leading mystery lives abroad, and how the repercussions of these secrets make themselves apparent years later; two lifelines colliding like ships in the ocean. Angi delivered her piece clearly and concisely, the extract she gave leaving the audience wanting to discover the rest of the story. When she was interviewed she added that the characters she creates tend to have a life of their own and interestingly decide what they want to do in the story – even the writing of it is a story! The illustrators, Beverley Gartside and Janet Kershaw, further commented that it was challenging working with the models that seemed in the visual piece to be stop-motion animated and added a welcome dimension to the text.

Robert Graham had the final word, explaining that the event a ‘win win’ for writers, illustrators and animators given they got to see there work shown in public, gain experience of the creative process and gain support from a large group of friends and family given the amount of people that participated. He also commented regarding the Literature Festival itself, that the events seem to be getting more versatile every year, and it is a great pleasure to be posted on the same bill as such famous, published authors such as Seamus Heaney, Val McDermid and Grace Nichols. Personally I found being in the room with up and coming talent and hearing interesting, original stories accompanied by illustrations and animations quite an uplifting experience, which will hopefully lead to individual successes for the guys involved.

by Rob Bester

Rob is a freelance writer based in Manchester, currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at MMU. He spends his time writing short stories, a crime novel based in Manchester, material for a local student magazine, blogging at freshscribble and taking many trains in between.

Magma is a hot ticket for poets and poetry fans

20th October

I have it on good authority that certain factions in the poetry world can be a little, shall we say, unapproachable. The editors and writers of the poetry quarterly Magma couldn’t be further from this description. A very smiley Clare Pollard briefly explains the purpose of the magazine – to support and publish new as well as established poets – and encourages any writers in the audience to submit work for consideration.

She then welcomes Jacqueline Saphra to the “stage” with a précis of Jacqui’s poetic career: her award wins include first prize in the Ledbury Poetry Competition and her collection The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions (Flipped Eye) follows the pamphlet Rock’n’Roll Mamma (Flarestack). We are treated to seven very varied pieces, from the short and sweet My Mother’s Vocation (humorously rhyming “parts”, “hearts” and “foreign tarts”) to the slightly longer ode to “tall as totems” asparagus, Last Harvest. She also reads Seventeen And All That Shit, a piece about perceived ugliness that appears in the November issue of Magma Poetry, tying into its theme of beauty.

Next up is Alan Buckley, working towards his first collection after Shiver (the tall-lighthouse) was named the Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice for summer 2009. He opens with Peaches, which has already appeared in Magma and includes some lovely language; “doped with syrup” one such example. A second Magma appearance is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which Alan explains, in one of many snippets of anecdotes, is a found poem (this one from the blurb on the back of a DVD boxset).

The third reader is lecturer Sarah Jackson, who gives us Vanishing Twin from her pamphlet Milk (Pighog Press), shortlisted for the prestigious Michael Marks Award last year. I really enjoy the incredible imagery of Clam, rustled up during a writing retreat in Scotland, particularly the line “snapping the clams like children clapping”. The more recent It Shined, written while on holiday in Brittany, she divulges, is rather more disturbing, as is the similarly grammatically challenged (a current obsession for Sarah) The Most Quiet, although the wordplay here keeps it from being too intense.

Clare Pollard (herself a distinguished poet, with three collections through Bloodaxe under her belt, including Look, Clare! Look!) returns to the front of the bright and airy new Cornerhouse Annexe (a sorely needed space and much used since its opening) to discuss Magma Poetry further with co-board member Jacqui and to field questions from the floor.

The MLF events I've squeezed into so far (packed houses all round) have incorporated as much fascinating production detail as they have incredible reading, and this was no exception. We discovered that the magazine was the result of a night class and is run as a collective, with a board and rotating editors, all volunteers. This helps keep the project fresh and provides different voices, different angles and different opportunities each edition for budding contributors. “We’re a broad church,” says Clare and indeed the March issue, edited by Julia Bird, takes the theme “knock it down”; Clare has picked “journeys” to guide the one she helms for June. The magazine relies on submissions, of which it receives a staggering 2,500 at each foray, and, to stand out from the crowd, Clare suggests being arresting, entertaining and amusing. “I like a joke,” she laughs, and we all join in, much enthused by how down-to-earth the approach taken by the team behind this leading literary tome is.

by Sarah-Clare Conlan.

Sarah-Clare is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. She is the co-creator of Ask Ben & Clare, author of the award-winning Words & Fixtures, and regular contributor to Manchester Blog Awards 2010 Best New Blog 330 Words.

Beirut 39: collective voices of contemporary Arab writers

19th October

Beirut 39, a long-awaited enriching event, held on Tuesday evening at the impressive Manchester Town Hall. As I set foot in, I’m stood in awed stillness before the extravagant Town Hall entrance. I attempt not to appear too amazed, though I can’t resist taking glimpses of the ornate architecture; my eyes trace the sinuous curves of the arches and the intricate detail of the elegant surroundings (creating a classic sense of stepping back in time).

As I ascend the spiral staircase, I am led to the Lord Mayor’s Parlour; a luxurious room furnished with ruby red carpet, velvet chairs and encircled by portraits framed in gold. Manchester Literature Festival has certainly selected a memorable venue for our first-appearance guests of honour; Yasin Adnan from Morocco; Ala Hlehel from Palestine and Abdelkader Benali from the Netherlands.

For those who are unfamiliar, Beirut 39 is a unique and exciting anthology, presenting a keyhole into the contemporary Arab world; expressed through the eyes of thirty-nine freshly talented, award winning Arab writers. Collectively, the extracts attempt to unlock the keyhole, revealing the inner voice and presenting a real reflection on the contemporary day-to-day Arab life.

On arrival, visitors crowd around the Waterstone’s bookstall, making sure they grab their personal copy of Beirut 39.

Meanwhile, some visitors promptly head for a comfortable front-row seat. Cathy Bolton does the honours, she briefly explains the event is organised jointly by the Manchester Literature Festival, in association with Literature Across Frontiers. Cathy swiftly hands it over to the chair, Claire Armistead (Literary Editor of the Guardian) who warmly welcomes the three representatives of Beirut 39. Before the guests can shed any light on their account, Claire points out that Beirut 39 is written originally in Arabic and translated in English by Samuel Shimon.

First up is Ala Hlehel, a Palestinian award-winning writer. The audience listens intently as Ala presents his reading of “The story writer”. Absorbed, we learn that Ala’s story is deep-rooted in political conflict and culture. I’m deeply moved by the poignant ending as are others in the audience. The protagonist gets an inspiration to write after his moment of revelation; “It’s not right that you’re a school boy and do not carry a pen.” Claire reiterates, "Ala writes about normal people in extraordinary situations.”

Next, we have Abdelkader Benali, a Morrocan-Dutch award-winning writer; the mood is lightened as he, in good spirits, stands up and pronounces, "I’m glad to be here!.” He presents an avid reading of his not-so-joyfully titled piece "The trip to the Slaughterhouse" – his account about siblings focuses on the theme of gender differences with undertones of domestic violence. Abdelkader adds that his story has some personal references; the confident personality of the girl reminds him very much of his own sister.

Out of the blue, the audience is interrupted with a high-pitched musical sound from another room. At ease, amid the hubbub of sudden laughter, Abdelkader proclaims, "Thanks for the music!”

Last but not least is the Morroccon award-winning writer, Yasin Adnan. Yasin presents his reading from Two stories: "Small talk on shades of White". Whilst reading, he pauses a little, reminding the audience that he is, “Reading in English,” although he speaks very little of it. We learn that his story, like Abdelkader’s, is also focused on the theme of gender relations (seems like it’s a recurring theme for the Moroccans).

Claire invites members of the audience to ask questions. There is a natural flowing discussion between the three writers who mutually agree; although the themes of their work may be on serious issues, this is balanced by adding humour, sometimes a caustic dark-humour.

Ala Hlehel, the Palestinian writer, admits: “If reality is miserable then you have to write with some humour, otherwise I will cry in my stories!”

Abdelkader explains he uses, “Humour as a tool to make his writing go faster.”

Yasin adds further, “Irony is a system of thinking.”

Overall, Ala Hlehel’s first-hand perceptive account, on the reality of living in a conflict-land, certainly stood out. What a privilege to hear the Arab perspective from the Arabs! Indeed, Claire aptly concludes the evening with some food for thought on 'co-existence': “Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.”

by Nazia Bashir

Nazia is a teacher of English in Lancashire with a keen interest in exploring diverse cultures.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Confessional Cities

20th October

In Waterstone’s sun filled room over Manchester’s Deansgate, Michѐle Roberts and Amanda Craig had a genuine conversation before their audience on 20 October: alternating, passionate and revelatory. Taking it in turns to speak and read, and converse again, they rambled through London’s Strand, the importance of Gaskell, true stories and the reason we read.

It’s clear that both women have passions in common. Aside from the stellar literary record boasted by each, they shared views on the richness of the city, the importance of narrative and a certain cocked ear that comes with being not quite native to their country. Roberts is half French, as her readers will know, and Craig grew up in Italy.

Both women write from a passion for real, personal narratives sometimes drawn from the people around them. Given Amanda Craig’s background in journalism perhaps this should not be a surprise, and it helps to explain the authenticity of the five principal characters in her new novel “Hearts and Minds”. The novel is about the lives of those new to London – those from other countries who are the au pairs, cleaners, waitresses, sex workers, taxi drivers that the city’s other residents lean on every day. The raw realism in the novel is built on Craig’s research. Each of her principal characters is drawn from the stories that Craig sought from others: the young Eastern European women that were candidates to help her look after her children during a period of illness when she could not do so alone, and two women “clearly on the game” at King’s Cross who offered her their stories and many more. Craig’s readers appreciate the honesty in these narratives: one audience member’s question drew Craig to talk about her sense of connection and responsibility to her characters and the people behind them. Writing some of their stories, she said, had been harrowing.

Roberts, too, talked about the importance of other people’s stories. She spoke about her long-held habit of taking walks through cities. Dressed in an oversized Irish tweed men’s coat and thick soled boots, Roberts has trod the streets of London, finding surprising urban narratives on the city’s street corners. It’s like magic, she says. People are yearning to tell you what has happened to them. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the street, either. Norwich taxi drivers revealed their secrets to Roberts week after week as she travelled between her university job and the train station – so much so that Roberts half joked about the parallels between the taxi and the confessional (the wire screen, the velvet curtain...).

It wasn’t just today’s inhabitants whose stories found Roberts, like the high, disorientated Eastern European girl that “cannoned” into Roberts as she passed a doorway on a busy street in Stoke Newington. (Here, incidentally, is where “Hearts and Minds” and “Mud” overlap: both contain a story about a young Eastern European prostitute rammed into a violent life. It wasn’t just Craig and Roberts that were in conversation, Roberts pointed out. Their books were too.) Ghosts, the two women also agreed, walked. For Roberts, Boswell and Johnson still stride London’s Strand, as they do in one of the short stories in “Mud”. And for Craig, Elizabeth Gaskell’s presence is still palpable on the streets of Manchester.

In their books and their conversation, the city is a powerful place: Craig talked about the transformative power of London and the layers of narrative it holds. It changes people, just as people are changed by stories. Asking his teacher at school what a story actually was, Craig’s son was told that it was when something happens to someone so that they are changed. For both women, stories were what happened to people in real life. They were, of course, what happened to characters but also to the readers that follow them. If not improved by what they read, perhaps, they said, people were richer for it, more thoughtful as a result.

by Kathryn Pallant

Kathryn is currently a full time novelist, working towards her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. She blogs as “litgirl” on WordPress.

“How dare she have the cheek to understand me!”

19th October

The Prehistoric Gallery at Manchester Museum might not be the most likely venue for a poetry reading (at least poetry that isn’t about dinosaur digs), but as mentioned in the introduction, we were in fact travelling back in time with Fleur Adcock. And the museum really does create a unique atmosphere – I never expected to be at a poetry reading whilst staring Stan the T Rex right in the face.

Adcock’s father was born in Manchester, and returned to the UK from New Zealand just before World War 2 in order to complete a PhD. Throughout the war, both her parents worked for the ambulance and first aid services, before returning to New Zealand in 1947. Memories, family and childhood are key themes in Adcock’s writing, and she treated us to a reading of 18 poems, from her new collection Dragon Talk and other volumes of work.

‘My father’ is about her father (Adcock admitted, “I’m terrible at titles”), and the moments she spent tracing the streets of Manchester on hearing that he had passed away. She examines the importance of geography and location – a more recent poem explores the technological bridging of a gap when she speaks to her youngest grand-daughter on Skype – and the way in which we process emotional memories. In ‘Direct Hit’, she presents 3 versions of the same story during the war when her father had swapped a shift, to later find that the team he was meant to be working with had been bombed. Drawing information from her father’s letters, her own memory and local newspaper archives, she shows how the documentation of events affects our memories of them; it is also a touching tribute – she noted that there are no official war memorials to the civil defence workers, so this was her own. The poems are full of beautiful detail, and even those dealing with dark subject matter – war, death, loss, grief – are spirited and uplifting.

There is warmth and humour in Fleur Adcock’s poetry; she is sharp but not scathing, and particularly in poems such as ‘Strangers on a Tram’, she is able to capture the indignation and naivety of childhood - in the poem her mother gets on a tram when she’s with her friends. Embarrassed, the young Fleur ignores her mum but is mortified to find that her mum is ignoring her too, sharing only a knowing wink, “how dare she have the cheek to understand me!”

In the Q&A following the reading, the humour in the poems was discussed. Adcock acknowledged that whilst she never wants to be too knowing in her writing, particularly when remembering how she felt as a child, it is inevitable to an extent because as you get older, your memories and view of the world becomes shaped by more and more experience. She also referred to ‘Blitz humour’, and the importance of having a sense of the ridiculous if you are to survive this world. There is also a relief in joking having come out the other side of a turbulent period in your life.

As the readings went on, we caught glimpses of modern technology, the births of new generations and the mind of a woman who is getting older. Adcock explained that as you get older and words begin to escape you, there is more urgency in making connections, in understanding your memories lest the words to describe them be lost. She has a no-nonsense approach to mortality, describing a point at which you must think you’ve simply had enough.

She told us about an aunt who is 100 years old, and doesn’t want to be here anymore, not through a morbid desire to die, but because her friends are no longer around her and she is losing touch with the person she once was. Adcock ended with a frank, funny poem about death, and about the boatman who ferries people across the river Styx into the Underworld: “Where is Dr Shipman when we need him? / Shipman, boatman, ferryman”

Adcock hails from a family of writers, poets and novelists, and she was asked to comment on the ‘Poem Vs Novel’ debate. She had spoken earlier about pinching an idea from a novelist relative who then asked why she had written the poem – her response was that the story was put to better use in a poem, it being only one page rather than reams and reams of paper. She told us that she loves facts, so when she writes prose, it tends to be factual family history; with poems, she doesn’t feel that you need facts and feels more freedom in exploring memories and stories creatively. To differentiate between poems and novels, she simply said, “a poem is a thing with white space around it...selections, picking things out. It’s what photographers and artists do.”

Fleur Adcock is a wonderful reader and storyteller, animated and entertaining, speaking to the audience rather than at them. Time to revisit some of her poems and hope they sound just as good in my head.

by Alex Herod

Alex is Deputy Editor of For Books’ Sake. She has just finished her MA (Performance Works, Leeds Met) and is keen to meet writers, makers and do-ers through her Collaborate Here project.

Heidi Thomas nimbly avoids the trapdoors of affectation and false modesty

19th October

There’s a definite sense of excitement in The Cornerhouse tonight, a kind of genteel thrill reverberates around the foyer. The atmosphere is somewhere between an opening night at the theatre – appropriate enough, given Heidi’s background – and the anticipation between the support and headline acts at a concert. You would not be entirely surprised if dry ice was to be deployed. As it is, when Ms. Thomas takes to the stage, she is preceded by a showreel of her ‘greatest hits’, or, as far as I can see, her greatest hits for the BBC.

This, however, is more chat show than Top Of The Pops, with Kate Rowland, the BBC Creative Director for New Writing, ably filling the chair that Parky used to sit in; the one that allows the guest the full focus of the spotlight.

Few would argue with Heidi’s gifts as a writer, whether as an empathetic adaptor of other authors’ work, as with her interpretations of Ballet Shoes and I Capture The Castle, or, as with Lilies, a teller of her own tales, but how will her gifts as a raconteur stand up in front of an audience?

As it turns out, marvellously well. Ms. Thomas is as witty and articulate as any of her creations, nimbly avoiding the trapdoors of affectation and false modesty.

Naturally, we are guided through a potted history of her career, from her early days as a playwright in Liverpool – her first play written, romantically (if inconveniently) enough following a bout of hepatitis – to a television apprenticeship on Soldier Soldier, into a present in which Cranford looms large, and on towards a future encompassing both what (thankfully) nobody on the evening calls a ‘reimagining’ of Upstairs Downstairs and a feature film adaptation of Middlemarch for Sam Mendes.

Along the way, we learn of Heidi’s low opinion of would-be academics who quote the interviews on DVD box sets and (eighty per cent of) television script editors. We are encouraged, too, to consider the striking parallels between a dreary family caravan holiday in Wales and the last days of the Romanovs, awaiting execution in the aftermath of the Revolution.

The latter is deployed as a neat illustration of the way a writer now associated with the past finds a connection with former times. For Ms. Thomas, the important thing is to always remain aware that the period setting is the characters’ present; their future, though knowable to us, an uncertainty.

As the past has become the country in which her writing has been increasingly set, so the adaptation has become the genre by which she has most often journeyed there. Her route, to overextend the metaphor, is to locate the essence of the novel through the ‘sacred moments’ in the absence of which it is no longer itself. These, it emerges, are quite often the scenes she describes as ‘sleevetuggers’; a phrase which paints the picture of the passionate devotee of the book earnestly pulling on Heidi’s cardigan in order to demand that a certain moment simply must be included.

Heidi recounted her satisfaction at being congratulated on the felicity with which she had depicted the harpsichord scene in I Capture The Castle; a scene which does not appear in the novel.

Although she did not develop the theme, she also described adaptation as an act of surgery, peeling away skin and limbs, to create something new in the image of the original. In retrospect, it would have made a good question from the audience; given her facility with period drama, and her talent for bringing characters to life, has she ever considered a Frankenstein?

Perhaps the excitement in The Cornerhouse air was the electricity of creation, after all.

By Desmond Bullen

Desmond is a graduate of the MA course in Screenwriting at the University of Salford. He is a mental health nurse working in substance misuse.