Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bookend 2

Close Up With Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot, Sunday 6th November, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Zoe Lambert. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

About 150 of us are sitting in rows in the South Gallery, and with Jeffrey Eugenides standing at a lectern, we could be in a lecture in The Marriage Plot. But we aren’t. We are at the final MLF event, which is also one of Dave Haslam’s Close Up interviews.

Eugenides introduces his third novel, The Marriage Plot, by recounting how, just a few minutes ago, a "young journalist" had interviewed him for Creative Times told him that in a seminar in critical theory she’d sent romantic notes to someone in the class, using quotations from Roland Barthes' A Lovers’ Discourse. I glance at the "young journalist", who is sitting next to me in the audience; she is hiding under her hair.

At the beginning of the novel the "heroine", Madeleine - a devotee of 19th-century fiction - is attending a course on semiotics and writing a paper on Barthes’ A Lovers’ Discourse, while falling in love with another student, Leonard. Is this life copying art or art into life? Or being written by the discourse of love? In any case, Eugenides reads the section about Madeleine and Leonard falling in love, and ends with the moment when she announces she loves him, only to have Leonard force her read from A Lovers’ Discourse: "Once the first avowel has been made, 'I love you' has no meaning whatsoever."

Jeffrey Eugenides is an excellent reader. We could have listened to him for hours, possibly days, but with Madeleine throwing A Lovers’ Discourse at Leonard’s head, he closes the book and sits down on the chair next to Dave Haslam. Dave doesn’t ask about writing love stories, plots or semiotics. He goes straight to what audiences always want to know about: the practicalities of writing. Eugenides reveals that he writes every day from 10 til dinnertime; you can’t wait for inspiration. The secret, and this is what we are waiting for, is growing the flesh on your backside you need to develop to become a scholar. Is it hard to sustain the tone while writing a novel, asks Haslam. Sustaining it is easy. It’s finding the tone that’s hard. Are there any obstacles? Eugenides’ main obstacle is finishing his novels (on average 10 years). In fact, his editor flew to Berlin in order to take Middlesex away. (I imagine the editor prowling around his apartment, saying, Just tell me where the manuscript is, Jeff.) That’s another thing about Eugenides; he’s a great raconteur, full of anecdotes.

Dave Haslam asks the question no writer wants to answer: is there a lot of your own experience in the novel? Eugenides admits that when he was writing a lot of his memories of college life came back. But, interestingly, the section that "dovetailed" with his own experience was also the most difficult to write (he’d been trying to write about it for 30 years). Like the character Mitchell, he’d travelled around Europe and spent time in Calcutta, but the chapter about this ended up an "ungodly mess" and he had to cut away a lot of his autobiography in order to find the story.

Though the novel is about how to write the 19th-century marriage plot in the 21st century, aren’t things different now, with mobiles, the internet and so forth, to in the 80s? Nope. Nothing has changed. Whether you are waiting for a letter, staying in for a phone call or checking your mobile for a text, the "tumult of anxiety" (Barthes' words) of waiting has not changed. Too true, we all think. Too true.

Dave Haslam moves on to The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Was adolescence a fertile time for writing? Yes, he is slowly growing up. Is the "obscure object" in Middlesex from his personal experience? The term comes from a beautiful and mysterious art history major Eugenides and his friends admired at college. They called her "the obscure object" (from Bunuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire). The day he finished his novel he went for dinner in Berlin and there she was, the obscure object in the flesh. Recently, she turned up at a reading in Toronto with her mother and fiancé.

It’s the audience’s turn. No one says anything for a minute, then a hand goes up: do you put limits on yourself as a writer? Yes, as a young writer limiting his options in The Virgin Suicides made it easier. But his latest novel grew more naturally. He wanted it to be a tightly dramatised book and to explore the characters as deeply as possible. The audience warms up and the questions come thick and fast. What about his next book? Same tone, says Eugenides. Wider canvas. Is Leonard based on David Foster Wallace? Not at all. He didn’t know Wallace when he was writing the character. The best question of the night: do you believe in semiotics or in love? Eugenides says he sits on the fence. He’d like to emancipate himself from delusions but still wants to believe in love. He has been influenced by semiotics, but resisted deconstruction; he still believes a text can convey meaning, and in that way he still believes in love. With the final question, he tells us Middlesex is going to be made into a mini-series by HBO.

We file into the next room for the book signing. Perhaps our "young journalist" and the story of her Barthian love letters will tour with Eugenides in his bank of brilliant anecdotes.

Zoe Lambert is the author of The War Tour, out now on Comma Press.

Bookend 1

Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes: The House Of Silk, Thursday 3rd November, 7pm, Banqueting Hall, Manchester Town Hall

Words by Simon Savidge. Photograph by Ed Swinden.

The setting for Manchester Literature Festival's first ‘bookend’ event couldn’t be more apt. Could there be anywhere more perfect for discussing all things Sherlock Holmes on a dark autumn evening than Manchester Town Hall - one of Manchester’s most gothic Victorian buildings and used in Guy Ritchie’s reinvention of Sherlock on the big screen as the Houses of Parliament. No, it’s true, honest. We are here tonight to see Anthony Horowitz, interviewed by one of the Festival’s patrons, Jenni Murray. He's discussing his career but in particular his latest novel, The House Of Silk, which - with the backing of the Conan Doyle estate - sees Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson emerge once more from the fog of Victorian London.

Horowitz starts the event with a reading of the introduction, and (if you're like me rather a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you needn’t be worried) you are instantly drawn straight back into 221B Baker Street; his voice is so close to Arthur Conan Doyle's. When he ends, the packed Banqueting Hall explodes with applause, but everyone soon goes quiet as they put the famous voice of Radio 4's Woman’s Hour to the face of Jenni Murray. She opens the conversation with Anthony by asking why he felt he could write as Conan Doyle. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think I could carry it of, for I am a huge fan, and in fact I had to write five pages first just to give it a go”, comes the reply, and the game is afoot.

Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle’s legacy makes up the first part of the discussion. Horowitz believes the fascination behind them is simply down to "friendship - we all want a best friend like Watson and a best friend like Holmes, it's that simple, and so we want to spend time with them as I always did and continue to do". Horowitz freely admits he did this project because he thought it would "be fun" and "had the story in about 45 minutes of knowing I was doing it", before telling us that there won't be a second Horowitz and Holmes outing because he has "used all the best stuff with this one, and a second would be cynical". Some authors could come off as arrogant with statements like that, but there is something slightly innocent and simply honest in Horowitz’s discussion - a certain open frankness which makes you wonder if that is what calls out to his younger fans.

In fact many of these surround him in the audience (indeed my 12-year-old cousin had begged to come along), and it's nice to see such a mix of young and old. When Horowitz discusses the ending of the Alex Rider series and why as he goes forward as an author - especially now his sons have grown up - the children’s books might slow down, one of the older fans says, "You gave me my childhood escapism - can you please keep doing it for my adulthood too?" It is when the audience gets involved and all the children start asking questions that the event opens up and a less serious side of Horowitz emerges and the author in fact almost lights up. I'm left fairly sure there will be no end to the children’s novels for quite some time yet as they provided such a captive and entertaining audience for the author, it seems.

There is also much laughter when Jenni Murray brings up his TV work, firstly the incredibly successful Foyle’s War and then Midsomer Murders and why Horowitz left. A wry smile appears as he tells the audience: "I had killed everyone off, in fact in my last episode I managed to kill two people off between every ad break, it seemed a little much." It's a question about TV that ends the evening as Murray asks who Horowitz would love to play Holmes and Watson should The House Of Silk be adapted. He thinks about and says: "My ideal pairing would be Daniel Day Lewis as Holmes… and Kenneth Brannagh as Watson - I think that could be the perfect duo." And from the sound of the audience, I think we are all agreed.

You can hear a Sherlock Special plus Manchester Literature Festival Special podcast on Simon's blog The Readers: click here.

Simon Savidge is a freelance editor and journalist, he blogs about all things bookish at Savidge Reads. He is also co-host of Manchester's Bookmarked Literary Salon, co-host of The Readers podcast and co-founder of the Green Carnation Prize. You can follow him on Twitter via @SavidgeReads.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Two for one tales

Words by Nazia Bashir. Photographs by Jon Atkin.

Review 1: Family Storytelling: Margaret Ryan, Saturday 15th October, 12 noon, Children's Department, Waterstone's Deansgate

It's stories galore on this warm October afternoon in the Children’s Department of Waterstone’s Deansgate, with books almost jumping at you from every wall; setting the right atmosphere for what is to be a fun and lively event. On entrance we are warmly welcomed by Margaret Ryan’s brightly lit smile as she sits comfortably behind a display of her recent works, which families are circling around. I manage to have a quick conversation with Margaret. Previously a primary school teacher, Margaret tells me she gave up teaching to become a children’s author. Writing is a hobby which “grew and grew”, she explains, till she decided to take it up as her main profession.

Now, as the carpet space fills up, Margaret gets ready to address her enthusiastic family gathering of children and parents alike. Some are sat cross-legged on the soft purple carpet, while a few are gathered around the table. Margaret begins by taking us through her journey and process as a children’s author. So how do ideas enter an author’s mind? Carefully taking off her glasses, Margaret remembers how a random conversation about pet names with a colleague intrigued her to write the Fat Alphie And Charlie The Wimp series. She found that her colleague’s pet names had something very “magical” about them which would appeal to children.

Margaret now presents us with a lively animated reading of Fat Alphie In Love. Brilliantly, she shifts her voice from a high-pitched singing tone to a low and gentle voice. Enthusiastically, the families join in together and the momentum picks up with the repeated sighs; everyone takes in a deep breath before Margaret reads the next line, “I’m in love with Lola!” Together everyone lets out a loud "sighhhhhh"! Noticeably, we are all warmed up and it is clear that repetition is a useful tool for children’s stories, especially for a bit of family storytelling fun; bringing everyone together. But before Margaret moves on to her next reading, a puzzled-looking lady impatiently asks, “Excuse me: does he get Lola in the end?” Left on a cliff-hanger, we are asked to read the rest to find out.

I’m sure we all must remember the familiar family story ”There were 10 in the bed and the little one said: roll over...” This is the idea for Margaret’s The Littlest Dragon series. The Littlest Dragon is the youngest in a family of 10 dragon brothers and they all sleep in one big dragon bed. However, the littlest dragon wants to get rid of the other nine dragons so he can have the bed to himself. Margaret explains this series, with a familiar family theme, is aimed at beginner readers.

Next, with the help of the lively audience, Margaret presents her most prominent work Roodica The Rude And The Famous Flea Trick. This is one of Margaret’s first books to be selected in 2011 for the Richard and Judy Children’s Book Club. As roles are allocated to both parents and children from the audience, it is clear that Margret has prepared for the fun element of her visit. She has even gone the extra mile by bringing in clothes and props to help dress up and bring to life each of the characters in her story.

The question and answer session that follows further explores Margaret’s journey as a children’s author. First question: how long does it take to get an idea transformed into a book? “It ranges from five to six weeks to a few months.” For instance, her Weird Street series was instigated while waiting at traffic lights. Margaret noticed the name Weird Street, consequently, her creative mind began exploring and questioning; who lives in Weird Street? Next: what is your favourite book? “That is a hard question because you end up liking all the characters including the baddies.” However, Margaret is fond of her Canterbury Tales series as they are personal stories which relate to her own children.

Clearly there are many joys of being a children's author; enabling her to write and still be involved with children. Margaret has also just finished her first book for adults. The event comes to an official end as the audience gives a big round of applause. What a great fun event, leaving us all smiling with fond childhood memories. As families we depart, taking away fun reading ideas, I also feel inspired: to take back some fresh ideas into the classroom.

Review 2: Children's Bookshow: Kevin Crossley-Holland, Friday 21st October, 10.30am, Royal Exchange Theatre

There is a real sense of excitement as I arrive on a cool, clear October morning at the remarkable Royal Exchange. Children liven up the atmosphere as they scurry around in their red, green and blue school uniforms while enthusiastic teachers frantically direct them towards the theatre entrance.

As we settle into our seats, the lights dim and it’s so hushed you can almost hear a pin drop. Under the spotlight, the stage is set with what resembles a comfy lounge: we have a brown leather sofa next to a side table with a small pile of books spread across.

“Life is long and time is short,” begins Kevin Crossley-Holland, one of the UK’s most acclaimed children’s authors, in his reflective tone.

At the age of 70, Kevin has many stories to tell and retell as he explains the three stepping stones that led to him becoming a writer: “Moments that are key minutes in your life that bring me here to you.”

He admits he had never read a book until he was 11 years old. But it was an “electrifying” Saracen shield that transformed him to tune into his senses, allowing the object to tell him a story. The second stepping stone, which actually took Kevin by surprise, was an old pot he chose to keep in memory of his grandfather, only to later discover that it was a unique hidden treasure, a missing Anglo Saxon piece. Kevin’s passion to learn and speak Latin while studying at Oxford University directed him to his third stepping stone. In his own words, Kevin describes the sound of the Anglo Saxon language - “Like waves running up a stony beach” - making him fall in love with Anglo Saxon writing.

Kevin, a natural storyteller, sheds some light on his career journey. He steadily gives details about how he sacrificed his publishing job to camp in Iceland. This journey inspired him to spend the next four years writing and retelling the Viking myths. As each story unfolds and another one begins, Kevin takes us through a visual journey presented using a slideshow of images from Norway and Turkey. The faint background music further enables the audience to capture his imagination. Captivated by the image of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, formerly a masjid and church, Kevin explains how this visit inspired him to write his recent novel Bracelet Of Bones. During this visit he saw a carving of Viking runes leading him to write the story of Solveig, a Viking girl who makes her journey from Norway to Turkey.

Kevin now gives an avid reading from a passage in Bracelet Of Bones. His voice and calm manner leave the audience spellbound. It is amazing to see how the children, some astonished and some eyes glued to the centre spotlight, are all magically listening.

Kevin ends the event with some wise words of encouragement, “If you can make music with words and pictures with words, you can write!” He further adds that he will keep on writing stories: “I’ll never stop but I’ll be stopped by old age.”

Kevin is a truly extraordinary storyteller with a difference and The Children’s Bookshow presents a truly entertaining event. I leave comprehending that everything and everyone has got a deep hidden treasure - full of stories.

Nazia Bashir is a teacher of English in Lancashire with a keen interest in exploring diverse cultures. She also blogged for Manchester Literature Festival 2010.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fair to Midland

Midland Hotel: Fact & Fiction

Review 1: Fact
Memories Of The Midland Tour With Barbara Frost, Wednesday 19th October, 1pm

Words by Hayley Flynn.

Today's tour of the Midland is held by historian and author Barbara Frost, who's been taking people around this grand building since 1987 and has picked up an interesting tale or two over the years. We meet in the foyer, formerly the Winter Gardens, just beyond the two archways out front that were designed for horses and carriages so that they could deposit their passengers inside the hotel without them ever seeing a drop of local rain. It's easy to be swept up in the historical grandeur of this hotel, imagining as we're guided around touches from the past such as the live orchestra which sat where we now have reception desks.

Built by Midland Railway Company in 1880 in reaction to a rather peevish public who couldn't bear having to walk all the way from the Manchester Central station to Piccadilly in order to find a decent hotel. The erection of the hotel meant that five buildings were demolished, one of which was a gentleman's concert hall where Charles Halle began his career and Chopin gave his very last performance. A condition, therefore, was imposed that the hotel must build a concert hall within its walls. On-site entertainment, a coal fire and telephone in every room, it was all very luxurious - if you forget for a moment that back then guests shared bathrooms.

Although now owned by Q Hotels, there is evidence everywhere of the Midland Railway Company, most notably in the Wyvern. This restaurant is named after a mythical dragon and there is a Wyvern room in every hotel built by the company. Take some time to have a look at the photographs here; they're by Eadweard Muybridge, a man fascinated by the movement of the horse trot. He captured sequential photographs that could be animated much like a flip book and his work here is of the human motion and adorns every wall of the restaurant. Immediately outside the Wyvern the artwork takes a literary turn; extracts from W H Auden's poem Night Mail can be found framed in several locations on the ground floor and serve as a reminder of the mail trains that would have rattled by the hotel. Continuing the theme, the Alexandra ballroom contains plastercast replicas of the building's exterior carvings, including ones of Shakespeare.

In the Trafford Room we learn that the tango was danced here for the very first time in the UK, most likely by film star and gangster George Raft who taught the king and queen a little while later in London. Passing by the Moorish Octagon Room, we move into the French restaurant (pictured), where the Beckhams had their first date and Coronation Street characters Hilda and Stanley Ogden celebrated their silver anniversary.

The hotel is a maze of reading rooms, barber shops, tea rooms, ladies' meeting rooms, basements and sub-basements. Every need is catered for, except, in the beginning, those of the stomach. Architect Charles Trubshaw, a man who clearly had his every meal cooked for him, didn't even consider the need for a kitchen until the last minute and as such they were originally located in a basement level as an afterthought.

Down in the basement, the gym as we know it today, a German restaurant could be found. The original entrance is beautifully covered in Bermantoft tiles which were plastered over during the war to protect them - ironically it was the removal of the plaster and not the war that led to the damaged state they are in today. A waiter working in the restaurant, Hugo, fell in love and proposed to a co-worker named Alice Bradley. The war arrived in England and German Hugo was sent to the Isle of Mann from where he would never return. Alice didn't give up on Hugo and travelled to Germany to trace his family, which she managed to do and found Hugo alive and well, and married to another woman.

Room 247 on the second floor is the home of the Presidential Suite, where the likes of Pavarotti and Princess Anne have stayed; travel two floors up and the suite here has seen such guests as David Cameron. Keep travelling up and you'll find a room that no longer exists. The roof of the Midland was once a garden where guests could take their afternoon teas - Barbara shows the group a photo of an old garden party and it looks as refined and pretty as any party can when located amidst the billowing smoke of the chimney pots! Still, it was elegant enough to host the wedding of Rebecca Marks (Marks and Spencer) in 1910. Look up now and you'll still spot the ornate, white iron fence that surrounded the garden.

Hayley Flynn won Best City And Neighbourhood Blog in the Manchester Blog Awards 2011 for her site, which features the regular Skyliner series, looking at "the secrets above your eyeline".

Review 2: Fiction
Afternoon Tea With Patricia Duncker, French Restaurant, Midland Hotel, Wednesday 19th October, 3pm

Words by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

Hearing from Hayley that the second floor of the Midland is home to the Presidential Suite and has hosted guests of somewhat high standing is most interesting: it provides a certain context to author Patricia Duncker choosing to use it for the room inhabited, albeit briefly, by the main character in her specially commissioned short story.

The Madonna At The Midland opens with the rather posh Clarissa Dalloway (yes, the nod to Virginia Woolf is intentional) "cuddling a headache" as she faces the prospect of seeing in her 70th birthday alone in a strange second-floor suite overlooking the rain-drenched Central Library, gazing into "the long sigh of old age ahead". Patricia and Barbara explain to me that Clarissa's suite is located above the conference rooms, which serves to link her back to the public spaces in the hotel, where she spends much of the action, aghast yet also enchanted.

In her introduction, Patricia tells the well-turned-out audience filling the sumptuous, gilded French how, during her four- or five-month spell as writer-in-residence (though she didn't actually live at the Midland), she became intrigued by the inner or personal parts and the outer or shared parts any hotel has. "Hotels are not only very theatrical places," she explains, "they are also quite curiously interlinked - private space and public space. That private space and public space is what interested me the most."

To get a proper feel for the Midland, Patricia was pretty much given the run of the place - "I do declare myself to the duty manager when I start one of my secret raids on the hotel," she says with a good-humoured cluck, something of a trademark. "I have an upstairs as well as a downstairs knowledge of the Midland." Historian Barbara was also drafted in to offer Patricia an insight into the background and gossip from the building and its guests, helping her imagine the story she was gradually beginning to unfold and relating it back to the very specific location.

As well as making particular references in her story to the public spaces of the Wyvern, the French and "the strangely Oriental space of the Octagon", much of the action takes place in the lift and the lobby, where Clarissa finds herself "walled in by smiles" as a hubbub of people, all in fancy dress, are gathering for a birthday party. The guests are "supposed to come dressed up as famous people who stayed at the Midland", and indeed we have Hayley's aforementioned Pavarotti, Posh and Becks, and, perhaps not David Cameron, but his predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Knowing what Barbara knows has added an extra depth to Patricia's story of the reunion of two old friends; already a well-written, well-paced and well-received story. Time for tea.

The Madonna At The Midland will be available shortly to read on the MLF website.

Sarah-Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her award-winning blog, Words & Fixtures, is about language, literature, arts and culture.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Moved by the Breeze

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Saturday 22nd October, workshop 3pm; performance 7.30pm, Contact

Workshop: Words by Shaaheda Patel. Photograph by Ed Swinden.

On a Saturday afternoon, Oxford Road’s vibrant Contact theatre is the venue for today’s meeting of dynamic, young writers, waiting to be coached by acclaimed Caribbean poet Jean "Binta" Breeze.

The oranges and purples, running parallel to the striking urban artwork on our entrance, reflects the diversity of our motley group. We are led into a slow-moving mirrored lift, to an upper floor. The chirpy yellow room is already occupied by a small table in the centre; seats are filled.

I sit to the left of Jean; she is beaming and welcomes us in.

White plates of chocolate biscuits are on offer, sugary stimulants for the writing process ahead. We have intimacy and arm space, as two Young Identity members arrive and the door is closed. Part of the writing development organisation Commonword, Young Identity supports teenagers and young adults by using poetry, prose and performance to expose young people’s issues.

Jean begins with some warm-up activities. She introduces herself as Jean, a poet who had Alpen for breakfast. We are subsequently asked to introduce ourselves in the same way but are challenged to build up the list of names and breakfasts as we circle the table. It turns out that I am accompanied by a first-time writer, some accomplished poets, a young poet who had frankfurters on baps for breakfast and this year’s Superhero Of Slam poetry winner.

Jean now gives us five minutes to carry out some free writing. We are asked to write in detail about everything that we have done in our day so far. I find myself jotting down intimate details of my husband, as he finally sweeps a dying bee off the floor that had inconvenienced us by lying there dying for two long days already. The writer next to me whispers that she finds this exposing and I find myself agreeing.

Commenting on one writer’s smoking habits, Jean tells us that she was once a chain smoker, and only the risk of a brain haemorrhage has now slowed her down. Her day would normally have read, “Coffee, 16 cigarettes, coffee, 10 cigarettes…”

Jean now introduces the difference between the concrete and the abstract and our next task is to use only the concrete to describe the more convoluted abstract. We choose an abstract noun each and begin the process. I choose Imagination.

Jean starts by asking a series of questions to evoke the senses and we are silent in this large yellow room and only the scribbling of Biros is heard. “If you walked in on your abstract, what would it be doing?” She asks as her final question. Immediately I see Imagination spinning, neat and orderly: “Chaos contained through movement,” I write.

To recharge, Jean points us towards the green room and on return we re-read and redraft our poems in silence.

Jean asks us to share what we have written. We hear of “boiled tripe in bleach”, and “stray strands of silky black refusing tidy pony tails”, triggering animated discussions of grief, integrity and indifference.

Our time with Jean has ended.

Jean talks about perspectives and tells us as we sit in silence: “We are on our own in this world. It is your world and the senses are full of wonderful things.” She discusses our frustrations as new writers and sometimes our obsessions with "getting an idea". She encourages us to trust our senses. “We are sometimes overturned by a smell, and this is how the poem becomes the idea.” She helpfully advises while pointing at the table: “Be true to the local and the concrete… that will then become true to the universal.” She ends: “Be true to the little things.”

We learn that Jean didn’t come to this point through academia and university. She has been writing since 11 and performing since the 70s. Her book of selected poems, Third World Girl, came out last month and as she leafs through it she can still see the truth. The truth transcends time.

“Write with honesty,” she pleads. And with that thought we leave on this Saturday afternoon; stepping back out onto busy Oxford Road; inspired and ready to self-consciously sense again on our separate journeys home.

Shaaheda Patel is a teacher of English Language and Literature at a sixth-form college in Blackburn. She blogged for Manchester Literature Festival in 2010 and has worked on literature development projects with Time To Read.

Performance: Words by Kevin Danson. Photograph by Ed Swinden.

Tonight is a night I want to remember and tell people about for a long time. I say this not only due to a series of bicycle calamities getting to tonight’s event, involving me riding a bike which would be too small even for a six year old then pedalling like a fugitive to maintain punctuality, but also because I was given the opportunity to watch the sold-out performance of passionate and compelling Jean "Binta" Breeze. Segun Lee-French is the anchor of tonight’s Manchester Literature Festival event, jointly hosted by Renaissance One, Commonword and Speakeasy.

Launching this evening’s poetry are some members of the inspiring group Young Identity: Nicole May, Saquib Chowdhury, Yussuf M’Rabty, Reece Williams, Elmi Ali and Mike Bennett. They stand in unison as the voice of our young generation presenting pieces relating teenage struggles of romance, hesitant thoughts of an infatuated boy and difficulties of witnessing domestic violence. It isn’t all seriousness however. Nicole gives a witty piece on extremities women go to - waxing, botoxing, enhancing, clothing - in order to fit the ever-changing picture of an ideal woman. Young Identity offer free workshops every Tuesday at Contact Theatre from 7-9pm. Some of these poets perform their arts as part of Brave New Voices, representing the UK around the globe. Manchester’s where it’s at!

Three Speakeasy poets substitute the Young Identity crew and smooth the audience with their luscious voices. Between them they describe society’s judgments on our current reality vis-à-vis virtual reality (Chanje Kunda) and rap issues on politics and the global financial crisis (Yvonne McCalla and Amanda Milligan), all the while causing a respirational standstill for silent reflection. It is that quiet I could hear a feather land.

Jean "Binta" Breeze steps into the spotlight to euphoric applause. After cracking a few jokes – though this continues throughout her performance – Jean breaks into song that rolls sweetly into her first poem, Simple Things. As she finishes her Testament poem, Jean tells us of the church songs she learnt as a child in her granny’s lounge. And that is just how we all feel right now; as if we are in the lounge of Jean "Binta" Breeze and she is sharing her childhood memories. There is a certain intimacy between the audience and this captivating poet. Jean starts a song; we all join in. Jean taps her foot and we keep the beat like a human metronome. I love it when she hurtles the lyrics; "Old pirates, yes, they rob I" receiving a bursting return of the subsequent words to one of Bob Marley’s most significant songs. Her presence is like that of a church leader, admitting truths in her words above sounds of harmony and amens from her devotees.

I would never have guessed that as I sit here in Contact I would be travelling through the mountains of western Jamaica meeting stern yet entertaining grandparents and watching a small Jamaican child arrive on our foreign shores then being witness to a Caribbean wife/mother/worker’s testament. Occasionally I find myself lost under the patois yet I cling on to an identifiable word and get myself back on track.

Jean wraps up with a rhythmic poem about a Caribbean woman - however there appears to be not a chance in the world that this crowd will let her go that easily. The applause is like a thunderstorm and the fans rise to give her a full-house standing ovation. We get one more out of her, a new poem called Third World Girl, also the name of her new book. Undoubtedly one of the best colonial poems I have ever heard. With verse like "You can’t love me cos you own me / my paradise is your hotel" and "Empire’s over but the rape’s been done", my thoughts are drowned and I’m swimming in contemplation.

I arrived dizzy and out of breath, now I’m leaving in exactly the same way. Even though I have an unforgettable Nana of my own, I am happy to take on 20 more Jean "Binta" Breezes.

Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The greatest love affair

Antonia Fraser: On Harold Pinter, Wednesday 19th October, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Rowena Roberts. Photograph by Ed Swinden.

“At the dinner party, we sat at opposite ends of the table – which vexed me, as I’d been hoping to meet this man who everyone was talking about. The evening drew on and I had to leave with my friend – but before I did so, I walked over to introduce myself to him. So I said who I was, and that I unfortunately had to leave, at which he turned his extraordinary black eyes up to me and simply said: ‘Must you go?’”

Such was Lady Antonia Fraser’s account of her first meeting with the Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Harold Pinter in 1975, which she described to a crowded, yet hushed room under high white ceilings and mellow yellow lighting, in the Whitworth Art Gallery last Wednesday.

Of course, on that night in question she didn’t "go", so these first words of Harold to Antonia marked the start of a relationship that was to endure for 33 years – and inspired the title of her biography on him, published last year.

Must You Go? was written “with passion in 10 weeks”, Lady Antonia revealed, following Harold’s death in 2008. Quite a departure from her usual best-selling books on historical figures such as Mary Queen of Scots, it’s both a mourning and a celebration of the man and their life together, based on Antonia’s personal diaries.

On this evening in the Whitworth, Lady Antonia spoke to stand-in interviewer Jon Atkin (who did a sterling job at last-minute notice) about the love of her life and “one true friend”, reading extracts from the book that perfectly matched her conversational style: anecdotal and affectionate.

With a stately air and gracious demeanour, sporting a smart black-and-white floral jacket and a wicked sense of humour, Antonia revealed details of parties and playwrights; of family trips to Eastbourne; of a jolly cricketer who wrote sinister plays; of poetry penned in the intensity of passion celebrating “the breath we took when we first met”; and of the characteristically understated manner in which Harold received the news of his crowning career achievement – “I seem to have won the Nobel Prize.”

The audience Q&A also brought her other historical works into the conversation, allowing Antonia to touch on her forthcoming work, a book on the Great Reform Bill, for which she was visiting Manchester’s People's History Museum the following day.

But, as Pinter’s plays reveal, emotions can sometimes best be glimpsed in throwaway lines – such as Antonia’s quiet, matter-of-fact admission towards the close of our discussion: “I can’t read the end of my book – and I wrote it.”

That sense of enduring love and incredible passion, bubbling below the surface of a literary discussion, is what I’ll remember most from this evening with Antonia Fraser.

Rowena Roberts is a copywriter, editor and journalist based in south Manchester. You can see more on her website.

Brain drain

Literary Quiz with James Walton, Sunday 23rd October, 7.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Kevin Danson.

On another weirdly warm October night, the doors are closed and curtains drawn in the IABF as teams cluster around tables for this year’s Manchester Literature Festival quiz night with writer and host of BBC Radio 4’s The Write Stuff James Walton, also author of the handy literary quiz book, Sonnets, Bonnets & Bennetts. James is the creator of this year’s quiz, made up of six rounds with 10 questions each and random bonus questions thrown in. On top of that, he torments us with an occasional twist in certain rounds when giving the answers.

Each round has a theme; bestsellers, food and drink, sport and the like. We sit, anxiously waiting to show our literary knowledge to one another and maybe even shock ourselves. In all honesty, from round one I discover my choice of literature has been entirely off the mark, except of course for the Twilight series - worth one question. My team appears to be better equipped than I, though silence and frozen stares tell me they too may soon collide with the same brick wall I have.

Q. Which current bestseller opens July 15th 1988?
Many of the teams scribble immediately onto the sheet of paper. I on the other hand admire the renovated building I am sitting in and the pieces of antique furniture scattered about the room. With the difficulty of the questions comes an amplified volume of oooooooos and aaaaaaaaaas. These people love a challenge, forcing their minds to dig deep within those chests and vaults kept at the back of their thinkers. I will have to empty mine out and start again.

Q. Who wrote the short story; The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner?
My team is wide-eyed. A small team of two young ladies appears unabashed as the questions are read. In the third round a helpful twist comes to our aid; the final letter of an answer will be the start of the next answer. This seems to work in our favour at the beginning, then we go back to our standard inter-gawking. I’m trying to decipher lip movements from the team at the other end of our table but alas, I have yet to acquire this skill. I have a clear view of one of this year’s Manchester Blog Awards’ winners, Benjamin Judge, but he’s speaking tight-lipped. Does he know what I’m trying to do?

The 1960s rock band Steppenwolf was named after a novel by which author?
As the rounds progress the pressure multiplies the number of empty bottles on top of tables. The last round brings with it the harshest rules of the night, received with grumbles and shifting chairs; If you get any answers wrong, including the bonuses, you lose the points for the whole round. Nonetheless, James does let us leave a blank if we are unsure. The teams release their breath.

Q. Who wrote the novel The Sporting Life?
Q. Which novel contains the characters Dr Slop and Yorick?
Q. Whose second novel was called Human Croquet?

So many varied questions and, fortunately, so many well-read partakers to tackle them. The final round ends and the judges huddle into their corner to add up for the grand finale. I am pleased to say we didn’t come last, though very, very close.

The final four are as follows:
4th – joint position from teams James Draper and The Iliterati
3rd – The Lancs Team
2nd – Five And A Baby
And, for a second year running, first place is awarded to brainboxes The Librarians. They are presented with a bottle of champers and copies of Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens: A Life.

Even though I leave perplexed from the amount of catch-up reading I have to do from now on, it has been a very fun night and I have had the pleasure of meeting the extremely delightful Emma Jane Unsworth, author of Hungry, The Stars And Everything and the spellbinding Zoe Lambert, author of The War Tour. A lovely end to an evening and to this year’s Manchester Literature Festival. Well done to all who took part!

Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash.

Norse code

Francesca Simon: The Sleeping Army, Sunday 23rd October, 5pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Literature blogger Ann Giles has written about this event on Bookwitch. Read the piece here.

A truly global feel

International Prize For Arabic Fiction Discussion, Sunday 23rd October, 1pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Manchester-based arts and culture journalist Ben East has written about this event for The National. Read his article here.

Chloe is gone, long live Gerry

The Men Pomes: Gerry Potter, Friday 21st October, 7.30pm, Contact

Words by Daniel Carpenter.

The first thing you hear is the thump, thump of a walking stick. It echoes across the room and from the corner, he enters. A cloaked figure, stomping his way to the microphone. Once he shuffles on stage, he casts aside the cloak and stick and grasps the microphone tight.

If there’s one thing to say about Gerry Potter, he knows how to make an entrance. Even back when he performed as Chloe Poems, he was a powerhouse of poetry.

It’s not just his approach to the stage, it’s his presence once on there. He is warm and friendly between poems, or should that be pomes? As referenced by the title of his latest collection, The Men Pomes, we quickly learn that men don’t like to say the word poem. The poetry he performs tonight is an exploration of this idea. Delving deep into the male psyche he brings with him a combination of working-class anger, love for Liverpool and a unique voice on the poetry scene.

Poet Dominic Berry who was also in the audience said, “Queer culture really, really needs this and too few even try to do what Gerry does so stunningly.” He’s right of course; Gerry Potter is a unique talent. The climax of the first half of his set, a poem called Bashed left most of the audience in tears and is one of the finest pieces of performance poetry I have ever seen. There is an honesty to a lot of his work, and it comes across on stage, so that even when he forgets his words, or stumbles, the audience is with him every step of the way.

There was a huge turnout for the evening and a vibrant crowd. Upcoming poet Zach Roddis commented, “He was in turn funny, thought-provoking, and poignant. It was really an honest portrayal of his own life in Liverpool, nothing was altered, and that's why it stood out for me as a performance that I will never forget.” Dominic Berry continues, “My all time favourite poet used to be Chloe Poems but last night Gerry Potter well and truly killed her dead.”

Daniel Carpenter is a writer and one of the organisers of the monthly spoken word event Bad Language. He blogs at Winter Hill.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Translating ideas

Zhu Wen: In Conversation With Julia Lovell, Sunday 23rd October, 4.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Adrian Slatcher.

Of China, we hear so much, but sometimes know so little. It’s why the visit of the writer and film-maker Zhu Wen to Manchester was so engrossing. Born in the late 1960s, he came to prominence in the 1990s with stories that were attempting to reflect the reality of contemporary China; a state that has changed considerably over the last 20 years. Zhu Wen’s stories have been translated into English by Julia Lovell, and this event, to celebrate a new translation of one of his stories, due to appear in a Comma anthology next year, was supported by The Confucious Institute at The University Of Manchester.

I’ve read the stories collected as I Love Dollars and there’s a freshness and a looseness to his writing that seeks to give voice to the real China. The newly translated story, from which Wen read, as the English translation was projected to his side, tells the story of a student who goes from Nanjing in the south of China, to Harbin in the north, “The frozen city beyond the great wall”. It tells of a culture clash in this vast country, where the southern student dresses inappropriately for the cold weather and is shocked by the poverty of the friend’s family with whom he stays. A diet of pickled cabbage is dealt with by outside communal latrines which are “scattered with rods of excrement and icicles of urine”. It is a classic tale of a culture clash, where the educated southerner is shocked by the grim life of his northern countrymen, and the routine violence with which men treat their women. As the extract comes to an end, the narrator sees a woman who intrigues him, and when she turns, he describes her eyes as being “colder than the January wind”.

In questions from Comma editor Ra Page and the audience after the reading, Julia Lovell contextualises three generations of Chinese writer. Those born in the two decades after the war tend to write novels about China’s recent history, while those born since Mao’s death are far more commercial, writing in genres for the market. For Lovell, Zhu Wen is one of the writers of a “sandwich” generation, more avant garde in their style, and focusing on the “hurly burly of life in China today”.

Zhu Wen was an engineer and a poet before he was a fiction writer, and, fascinatingly, no longer writes stories, instead having become an acclaimed film-maker. Explaining this transition, Wen talks of film being a “a new love affair”, and reflecting his desire to try new things.

The audience is a nice mix of Chinese and English readers, and Wen is an engaging, albeit ironic, interviewee. When asked about the difference between a novelist and a short story writer, Wen says that the novelist needs “strong and muscular buttocks”, clearly an aphorism that Lovell can’t translate exactly. She talks about the difficulty of direct translation from the Chinese in a way that will make sense to English readers – and how it has helped that writers, like Wen, have been so open to her capturing the tone and style of their work for translation into English. For Wen, the book is remade when it is translated into English, so it becomes a different book, a collaboration between writer and translator.

It was a fascinating event in a number of ways – not least, because of how Zhu Wen has always been reluctant to define himself as a writer. Lovell says that on her visits to China she speaks to younger writers about who they read, and Wen is a name that frequently crops up as an influence. Little known in the West, and no longer working in the medium, his work is well worth discovering as a gateway onto a culture that is continuing to change at speed. Lovell makes the point that though we know little of Chinese literature, Chinese writers are far more open and aware of Western literature – and events such as this help to redress the balance.

Adrian Slatcher blogs about literary matters on Art Of Fiction and writes poetry and prose. His poetry collection Extracts From Levona was published by Knives, Forks and Spoons press in 2010 and Playing Solitaire For Money is out on the Salt Modern Voices imprint from Salt Publishing.

A newsworthy novel

Catherine O'Flynn, Saturday 22nd October, 6pm, Event Room, Waterstone's Deansgate

Words by Sarah Holland.

Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel, What Was Lost, was critically acclaimed and won the prestigious First Novel prize at the Costa Book Awards in 2008. What a pity for the 20 agents and publishers who rejected it before it was printed by Tindal Street Press, a small Birmingham publisher. It was on my final year reading list at university and its natural prose, humour and engrossing mystery plot led me to pick it for an essay subject. After spending significant time scribbling my rambling thoughts and question marks on the pages of her first novel I am glad to be in the intimate Waterstone’s event room this Saturday evening, to hear her chat about her second novel, The News Where You Are.

It is evident by the sitcoms that grace our television screens regularly, the American sense of humour often differs to the British. Flynn mentions that in America her novels are placed in the mystery category, but in comedy in England. She prefers to think of her work as the latter and says that anyone expecting an intricate and gripping mystery plot would be disappointed.

Writing has come very naturally to her. When asked about how she developed her unique style she struggles to answer, seemingly embarrassed by the application of her real voice. It is a similar style to her emails and letters, she says. How easy she makes this writing malarkey sound. But, could a voice be taught and nurtured? Or does it simply exist or not, and that is that? She couldn’t say, except that she finds the notion of "finding" a voice an "over-mystification". She uses her natural voice, but other writers create a more heightened prose, and that works for them.

Her second novel is about Frank, a local news reporter with a superficial "corny" persona who becomes greatly affected by the tragic stories he uncovers. She is interested in exploring the person behind the image. Local news reporters are often sneered at and viewed as ridiculous, she says. Her life experiences and interests influence her fiction. She recounts when she worked at HMV and a local reporter, who was often viewed as a bit of a joke, approached the counter with surprisingly acceptable choices to her critical musical ear. His politeness and charm seemed incongruous to his screen character and made her admire the largeness of personality required to be indifferent to the constant sniggers. Growing up, she watched a lot of local news, stories that were both funny and sad, a “strange cocktail of the surreal and the depressing”. She says that her books are basically the literary equivalent of the tragic-comic local news programmes.

The characters in her novels suffer from lost or misled ambition. I ask about her attitudes to ambition and she responds that, in a sense, she is "ambitionless". She never expected to be an author. She had many jobs before this, including a post woman and in the box office of a local arts centre. She will stop when it feels natural, she does not want to be trapped in the label of being a "writer" and churn out novels for the sake of keeping the role. Her ambitions lay in the smaller finer things, the ability to read what she liked and such. I say to her this instils an optimistic thought that, sometimes, good things can unexpectedly happen. She replies that so called "grand" ambitions are not always needed to achieve.

Catherine O’Flynn has kept her self-called ramblings succinct; she has been easy on the ear and incredibly humble when it comes to her work. I approach her with my copy of What Was Lost, and she writes in it ever so graciously, "I am sure your essay is better than the book". Oh, if only.

Sarah Holland recently graduated in English Literature from Sheffield University and now lives in Manchester. She writes about the arts and has a screen blog, Girl On Film.

Shedding light on problems

Sam Willetts with Glenn Sharp & Chico Pere, Saturday 22nd October, 2.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Sarah Holland.

It is one of those clear, fresh October days. The white, open space of the Whitworth’s South Gallery is radiant as the sun peers through the huge windows that display Whitworth Park. The sun glistens on the green leaves, couples are sleepily lying on the grass and bicycles cycle past. It is a perfect, peaceful setting for this Poets & Players event. An afternoon filled with music and poetry? Don’t mind if I do.

Poets & Players was started in 2004 by poet Linda Chase, who passed away earlier this year, with musical director Chris Davies. This afternoon, appropriate for the setting, Sam Willets is reading from his poetry book New Light For The Old Dark, which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards last year. Now, I never read poetry for pleasure. I don’t possess the patience to decipher the abstract metaphors and ambiguous meanings, hidden like a puzzle. I like stories. I like to be told things. By the end of today though, I feel a little turned.

The event commences with musicians Glenn Sharp (guitar) and Chico Pere (cante) from the group Calaita – Flamenco Son. The only movement in the gallery is the tapping of their feet and the clapping of Chico; who is looking the eclectic musician in baggy orange trousers and a bright red shirt. The guitar is beautiful and Chico’s lungs are powerful indeed. He sings with such passion that his face turns red.

Sam Willetts approaches the microphone and nervously says that he is “very unused to doing this when sober”. He was a heroin addict for over 10 years, and is now in recovery. He is shy, and trembles as he reads his first couple of poems, commenting in between that he does “feel extremely nervous”. He is normally intoxicated when giving poetry readings and it would just “breeze” by. The audience laughs.

He has a fascinating background. He mentions how his mother escaped from the Nazis and came to England as a refugee in 1947. Within three years she was reading English at Manchester University. His poetry is influenced by her experiences and his secular Jewishness. He reads his mother’s guilt-ridden survival experiences from On The Smolensk Road. He revives a visit to a Warsaw cemetery. His poems are not all darkness however, there are homesick poems dedicated to the white cliffs of Dover, and the first poem he reads is Anchor Riddle, as he has always found anchors to be beautiful.

There is a poetry break for more music from Calaita. People start to gather outside and observe through the glass, and one family decide to come in for a look. That is what is lovely about this event. It gives it a relaxed, open vibe. What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon, experiencing talent in such a lovely setting, all for free.

When Sam appears again he is sat down, water in hand and seemingly more relaxed. He reads the incredibly powerful Digging, a poem about his heroin addiction: "I'm back in a basement / heartsick, digging for a vein in February / as in a February gone and a February / still to come, spitting prayers through the tourniquet / in my teeth, licking up tears and pleading / for my blood to plume up in the barrel, please". This second part is so emotional that my eyes tinker on the edge of watering. He recites a poem about his painful separation from his girlfriend. Witnessing him read is witnessing his pain and regret. He recites a poem dedicated to regret, and the time he regrets wasting, on regret. He reads a tribute to his father that describes the time he died in hospital. He balances this compelling content with lighter love poetry, and reads the amorous Coup De Foudre, a poem he eloquently says is about “falling precipitously in love”. He says he chose that title to make it sound a bit “posher and sexier”. He starts to enjoy the reading, assuring more than once that this will be his last one, before adding during the applause "just one more". He ends with a short, surprising poem about a break-up that has the audience grinning as they applaud: “She said / Look / It’s not you / It’s me / I don’t like you."

This has been a personal highlight of MLF 2011. The combination of delicate Spanish guitars and a gifted poet with a lot to express has given the event a unique quality. I approach Sam Willets, holding a newly purchased copy of his collection, and tell him how much I enjoyed it despite not even being a poetry person. He responds that, funnily enough, he isn’t much of a poetry person either. Those that put him up for both the Forward Prize and TS Eliot prize would probably disagree with him on that one.

Sarah Holland recently graduated in English Literature from Sheffield University and now lives in Manchester. She writes about the arts and has a screen blog, Girl On Film.

Science is golden

Alan Turing & Morphogenesis: Jane Rogers and Martyn Amos, Sunday 23rd October, 2pm, MadLab

Words by David Hartley. Photograph by Craig Pay.

Bringing together the forces of the Manchester Literature Festival and the Manchester Science Festival, Comma Press invited an audience to their chilly but functional headquarters at MadLab to discuss and celebrate a figure very dear to the scientific heart of Manchester. For their latest anthology, Litmus, Comma paired off a clutch of top-quality writers with a gaggle of eager scientists to produce short stories based on Eureka moments from the history of science. A quick scan of the credits in the book reveals that many of the scientists involved are currently based at a Manchester establishment, so it seemed somewhat inevitable that the irrepressible Alan Turing would get sucked in along the way.

The subject of my favourite Manchester statue (sitting on a bench in Sackville Park), Turing is as famous for his turbulent and tragic private life as he is for his scientific genius and is one of the few Manchester heroes truly worthy of the accolade. The reverent atmosphere in MadLab therefore felt entirely justified and the excellent hour-and-a-half discussion worked its way into a beautiful homage.

Litmus editor Ra Page introduces proceedings by briefly explaining the tricksy concept of Morphogenesis, the subject of the afternoon. The mind-bending complexities of how one cell expands and evolves into a intricate living creature was the focus of Turing’s last great thesis and the inspiration for Dr Martyn Amos’ suggestion as his Eureka moment for Litmus. The lucky writer who claimed this difficult but alluring topic was Jane Rogers, author of The Testament Of Jessie Lamb and recently long-listed for the Booker Prize. Tasked with not only grappling with the mind and life of a well-loved genius, but also pinning down one of his trickiest concepts, the project was evidently no mean feat.

But what a success. Rogers reads an edited version of her resulting story, entitled Morphogenesis, and manages to bring both Turing and his concepts to life, intertwining the two into a biographical tale of love, loss and lightbulbs. From the delightful ("his destiny is in his cells") to the heartbreaking ("the law will not allow him to be the man his own cells tell him he is"), Rogers’ story and her exquisite reading of it seems to bring the man himself shimmering into the room, apple in one hand, fir cone in the other.

After the story, Dr Martyn Amos, head of Novel Computation at Manchester Metropolitan University, takes to the stage to further elaborate on Turing and his theories. Amos places a lot of emphasis on Turing as a "great connector"; a scientist and mathematician who was unafraid to cross and mix disciplines. Amos correctly notes that science needs more interdisciplinarians to collaborate and contribute to each other’s fields in an effort to better enhance their own. Turing was a great proponent of this, fuelled by his simple fascination in all areas of natural life.

A Q&A session follows and questions from the floor range from the one which forces Dr Amos to assure us that he is NOT A ROBOT and another from a scientist at the back which contains so many unknown words my brain melts and I am unable to write it down. Fortunately for me, most of the rest of the audience seems equally bamboozled! If, indeed, Turing’s spirit has entered the room it would perhaps have been enough to encourage one of his elusive smiles.

As one observer notes, by bringing together scientists and writers in this fashion, a natural metaphor for morphogenesis arises; the scientist plants the original seed and the writer encourages it to grow into a work of fiction. The Comma experiment is a success; a great homage to a true Manchester hero.

David Hartley writes short stories and even shorter film reviews. He can be found at Do A Barrel Roll and his other blog, Screen150, recently won Blog Of The Year at the 2011 Manchester Blog Awards. Find him on Twitter: @lonlonranch and @screen150.

A difficult subject

"The Mind Has Fuses": BS Johnson, Saturday 22nd October, 6pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Nick Garrard.

The Burgess Foundation is bulging with a capacity crowd for this evening of talks, readings and films in celebration of the late novelist BS Johnson. They have to fish out spare seats from the wings and there are people lined against the back wall, huddled around coats and shopping bags. It would be hard to imagine something like this happening in Johnson’s lifetime: though Burgess himself was a rare supporter of his work, Johnson never quite achieved mainstream acceptance and, frustrated with his perceived lack of success, took his own life at 40. He quickly fell out of print but, since the publication of Jonathan Coe’s loving biography Like A Fiery Elephant in 2004, he has undergone something of a critical revival.

Johnson’s work is hard to define. He offers his readers a wonderful grab-bag: funny, sincere, experimental and heartbreaking all at once. He was a great acolyte of Joyce and Sterne, and seemed to be constantly at war with the form. As David Quantick will later remark, one of the most interesting things about him is that he was a novelist who apparently hated novels - "oh, fuck all this lying" was a favourite catchphrase. So, while the turnout tonight would seem to indicate that he has now been semi-canonised by the literati, a number of walkouts towards the end suggests that his work can still cut too close to the core. Not very English, all this sincerity.
What we get this evening is a wonderful jumble, curated by people who clearly love their subject matter. The actor James Quinn reads excerpts from Johnson’s second novel, Albert Angelo. Journalist and critic David Quantick is on hand to present a scattering of his film work, as well as an endearingly fudged talk which positively buzzes with nerdish enthusiasm. The second half is dedicated to a screening of The Future's Getting Old Like The Rest Of Us, Beatrice Gibson’s inventive filmic reworking of House, Mother, Normal, a key Johnson text.

This, for me, was the highlight. Like the book, it presents an overlapping series of dialogues drawn from the residents of an old people’s home. They bicker and talk over each other, sometimes speaking nonsense, sometimes with the clarity of old age. The whole piece is presented as a text and there are chapter breaks and interspersed scenes in which the actors address the camera and read out their character descriptions. The fourth wall lies in tatters, even before I distractingly notice that one of cast used to be in Desmonds. I try to convince myself it’s the sort of thing Johnson would have approved of. Probably I’ve just watched far too much television.

It makes for a wonderfully disorientating close and when the lights come up and we’re ushered out into the cold, I still can’t quite make sense of it all. There’s a marvellous synchronicity when, shortly after one of the first walkouts takes place, an actor turns to the camera and says "you don’t know what you’re missing". How very apt, I think.

Nick Garrard lives and works in Manchester. You can follow him on Twitter @havershambler.

Words, walking and watering holes

Boho Literary Pub Walk, Saturday 22nd October, 5-7.30pm, starting at the Midland Hotel

Words and photograph by Hayley Flynn.

This evening's walking tour takes in three local pubs each with their own literary ties and has proven to be a big attraction for Manchester Literature Festival, with a group of around 60 people gathering at the entrance to the Midland Hotel. We’re certainly a thirsty bunch. The tour is split into two groups to make it a more personable experience and I set off with Ed Glinert's group in the direction of The Peveril Of The Peak. Stopping off every now and then, we remember the massacre at St Peter's Fields and how 80,000 people demonstrated for the right to vote. The Peterloo Massacre is covered in several books including The Manchester Man by Mrs GL Banks but most radically, perhaps, by Shelley's poem The Mask Of Anarchy. Shelley lays heavy blame with the Conservative party and talks of murder and fraud - as such the poem was considered too libellous for publication at the time. Comparing Eldon to fraud embodied, Shelley makes a rather beautiful reference to the cotton mills of Manchester in the following verse: "Next came Fraud, and he had on, / Like Eldon, an ermined gown; / His big tears, for he wept well, / Turned to mill-stones as they fell".

Taking in the Bridgewater Hall, a site which Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson considers soulless, we approach the shimmering green delight that is the Peveril Of The Peak. Sitting like a little emerald island on Great Bridgewater Street, the pub is named after the Walter Scott novel and is also the name of the fastest stagecoach from Manchester to London. After we're all sated with beer and ready for the next venue, we stroll along the canal towpath learning as we walk about the political writer William Cobbett who carried the bones of Thomas Payne, a radical writer, with him when he visited Manchester. We stop off besides Manchester's longest running ballroom, The Ritz, and listen to the John Cooper Clarke poem Salomey Maloney: "I was walking down Oxford Road / Dressed in what they call the mode / I could hear them spinning all their smash hits / At the mecca of the modern dance, The Ritz".

By Bridgewater House, Ed recommends the best books that really make you understand Manchester through the ages, citing Love On The Dole by Walter Greenwood as an essential local read which sparks some discussions among the crowd about local authors. Weaving our way along the canal we reach our midway point, The Bank. Upstairs is the Portico Library and previous visitors and members have include Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Thomas De Quincy, Elizabeth Gaskell and Val McDermid.

In the Evening Standard, 1936, George Orwell wrote an article describing the perfect pub. The pub should be free of music or any extraneous activities, he called this pub The Moon Under Water and it's this pub that the Wetherspoon chain is based upon. But we bypass Wetherspoons in favour of some local character and end our tour taking in the grand John Rylands library, home of the oldest piece of the New Testament, and have our final drink at the Sir Ralph Abercromby. This is the only building in the area to have survived the Peterloo Massacre and so nicely wraps up the tour back where we started.

Hayley Flynn won Best City And Neighbourhood Blog in the Manchester Blog Awards 2011 for her site, which features the regular Skyliner series, which looks at "the secrets above your eyeline".

Animal magic

Family Storytelling - Toon Tellegen, Saturday 22nd October, 12 noon, Children’s Department, Waterstone's Deansgate

Words by Lisa Hart-Collins.

Toon Tellegen is a Dutch writer who has created a beautiful world populated by anthropomorphised animals that also deals with aspects of philosophy. He started his reading by briefly explaining how he follows a rather strict set of rules for his world. Firstly, all of his animals are the same size, which is important to understand when elephants are asking squirrels to dance. Secondly, in this world there is no hierarchy. Thirdly, there is only one of each thing to avoid confusion. The animals all like each other and want to share and there are no wars.

The children and adults sat around him in a sunlit corner of the children’s department as he began to tell his tales. At first some of the children were rather busy playing with other books, but as each story went on they became more and more involved. Almost as involved as the parents!

He was reading from his recently translated work The Squirrel’s Birthday And Other Parties and started with a story about a snail who built an extension onto his home, so that he could have a party. This was certainly an odd one, but definitely an endearing tale. He also read A Speck Of Dust, The Rhinoceros, Wish List and The Whale And The Seagull, but my personal favourite was A Cake For Someone Who Doesn’t Fancy Cake, because – just like the Squirrel and the Ant in the tale – I always fancy cake.

Although the event started with only a handful of people, it quickly filled up when people had managed to get past the press and crowds in St Ann’s Square, where Betty Driver’s funeral was being held.

The time passed ridiculously quickly and Toon then honoured me with a chat. I asked him very little, as he was a wonderfully warm and chatty man who was willing to offer lots of information. He told me that this was only his second reading in the UK, the first one being a year ago in the small village of Briar Marston, a place where he spent a summer as a 14 year old and to which he returned and read to their primary school.

We also discussed how sometimes clever words created in our own language create an impossible situation for the poor translators, who have to try and find an alternative for an animal which is part beetle, ant and mole (molkevmier? Sorry If I have messed this one up, Toon!). I also exposed my true heart and told him that I too have written a children’s book, but that I – like him – also write for adults. I enquired whether such behaviour was more acceptable in the Netherlands as I understand that it is certainly less accepted here, and apparently it is equally misunderstood.

I finished by asking him for his thoughts on that now rather infamous Martin Amis quote regarding the circumstances under which he would write a children’s book. Toon was, as I expected he would be, wonderfully gracious about this statement, saying that although many in his circle back in the Netherlands were up in arms about it, that it really was a statement made to create controversy rather than reflect an understanding of the processes of writing for children.

Toon was a pleasure to meet and you should all go out and buy his wonderful books, even if you don’t have children.

Lisa Hart-Collins is a writer, traveller, teacher and artist. Not always in that order. Born in Manchester, her love/hate relationship with the city tends to send her running from and returning to it at irregular intervals. She is presently taking a sabbatical to attempt to get her children’s book published.

Cultural carry-out

Poetry Takeaway, Saturday 22nd October, 11.30am-4.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Isobel Buckingham. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

When I think of a poet, the image that springs to mind is a bearded, middle-aged Parisian, sitting in a café in Saint Germain, brooding over decadent verse, fuelled by the substances as familiar to his fingers as his pen; absinthe and tobacco. I am bewildered, therefore, upon arriving at the Poetry Takeaway event (the first time I have ever come into contact with these elusive creatures), to find the poets upbeat, down-to-earth and – dare I say it – normal. The "emporium", as it is referred to, looks delightfully awkward against the sumptuous backdrop of the Whitworth Art Gallery; its rickety structure almost visibly strained by an incredible amount of words bouncing to and from the assiduous minds of renowned poets Tim Clare, Dominic Berry and Rob Auton.

An idea brewed by Tim Clare and producer Tom Searle, the Poetry Takeaway Emporium travels the country’s finest festivals, creating made-to-order poems in under 10 minutes ("under 15 minutes!" squeals a pressured Dominic Berry), wrapped in authentic takeaway boxes and performed to the peckish poetic consumer – free of charge. Steady waves of people drift over to "order" their poems. The requests vary greatly from person to person. One man is resolute in his wish for a poem about confusion; 10 minutes later, Tim Clare is reading back his well-cooked poem which dealt with the terrifying truth that neither communism, capitalism nor socialism can "fix" society, and which ends with the profound comment on the covetousness of human nature, "if I see two bicycles, I want the best one".

As the effervescent, Manchester-grown Dominic Berry’s first Poetry Takeaway customer (finally, a claim to fame), I am initially asked for a vague topic upon which he should base my poem. Although I am desperate for him to create something reminiscent of Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, the conversation takes a natural turn towards the horrors of the university application process. No, the idea of a poem about forms and grades doesn’t appeal to me much, either. But, 15 minutes later, Dominic steps out of the emporium and animatedly performs the poem he has written based on our conversation; an existential ballad about waiting for confirmation, with allusions to Coleridge and Yeats ("don’t step upon my dreams"). I am impressed to say the least.

This dynamic triad of poets has never before worked together at the Poetry Takeaway Emporium. It is, as Tim Clare so magically put it, an "unprecedented constellation" of poetic skill in an infinitive sky of accomplished writers. This remark particularly resonates with me, since the whole event seems so charmingly dependent on luck and chance; "remember Anneka Rice?", Dominic Berry suddenly asks - and she becomes the foundation for a poem titled Manhunt, requested by a presenter from Radio Manchester, who are broadcasting live from the event.

Poetry has always been viewed as something that feeds the mind and the soul of the reader. At the Poetry Takeaway, however, the poets are unanimous in declaring that, in fact, the "customers" feed their poems; Tim Clare recounts his becoming temporarily, and bizarrely, enamoured with lawn bowling, after being asked to write a poem on that very subject. "Suddenly their issues matter to you," he explains. "In fact, I’d say it was 50% about being a poet, and 50% about actually listening to other people." This is not an advocacy for literature and poetry; if the Poetry Takeaway chefs did not cook up poems that would satisfy the interests of the customer, then a nasty bout of poetry-poisoning could rear its monstrous head. Although I notice that most poems bring a warm smile to the customer’s face, Tim tells me gravely that about one person per shift will break down in tears. "Usually the poet!" quirks Dominic.

Gustave Flaubert is said to have spent up to a week sweating over each page of his novel Madame Bovary, indefatigable in his constant quest for "le mot juste". While I watched the poets frantically scribbling, their heads bent over the countertop, only their eyes visible above their raincoats, it occurred to me how astonishing it is to think that 21st-century poetry could be ordered, created and enjoyed, the literary equivalent of a guilt-free Big Mac; I believe it to be proof that we are living in what is indisputably an exciting time for English literature.

Isobel Buckingham is a Year 13 student at Altrincham Girls' Grammar School, hoping to study English and French at university next year.

Learning from others

Poetry Business Workshop, Saturday 22nd October, 10.30am, Becker Room, City Library

Words by Jo Bell.

"If you’ve been up all night or you’re hungover, then you might get some particularly good work out of today," says Ann Sansom. Well, this is promising: I am fresh (or not) from a 12-hour train journey after a break in Skye, and not at my scintillating best. Perhaps I should strive to always feel as if I have lived on fish and chips for a week, and travelled in grubby trains for a day at a time. Actually, most of the time I do feel like that; so by Ann’s reckoning I’m ahead of the game.

Ann and husband Peter run The Poetry Business. They lead workshops across the UK and regular writing days in Sheffield; they produce the fine poetry journal The North and the Smith/Doorstop series of pamphlets; and, for 25 years now, they have fostered new poetry talent with quiet kindness and generosity. This workshop has sold out quickly: a dozen or so poets, most fairly experienced, gathered in the Becker Room of the City Library to share some creative chemistry.

The Sansoms favour a fluid, write-it-fast-and-leave-it-be style of writing, which might indeed work especially well in a fragile or altered state, and which certainly generates four or five nascent poems in this 2½ hour session. It’s a standard format - write and read back, write and read back - with poems by Paul Farley, Denise Levertov and others to spark off particular trains of thought. Peter and Ann are old hands at making their workshoppers feel comfortable, and everyone is willing to share their work.

The exercises are pitched rather low for a group which includes several experienced writers – "write about an inanimate object", or "write about yourself at a younger/older age" are long-familiar fare. But perhaps any exercise that jolts us out of a rut and into a new way of telling the truth is worth playing with, and certainly any new writing shared in a workshop deserves to be heard with respect. The poet’s job, after all, is to notice and to report back from the front line. Your front line will be different to mine; your inanimate object might be a button, mine a narrowboat. The point of a workshop is not just to get us writing but to get us writing together – to encourage those who aren’t sure where to start, to motivate those who fear they have stopped, and to catalyse that creative chemistry that can only happen when writers get out of their garrets and sit around a table with a shared purpose.

Stepping out into Deansgate, several of us go on to the Poetry Takeaway at the Whitworth Gallery, where Manchester performance poet Dominic Berry is among today’s "chefs". It’s my birthday tomorrow, so I order a poem on that subject and Dominic obliges, delivering my freshly prepared order on the gallery steps. It’s a bright, breezy day on Oxford Road and the afternoon lies ahead of us. I think I might go and write a poem…

Jo Bell is a poet, promoter and producer of live literature. She is the director of National Poetry Day and currently working on a new live show, Riverlands, with storyteller Jo Blake.

A bit of Northern honesty

Poetry From The North: Geoff Hattersley, Allison McVety, Ann Sansom and Peter Sansom, Friday 21st October, 1pm, Becker Room, City Library

Words by Shaaheda Patel.

It’s day 12 of the Manchester Literature Festival, and on a sunny Friday lunchtime, I find myself squeezing into the brimming Becker Room; a charming Victorian room on the first floor of the City Library. Festival director Cathy Bolton points me towards a wooden chair that was resourcefully being used as a doorstop; allowing the final trickle of Northern blood to enter.

Luckily, I now find myself sat in the front row.

Immediately Cathy walks to the front of the crowded room and announces today’s celebration of The Poetry Business’ silver jubilee and 25 years of The North: a magazine capturing Northern poetry, articles, reviews and features.

Editor of The North Peter Sansom springs towards the mosaiced fireplace. While holding his reading glasses in his right hand, Peter begins to read from the latest publication; the first is Stay, a poem by Jeanette Hattersley. The poem takes us to Darlington through the poet’s gentle reminiscences. Peter tells us that this 25th anniversary edition of The North celebrates by reprinting some of the most popular poems in the magazine’s history.

We experience this first hand now through further readings of Simon Armitage’s Zoom and Suddenly by Diana Hendry.

Allison McVety now takes to the stand, dressed in coordinated chocolate brown and a striking red lipstick. She explains that Manchester is her home town; even though she now lives in the South. She recalls her days at Whalley Range High School with its brown uniform and the bus conductor who would get away with unbuttoning school girls’ blouses. She continues by playfully sharing her long-term love with a boy whose name she still does not know. She calls him Boy On The Bus and now reads a poem about him dressed in “air force blue”, “casual cool” and her lonely “17 stops of feeling blue”.

Her next poem paints a picture of post-industrial Manchester in Urmston Brickworks. Here we learn of her frequent escapes from her mother-in-law, who lives in Flixton.

She receives a rapturous applause, disturbing the silent room after each reading. “At home”, she tells us, “I would never get this, the dog will yawn and my husband will tell me he is going out.”

Her next poem was published in The North issue 41. Before she begins reading she asks if there are any psychologists in the room. We look around and shake our heads in unison, intrigued by her question.

She reads from the poem, The Two Times I Saw Your Penis; a matter-of-fact poem about her father. With her audience bewitched by her frank and honest words, she now shares her memories of school, and in particular the times when she would attend school having not read "the right books". Fittingly, this poem is set in a library. She softly summarises how, “everything happens in parenthesis”.

Now Peter Sansom introduces the Northern poet Geoff Hattersley (pictured). He reads from the blurb of his latest collection. “Geoff Hattersley is a welcome subversive and ’the real thing’,” we are told. Geoff, in his baggy shirt and salt and pepper hair, stands up, faces the fireplace and takes a drink of water. He turns around and we hear his uncut Yorkshire twang. He tells us how poems were always from the South and was pleased to find this magazine that allowed poems about things like vests.

His simplicity makes us smile.

He reads from the poem His Fingernails, and plainly tells us, “I never quite knew what this one meant”. He continues reading about a pub in Barnsley and an old couple in the corner who never left, even when the pub was given a facelift to attract the local twentysomethings.

The afternoon now moves from the quirky to the surreal, with Geoff's collection of poems on "hebium", inspired by a dream in which a Dutch lady asked him, “Where’s the hebium?” His quest for the meaning of hebium sparks off lines such as “you have a hebium infection” and “happy hebium honey”. The audience are now in stitches; the applause gets louder and takes longer to subside.

The afternoon has come to an end.

Seamlessly, the table of neatly arranged festival leaflets now becomes a shop, and we crowd around wanting to get our hands on the publications featured in this afternoon’s event.

Leaving the heaving room, my chair a doorstop once again, I begin to understand what Northern poetry actually is. It’s poetry that’s punchy, it’s distinct and it’s downright honest. But paradoxically, Northern poetry still embodies a universality that stems from its need to be ordinary and original.

Shaaheda Patel is a teacher of English Language and Literature at a sixth-form college in Blackburn. She blogged for the Festival in 2010 and has worked on literature development projects with Time To Read.