Thursday, December 20, 2012

Seasonal cheer

Iain M Banks, Thursday 11th October 2012, 7pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Podcast by Guy Garrud. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

As the festive season fast approaches, take a break from mincepie-munching and present panic-buying with our special Christmas gift... a podcast of Iain M Banks's "cheerfully amiable" talk at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation during Manchester Literature Festival in October, when he discussed his works including both his sci-fi offerings (when the "M" comes into his name, of course) but also his more "mainstream" fiction, such as his popular debut, The Wasp Factory.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the play arrow button below. Music is courtesy Manchester-based group Hounds Of Hulme.

You can read Guy's review of this event on the Manchester Literature Festival Blog by clicking here.

Guy Garrud is a London based blogger, writer and baker. He blogs at and, and can be found on Twitter @guygarrud.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Inspired ideas

Children's Bookshow Follow-up, Tuesday 23rd October, Webster Primary School

Words by Fiona MacLeod.

Darkness. A spotlight. Rows of chairs.  The  edge of a stage. Tickets. A flash of bright yellow as a volunteer goes by the door. A rustle of excitement. Manchester Literature Festival. Over 70 astonishing performances in two weeks but the best one, for me, happened on the very last day of the festival, in Webster Primary School in Greenheys, miles away from the bright lights.

A little boy finishes reciting his poem and looks up, squinting in the sunlight streaming through the windows. He doesn't know what to expect. It is his first performance. It is a beginning. He is reading a poem he has written about the holocaust and what it was like for the children who endured its horror, and he has used the opening lines, 'The water was on fire', written by Michael Rosen for the Children’s Bookshow 2012 Poetry Competition. He heard about this competition, which closed for entries this week, way back at the beginning of this year's Manchester Literature Festival, on October 2nd, when he was in the auditorium of the Royal Exchange Theatre, with the rest of his class and his teacher, Miss Dawber, to meet Ulf Stark (read Fiona's review here). 

Talking to Miss Dawber, I realised that one hour in the Royal Exchange Theatre was the culmination of weeks of reading and discussion by these children in preparation for their meeting with a real live writer. So Manchester Literature Festival started early for them. And, in the poetry they have written, its effect carries on, as through teachers like Miss Dawber and in schools like Webster Primary, all across this city, a love of literature and the pleasure of writing is made into a reachable reality for our children.

So thank you to all those people who helped Manchester Literature Festival to set up these events for young people. And thank you to all those mums and dads and aunties and big sisters and grandads who brought the kids. Who found the toilets, who lugged the buggies. And, above all, thank you to all those teachers, tirelessly counting children, watching doors, planning follow-ups and encouraging dreams. 

The little boy finishes his poem. It is his first performance. It is a beginning. We clap. 

Fiona MacLeod is a freelance writer and editor for The Jubilee Press at the University of Nottingham. Her first novel, Impostor (Wardgate Press 2008), has just been optioned for film and television. She blogs here and you can follow her on Twitter @fmmmacleod.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Homes from home

Jeanette Winterson & AM Homes, Monday 22nd October, 6.30pm, Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama

Words by Fiona Christie. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

I was the beneficiary of a random act of kindness in getting a ticket for Jeanette Winterson and AM Homes in conversation when I was given it by a total stranger I'd got chatting to a couple of days before at another MLF event. This was evidence to me of that shared (and yes, cosy) community that is the world of book-lovers - readers and writers alike (thanks to Artificial Silk, you know who you are).

It was this kind of generosity of spirit that for me was most noteworthy about listening to JW and AM  in conversation. There was such warmth and mutual regard between these two writers who had known each other's work long before they became friends. The fact that they were both adopted as children is a strong common bond that they share, in addition to being writers. I was left wondering if a conversation between two male authors would have had such warmth. Don’t think so. I'll admit, I'm not an avid fan of either writer, having read JW’s work in the 80s when it was obligatory for any aspiring feminist undergraduate, and having never read AM Homes. However, I was certainly motivated to go away and do so. 

It’s interesting that the solitary pursuits of both reading and writing are so fundamentally communal when lovers of the same literature, both producers and consumers, come together. Reading and writing seem so sociable at events such as these. But it does also seem counter-intuitive and destined to disappoint when we ask our writers to “perform”. 

There was a charming self-consciousness between these two writers as they tittered away about the ruder parts of AM Homes' latest book, May We Be Forgiven. It was a bit like a couple of undergraduates getting the giggles when presenting in front of a lecturer; in this case Nancy Rothwell, the University’s VC who was looking on. JW seemed fairly giddy about the occasion and began the evening with hilarious reference to fact that she had by chance chosen the same outfit of frock coat and boots that was worn by the rather stately gentleman on the pull-up banner which advertises the MLF.  At other points in the evening, it was as if they were so absorbed by their conversation that they forgot the audience was there.

JW and AM discussed women’s writing, both expressing concern that women were pigeon-holed in writing small world stories rather than the great novels which cover the big issues (Jonathan Franzen got more than one mention in this respect). They speculated on why so few men seem to read women’s writing (albeit quoting from a GQ survey that probably lacks rigour). They seemed to agree that AM has a slightly different readership from JW. JW said it was women writers who were drawn to her creative writing classes, whereas AM said it was the geeky men who were drawn to the classes she teaches. She shares the JK Rowling approach of avoiding her true first name as her writer’s name; in the great tradition of George Eliot hiding gender in order to get a wider readership (though she would argue more accidentally, than deliberately).

An interesting evening in which JW felt clearly at home in our city and the Manchester audience lapped up her reading from Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, in which she brilliantly describes Manchester and our restive and creative tradition. The audience clearly wanted more from JW than they got, but, in true Manchester fashion, they welcomed and warmed to the interloper of the night AM Homes.
Fiona Christie is a self-confessed lover of books. You can follow her on Twitter @FCChristie.

Young Digital Reporter at Swimming and Flying #2

Swimming and Flying, Friday 19th October 2012, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Liz Gibson. Photograph by Roshana Rubin-Mayhew. 

I hadn’t known exactly what to expect from Mark Haddon at his event at the Manchester Literature Festival; whether he was going to do a talk, read from his books, answer questions, or a combination of these things. What he did do surprised me – he presented a piece entitled “Swimming and Flying”, an incredibly dynamic and engaging speech which addressed a huge range of subjects and which included some advice on writing. As an aspiring writer, I found his words of wisdom very interesting.

He began by telling of an incident that took place when he was at boarding school, when he naively owned up for something that turned out not to be his fault, was punished, and became a hero among his schoolfellows. He described his confusion that everything as he knew it had been turned upside down; he was effectively being congratulated for breaking the rules. He then went on to talk about his love of science and how, from a young age, he has grappled with big questions, for example: will we ever know exactly how big the universe is, and where it ends – if it ends? This is something I have often pondered myself, and whether we will ever know the answer, I do not know. 

Mark went on to discuss both swimming and flying; how he had once been afraid of swimming in deep water and of great white sharks. He was running by the Thames one morning and decided on a whim to swim in it, and the way he described the experience was like poetry. He clearly adored it. He now swims in the Thames several times a week, which I am in awe of. He then spoke about overcoming his fear of flying by realising what a miracle it is that we human beings have learnt how to fly. His tale ended with a description of him in a plane flying up into the unknown, and as well as being a nice image on which to end, it also summed up all his ideas on science, the universe, facing our fears and how trying to understand something can stop us from being afraid of it.

I enjoyed his talk; it wasn’t what I had been expecting, but it was very special and personal, and really made me think – about science, writing, taking risks and overcoming fears. Afterwards he signed my copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and he was very friendly and pleasant. I went home feeling that maybe I would look at the world slightly differently now thanks to this talk. I had an evening to remember. Thank you, Mark Haddon, and thank you, Manchester Literature Festival.

Liz Gibson blogs at:
Throughout the Festival in 2012 we have been working with a group of young people to support them to become digital reporters, and to document a range of events from their perspective. As well as writing blogs and reviews, the young digital reporters have responded to our events using other methods such as photography, illustration and radio.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

International relations

Sex and the Cities, Friday 19th October, 7.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

You can read a review of this event on The Manchester Review, published by the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Grand finale

Jonathan Harvey, Tuesday 23rd October, 7pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Michael Smaczylo. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

For the 75th and final event of this year’s excellent festival, Jonathan Harvey is joined at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation by the Manchester Lesbian & Gay Chorus for a brilliant finale. Harvey wrote his first play in 1987, for which he won a £1,000 prize from the Liverpool Playhouse and the National Girobank Young Writer of the Year Award. Since then he has won numerous awards for his plays and television writing, and he is currently part of the Coronation Street team. Perhaps his most famous work, Beautiful Thing, was written in 1993, made into a movie in 1996, and performed last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, a production which included a song performed tonight by the Manchester Lesbian & Gay Chorus, who begin and end the event with three of these songs. Today however, he is talking about his first novel, All She Wants, to which Caitlin Moran responded by saying, "If Harvey is the Scouse Proust, then this is his remembrance of things pissed."

The novel is narrated by an airheaded soap actress called Jodie McGee, which sounds like an ambitious move for a male writer, but one which, judging by his reading, Harvey pulls off very comfortably. He tells us that his second novel, on which he is currently working, also uses a first-person female narrator and that he recently wrote his first sex scene, and had to check with a female friend that it wasn’t "too gay". The chapter he reads to us happens when his protagonist is 17 or 18 and is both silly and hilarious, particularly as Harvey reads his characters’ voices so well. In this section, a friend of Jodie’s, who has recently hooked up with a disabled boy at a party, has become a political-correctness warrior, and even turns up to a pub in a wheelchair herself. After this, Jodie’s parents find out that her "perfect" brother Joey is gay, when he is arrested for gross public indecency. They are horrified to begin with and see him as a freak, until a colleague’s lesbian daughter becomes the talk of her workplace, and Jodie’s mother begins to brag that her son has been gay for years and that she practically encourages it. Harvey delivers the reading with great energy to a highly responsive audience.

He then takes questions, beginning with one regarding his choice to write a novel for the first time after 25 years of writing for stage and TV. He speaks about how he became a playwright and what it’s like to be part of the Coronation Street team, joking that since joining he hasn’t felt so bad about the number of shows he has been fired from. Something that is noted by audience members is the cultural "nowness" of his work, which is full of references to popular culture, and the way all of the characters of his novel can be related to real people.

After two final songs from the L&G Chorus, Festival Coordinator Jon Atkin makes the acknowledgements which close what has truly been an amazing festival. 

Michael Smaczylo is a gap year student who has just completed his A-levels at Manchester Grammar School and hopes to study English Language and Literature at university next year. He Tweets as @mashsmaczylo. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Awards and rewards

Northern Writers' Awards, Monday 22nd October, 1pm, Waterstones Deansgate, Events Room

Words by Sarah-Clare Conlon. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

To celebrate the fact that, after 12 years, the Northern Writers' Awards are extending their reach to include areas outside the North East, New Writing North is officially launching the 2013 competition at this event as part of Manchester Literature Festival.

New Writing North chief executive Claire Malcolm introduces the awards, of which there are a number (for example, the Andrea Badenoch Award, for women writers over the age of 42, the Waterhouse Award for Poetry, and various new fiction bursaries). As well as financial support, winners receive exposure to mentoring opportunities, editorial expertise, professional development, exchange programmes and events with the chance to meet agents and publishers.

So far, over 100 writers have benefited from the scheme and previous winners Mari Hannah (2010) and Dan Smith (2005) join Claire to read from their work and discuss how the support they have received has steered their writing careers. Mari reads from The Murder Wall, one of a three-book deal Pan MacMillan signed her up for. The crime series features the character Detective Inspector Kate Daniels and is based in the North East, this one in the area around Hadrian’s Wall. Dan gives us an extract of his third novel through Orion, The Child Thief, about a kidnap in 1930s Ukraine; features of his thrillers being foreign locations and historical settings.

So, how has being a winner of the Northern Writers Awards helped the two writers here today get to this stage? Mari puts it down to the confidence she felt by winning: “Somebody else is saying: ‘We think your writing’s strong’.” Dan nods wholeheartedly. “It’s the encouragement you feel,” he agrees.

This year’s awards pot has increased from £25k to £40k, and submissions (which are all online) will be accepted between 1 December 2012 and 31 January 2013. The judges are different each year, and this time round reflect the awards’ extended area: Cumbria’s Sarah Hall (fiction) and Yorkshire’s Ian McMillan (poetry). We’ll give Mari the last word; if you need any more encouragement to apply, this is it: “Get your submissions in - honestly, it can change your life. It did mine!”

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

Irish spirit

Sailing to Byzantium, Sunday 21st October, 3pm, Royal Northern College of Music

Words by Michael Smaczylo.

The RNCM Concert Hall is a bit of a time capsule for me. As a child I would play there in violin groups and orchestras, but today is the first time I’ve visited in six or seven years, so it’s great to be back. I’ve always loved music of all sorts and sang at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year. I’m also a big fan of modernist literature and have recently been reading a lot of Joyce and studying his literary context, so when I first heard on the radio, while travelling home from the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, that Christine Tobin, who was named Best Vocalist at the 2008 BBC Jazz Awards, had released an album of WB Yeats poems set to music, it was an extremely exciting prospect. When I saw that she would be performing the songs as part of the Manchester Literature Festival, I knew I had to go along.

Taking the stage with her band, which consists of Phil Robson on guitar, Kate Shortt on cello, Liam Noble on piano and Dave Whitford on double bass, Tobin explains that when asked to talk about Yeats by the National Library of Ireland, she decided that arranging and performing some of his poems would be a far less daunting task, and from this came the idea for the album. The performance begins with a recorded reading of The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by her ex-school teacher and actor Gabriel Byrne, followed immediately by the album’s first song, When You Are Old, a love poem from Yeats’ second collection, The Rose. This is followed by another love poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus (Aengus being the Celtic god of poetic love). 

What is immediately obvious is the prodigious talent of each of the performers; each musician playing extended improvised solos, and Tobin’s voice as rich live as post-production on the album. Between songs she offers context to the poems, telling us, before playing The Wild Swans at Coole that Coole, in County Galway, was the residence of Lady Augusta Gregory, with whom Yeats founded the Irish Literary Theatre, and describing The Second Coming as a "dark and apocalyptic vision"; an atmosphere perfectly conveyed in the music by the ominous 5/4 ostinato and chaotic middle section. Next is The Fisherman, a poem that perfectly exemplifies the romantic notions of Irishness that Yeats is renowned for, and his abhorrence of the crass and the everyday, the "beating down" of art.

Sailing to Byzantium, the album’s title track, is one of Yeats’ most famous poems, written later on in his life at a time when he had become fascinated by Eastern mysticism, and Tobin’s melody and harmonies have an Eastern flavour. What Then?, a poem she describes as a "potted biography" of Yeats’ life, encapsulates his search for affirmation even in old age. I think that my favourite of the arrangements must be In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markiewicz. These were two friends of Yeats’ with whom he eventually disagreed, as they put politics above all else, while he prioritised art. The performance finishes with renditions of Byzantium and Long-Legged Fly (for which Tobin sings through a megaphone), and a reading of The White Birds, again by Gabriel Byrne.

It’s been an incredible performance and I’m feeling completely inspired. I think I might go and arrange some Keats or something. 

Michael Smaczylo is a gap year student who has just completed his A-levels at Manchester Grammar School and hopes to study English Language and Literature at university next year. He Tweets as @mashsmaczylo.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Preaching to the converted

Manchester Sermon, Thursday 18th October, 7pm, Manchester Cathedral

Words by Benjamin Judge. Photograph by Roshana Rubin-Mayhew.

The sermon was once a respected literary form like the poem or the essay. In the 19th century, many of our greatest writers wrote them, they were collected together in books and they were, like, probably, like, on the telly, like, all the time and that. Then, in the 20th century, Mary Quant invented the Beatles and something-something-something to do with Spitfires and rationing, and then all of a sudden there was that song based on the music from Tetris, and Ace of Base, and that thing with Carol Smillie where they decorate each other’s homes and cry because they don’t like how they decorated each other’s homes, and... where was I?

Oh yes, sermons. Well, Manchester Cathedral and the Literature Festival and various other people got together and decided to give sermons another go. It started two years ago, with the first Manchester Sermon, which was delivered by Jeanette Winterson. Then last year Andrew Motion visited the cathedral. This year Ali Smith became a sermoner for a day. (Note to self – check if sermoner is a real world.)

And the interesting thing about all this is... it works. I am not a Christian, I am not very religious period, but in two of the last three years, the Manchester Sermon has been my highlight of the festival. (I should clarify here that I’m not suggesting one of the previous two years wasn’t up to snuff; I missed Andrew Motion because I was having tea at my mum’s house.) That shouldn’t be a surprise, really. The Bible is an infinitely interesting text, whatever your thoughts on it, so it makes sense that when you invite brilliant writers to speak about it, the results will be entertaining and thought provoking.

And Ali Smith is a brilliant writer. And a brilliant speaker too. I was lucky enough to meet her briefly, and to see her read from There But For The last year. I would happily pay to see her read from the phonebook. As a writer, she is so alive to the joy of language, of words, that she seems incapable of talking without investing her speech with that joy. From her opening sentence, a borrowing of a pun, “Let us play”, to the final word, via a series of increasingly lovely rebeginnings, rebegottings, quotes, asides, ideas and jokes, all held together by a narrative voice that anyone familiar with her novels and short stories will already be enamoured of, she talked about Donne and death, and loss and the Book of Job, and somehow made all of it joyful and true and wise.

Yeah, that good.

There are many events at the Manchester Literature Festival. Some are interesting, some are funny, some are serious, some are life-changing. But of all the events, none are quite as important as the Manchester Sermon. The Sermon creates new, and repeatedly brilliant, work in a form that is all but forgotten. It investigates the place of the Bible in literature and the place of the Bible’s lessons in an increasingly secular society. It opens up a dialogue between literature and religion. It offers a place of reflection in the bustle of the city centre. And, most appealingly of all, it does so without being preachy or pushy or even the slightest bit judgmental. And they have a choir at the start. Singing a couple of hymns. All beautiful and that.

So, there you are. I had fun in a church. Again. Manchester, eh?


Benjamin Judge is the author of Who the fudge is Benjamin Judge?, the winner of the Best Writing Award at the 2011 Manchester Blog Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @benjaminjudge

You can read more reviews of this event, by students at the Centre for New Writing, on The Manchester Review.

Young Digital Reporter at Swimming and Flying

Swimming and Flying, Friday 19th October 2012, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Anna Hart. Photograph by Roshana Rubin-Mayhew.

It’s Day 12 of the Manchester Literature Festival and I am sitting in Whitworth Art Gallery, wondering what the next hour has in store for me. A few weeks ago, I had discovered that Mark Haddon would be giving a talk about his life and writing as part of the festival, which sparked my memory of reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I found it to be a compellingly unique story, which captured my imagination by exploring the world in which we live from a different perspective to how the majority of people experience everyday life. Thinking about my enjoyment and interest in this book, I was excited to gain an insight into the mind of its author.

Mark Haddon steps onto an extremely minimalistic set, consisting of only himself, a British Sign Language interpreter and a bottle of water. He commences with a relatable tale from his childhood, talking about his experience of attending boarding school. One day, he had accidentally made a hole in the games room radiator during a game of darts and owned up to committing this "crime" when the housemaster questioned the students. Much to the audience’s amusement, Haddon proceeds to explain his underlying feeling of smugness at having told the truth and his secret expectation of an award for honesty, only to reveal the reality of the situation – a caning from the housemaster. According to Haddon, he’d never been cooler than after being beaten six times with a cane; those younger than him were desperate to have a peek at his wounds and hear all of the "grizzly details", whereas those older than him would reward him with a knowing pat on the back.

Smoothly progressing from this specific recount, Haddon shares an overview of his childhood years with the audience. As a young boy, he was obsessed with science, which is the basis for many of the interesting, and often hilarious, stories that Haddon tells. One that is greeted with a particularly enthusiastic ripple of laughter is about the time when he thought that he’d invented an electric motor and was devastated to find out that someone had done it before him.

Many recurring themes emerge throughout Haddon’s talk, including his experiences of teaching creative writing, his fear of flying on planes and his fascination with the fact that the darkness between the stars is actually full of more distant stars, which are shining bright, but just not bright enough for us to see. This is just one of the numerous dramatic and inspirational images that Haddon describes.

Haddon tells many delightful anecdotes, punctuated with the occasional quote or extract of writing. His communication with the audience, through both his very clear voice and narrating hand gestures, is extremely important to help people to connect, appreciate and engage with his words. Haddon proved that all he needed to deliver an entertaining and insightful talk was himself. The evening was thoroughly enjoyable and a valuable experience to discover more about a brilliant author.

Throughout the Festival in 2012 we have been working with a group of young people to support them to become digital reporters, and to document a range of events from their perspective. As well as writing blogs and reviews, the young digital reporters have responded to our events using other methods such as photography, illustration and radio.