With the wonderful weather this weekend, it seemed a shame to stay indoors and contemplate the prospect of an Easter holiday filled with exam stress. Thinking that one day off couldn’t possibly hurt, I headed into the city to a sun-glazed Brindley Place for this month’s edition of Birmingham Book Festival’s Tell me on a Sunday. Storytellers and listeners alike were welcomed into the bright, airy cafe of the IKON Gallery to cluster round small tables complete with tea-lights and orange flowers, all enjoying a late lunch or afternoon tipple. This month’s story theme was ‘Hope and Glory’.
Cat Weatherill’s spirited introduction captured the room as the lighting dimmed to create an intriguingly intimate atmosphere. Beginning with her own story, Cat told of the money troubles she faced during the early years of her marriage and how she was inspired to apply for the TV game show Wheel of Fortune. In a captivating telling, Cat relived the suspense, excitement and enthralling hope that the chance of winning the show’s cash prize gave her. Even through to the final moments she kept the audience in the dark, not revealing til the last moment that she was to succeed in winning. Cat held the room in complete focus throughout her story, displaying the power of hope and how that hope transpired to the glory of her much needed victory.
Next to the stage was Gavin Young to tell of the racial inequality he witnessed as a child in his native South Africa. Without pretence, he described the harrowing nature of segregation, outlining in small memories how the prejudices faced by black people entered his consciousness. Movingly, he remembered the confusion he felt by the divisions society insisted on creating between him and his childhood friend. Finally, he gave an impression of the changes that have taken place since his youth, outlining a vision of hope brought about by changing opinions and a gradual regression of racial prejudice.
In a distinct contrast of subject matter, a lady stepped up to the stage to share the hope she experienced through realising her identity as a mother. In a moving, yet somewhat graphic description of events surrounding her daughter’s birth. Though sometimes being in danger of isolating some younger members of the audience, she managed to lighten her story with comedy and bold similies to keep the room on her side. Another lady told of her escape to Europe with friends during a rough patch in her marriage, reliving the freedom that she felt in her youth with humorous tales of drinking, flirting and running off without the group. This was introduced as an attempt to ‘experiment with reality’, a claim that was soon brought to life through the description of a talking fox with an aristocratic English accent deep in the French countryside. However, this telling was certainly set to continue for far more than the prescribed seven minutes, so with regret, the story was left ‘to be continued’ in next month’s session.
Following this was Natalie Cook, who seemed to bring light to the room in her bright red dress and a jauntily placed flower in her hair, telling of the hope brought to her by a particular moment from her past. She described being on a long car journey with her partner. When a certain song on the radio reminded him of an emotionally significant childhood memory, Natalie recounted the connection she felt with him, encountering the rare case of knowing that another person understands the world the way you do. Her story invoked the importance of memory and the clarity that certain moments can hold; even if they are from a distant past or an unfamiliar life, they can still be held as a precious source of hope.
Finally came a story from local writer and musician Richard Stokes, who with fantastic energy and charm told of his time working in a record shop in London. Through a combination of disenchantment with his job and mild frustration with his boss, he found himself one day ordering nine hundred and ninety-nine copies of blues singer Albert E. King’s Greatest Hits out of spite. This was, understandably, to the great rage of his boss, but equal amounts of amusement to Stokes’s Sunday audience; a truly engaging, fantastic telling.
As acknowledged by some of the storytellers, Tell Me on a Sunday is certainly gathering a regular following, with a growing audience returning to the event each month. The chance to experience performance storytelling of this standard, and in such a perfectly welcoming venue, is indisputably rare. These are stories that will make you think, make you feel and challenge your perspectives, all whilst making you laugh. This event is a real Birmingham gem.
Words and photography by Anna Lumsden
Birmingham Book Festival sets out every year to cultivate the city with one statement standing out above the rest: ‘We want to hear everybody’s voice’. Not a traditionally literary city, it is sometimes difficult to track down more writer orientated events in Birmingham, and this is what the festival seeks to change. They do not simply want renowned authors to make their voices heard, but to encourage everyday people to engage with words as well. One of their newest events, Tell Me on a Sunday falls exactly into this calibre. Cat Weatherill, an internationally acclaimed story teller and author, is the curator for the monthly afternoon where she not only exhibits her own dramatic talents but invites ‘ordinary guys and girls’ to take the stage with her. The event states ‘We know you have a story in you’, and anyone is encouraged to ‘conjure a memory’ and ‘embellish it’, with the charming result that each story truly does appear ‘with truth at their heart’. The IKON Gallery is the perfect setting for this, since its emphasis on unconventional art, such as film and installation, invites works from all kinds of contemporary artists around Birmingham who these writers could easily be categorised as.
On the 19th February, performers and friends alike gathered in the IKON café for the event’s debut. The café is an intimate setting where a ‘Story Supper’ was to start the evening. Tables were moved around and pushed together so that storytellers and listeners were able to meet and greet each other. A sense of a writers’ community was created over the first glass of wine and, as Weatherill excitedly repeated, ‘cake!’ This was not only a networking opportunity for any aspiring writer, but a way of breaking down boundaries between storytellers and audience; it seemed that the guests that appeared onstage were not so much performing but sharing, as should be the nature of storytelling.
Each week is based around a specific theme listed on Tell Me on a Sunday’s website, and this one was ‘Off The Beaten Track’. This was evidently open to creative interpretation, and the result was a wonderful variety of stories tied no matter how loosely to the title. One that stood out was ‘Bruised Blondes’, told by local writer Gavin Young, which portrayed the long journey of the heart to find the one ‘that fits’. As Young put it, ‘the heart knows what it wants’, and he depicted this by describing the ‘sat nav’ heart that led him across the world (from South Africa to the UK no less) to find the right girl.
One advantage that Birmingham arguably has over other Book Festivals across the UK is the cultural diversity that the city houses. People from all over the world now inhabit the huge urban landscape, and this really added to the wealth of variation amongst the stories. We were treated to storytellers from South Africa (on the part of Young and Kate Lowe, an ‘erstwhile lunatic and gardener’), Brazil, the USA and even India, told by organiser of the Midlands Literary Edge Festival, Peter Chant. His, he explained, was a story of being ‘On the Beaten Track’ which described his family’s journey to their new home is Wolverhampton all the way from the Punjab. Aside from the sickness suffered by his sister on the boat, arguably the most harrowing part of the journey was when the children were confronted with unfamiliar food; they were well and truly far from home when the French idea of curry was salt and pepper. It was easy to feel joy too when we learnt that Chant’s family arrived in Wolverhampton to enormous quantities of traditional Punjab bread; the café never felt like more of an appropriate setting, since culture was inexplicably based around food and for each ethnic origin; indeed, ‘food means home’.
Tell Me on a Sunday is an excellent opportunity to see the breadth of literary talent that Birmingham has to boast. It is a free event, though it is recommended that people try to book in advance, and there are three afternoons still remaining. The next will be on the 25th March, and its theme will be ‘Hope and Glory’.
Words by Becca Inglis