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.