Category Archives: Literature

Birmingham Visiting Writers Programme: Simon Armitage

On Tuesday 29th of January, renowned poet Simon Armitage appeared in the Bramall Music Building as part of the ‘Birmingham Visiting Writers Programme.’ It was the first event that the English Department had held in the new building and the turnout was remarkable. Every seat on the lower tiers was filled, and the balconies were even opened for surplus spectators. It was clear that this visitor was popular, and a huge number of people were eager to see him.

Simon Armitage reading

After a short introduction, Armitage took to the stage with welcoming applause. To many, this literary figure will be remembered as a favourite from GCSE English Literature, as a number of his poems featured in the Anthology course book. He has had 10 volumes of his poetry published, and has been awarded a CBE for his contribution to poetry. But he is a humble man in every attribute; from afar, with his faded jeans and a baggy suit-jacket, he looks like your best friend’s Dad. But peer a little closer and his brothel-creeper shoes and gold pirate earring give away his eccentricity.

From the start of his lecture, it was clear that Simon Armitage’s well-known stage presence and charm were still very much intact as he regaled us with amusing anecdotes from his childhood and his home-county of Yorkshire before getting to the serious stuff. His first poem ‘The Shout’ recalled a science project from his school days. After this, a reading of ‘Zoom’ – one of his first published poems about a cartoon show’s credits – left everyone in the room a little bemused but completely hooked. Following this, Armitage read some of his translated pieces, including ‘The Green Knight’ (which, incidentally, Disney approached him about to use for a new animation). Next, we were treated to one of his ‘Flash Fiction’ pieces titled ‘The Net’ – a slightly longer poem with a prose-like structure.

Forty-five minutes flew by, and soon it was time for some discussion. With some great questions from the audience, we were delighted with a number of quick-witted one-liners and amusing stories – in particular, a hilarious recollection of an embarrassing misunderstanding about ‘cashback’ in Huddersfield Sainsbury’s that left everyone laughing out loud.

Photo by William Fallows

Photo by William Fallows

However, Simon Armitage isn’t just an entertainer – he proved that beneath his showman exterior lays an extremely passionate and pensive mind, and his ponderings were both informative and thoughtful. Upon being asked whether his consideration of his readers affected his writing he profoundly responded: ‘There are only 26 letters in the English Language. But if you put them in the right order, you can explode something in someone’s mind, thousands of miles away, hundreds of years apart, in complete silence.’  And after just an hour in the same room as him, it would be safe to say that he had enthralled and impressed every member of his captivated audience.

By Megan Evans @mkevans92

The Gentlemen Press presents: Poetry Espionage

The event is held downstairs in the Six Eight Kafé, Temple Row, Birmingham. There are small tables with small chairs and small candles. Cosy and kooky; your perfect location for a gathering of new musicians and poets.

six eight kafe

Joseph Sale is hosting. Humble as ever, he recites just two of his marvellous poems tonight and only picks up a guitar during the interval. His warmth and buoyancy creates an atmosphere of genuine intimacy and unity between performers and audience.

Max Merrick-Wren is my new favourite musician. He wields guitar and harmonica as if they’re extra limbs, for the most part with his eyes closed. His voice is soothing; his passion consistent throughout. I prefer his own songs to the Dylan cover, especially the gently powerful ‘High Horse’, with its climactic ending. The only constructive point I have is for him to inhale more quietly. I can’t wait to get hold of an album.

390897_2481261318314_602009171_n

Joseph Sale performs ‘The Necromancer’, a haunting piece about raising the figures of history, listening to the ‘silence that became their voice’. Like the mysterious woman I am ‘wonder-morphed’, both by the ideas Joe evokes and the words with which he (appropriately) brings them to life.

Carl Sealeaf gives us two-and-a-half poems, due to an endearing bout of memory loss. The first half of ‘Growth’ is wonderful, expressing his fear of ‘acting out someone else’s definition of growing older, broader at the shoulders but still shrivelled at the heart’. His last piece about macaroni, festivities, ‘stale air’ and ‘oil-smeared hands’ culminates beautifully with a sad and simple point about family. I am left uplifted by his art but saddened by the things it says.

Next is the Italiano Duo, playing for the first time together in this country. Their covers include ‘New Shoes’ by Paolo Nutini, ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse, and ‘Warning Sign’ and ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay. Their nerves show a little but their gift is undeniable; Winehouse is obviously their favourite since their attitude and the volume are cranked right up. They shouldn’t be shy; their talent deserves confidence.

Elisha Owen offers us six poems in a voice perfectly suited to recital. She carries us with a quiet pensive joy through the vivid Spanish landscape of ‘Handprints’ where ‘the water creates a rhythm that foreigners dance to’. She reads ‘Prostrate Shadows’ where Muslim men are ‘sentinels beckoning the sunrise’, ‘Racing’, ‘Long Jump’, ‘Origami’, in which a seven year old boy  tries to sell her his art, and finally, ‘In the Days Before They Made Them Biodegradable’, where one plastic bag is transformed into a family treasure.

Sean Neil performs three songs; solemn, honest and touching. His strumming could flow better and he needs to use his diaphragm more, but bearing in mind that I can’t sing and play to save my life, that he wrote all of his own songs and that they’re very good ones, I hardly have a right to comment. His work is reminiscent of Damien Rice without the Irish accent, which suits me fine.

386765_299333770097854_1784160791_nNext is Giles Longley-Cook. We flit through dreary rooms in ‘Reflections in Jordan’ and the joys of alcohol in ‘The Budweiser Gita’, while he drinks pointedly from a bottle. After a disturbing piece on the politics of the Holy Land, Giles pauses to let us listen to the whirring of a fan and the sounds of the café above before stating, hauntingly, that ‘I have never fully known silence’. This poem strikes me in a fresh and thought-provoking way before he thunders on into a mock Christmas carol for his finale.

Aliena and Peter follow up with a few covers as well as some of their own compositions (lyrics by Chris who sits bashfully in the audience). The guitar is a bit too loud but Aliena uses this to her advantage and blows us all away with her vocal power; Peter is both talented and utterly unassuming. My favourite song is ‘Avenue of Cosmonauts’, sullen and gripping and very bass-y.

Ben Norris reads a delightful poem derived from his lecture notes on the European Novel. It is sharp and witty, diving from humour to seriousness and back again. The wonderful twist is that although lecture notes in poetry is an innovative idea, the piece insists that nothing is ever truly original. ‘Meaning is contingent’, he claims, ‘his name is Echo’. Ben proceeds with a touching poem ‘Southern Hemisphere’, and then reads ‘After Babel, After Pisa’ concerning theories of the University Library’s reconstruction, and a lovely piece about keeping hold of somebody by collecting physical memories.

Joe rounds the night off with ‘Circles’, a farewell poem that reminds me of Bilbo’s ‘The Road Goes Ever On’. Profound and heart-warming, it weaves in circles of thought about this little gathering of artists and the common desires that brought us together.

‘We must not shake,’ he encourages us, ‘we must not fear, to seek the dream that brought us to this place’.

The-Gentlemen-Press-1

A special thanks to The Gentlemen Press for running this event. We hope to see more from you soon.

For more information, visit www.gentlemenpress.com

By Danielle Bentley

Hooky Street Press at Eastside Projects: Seriousness and Humour in Art Writing

In the second gallery of the Eastside Projects building, hemmed in by wooden panels and abstract grey portraits, Hooky Street Press hosts a symposium upon humour and seriousness in art writing. Alternative youths sporting chunky knitwear, piercings, hair dye and dreadlocks are scattered in the audience, amongst their more sophisticated elders.

Gavin Butt begins the talk with a straightforward dissection of the humour-seriousness dilemma, using a quote from Charles Ludlam: ‘Now the whole idea of seriousness is awful to me – it sounds like something imposed from without. It doesn’t really imply gravity or profundity; it implies decorum, behaving yourself.’

Butt explains that society views ‘significant’ things through the lens of seriousness because we believe it is the only way to attribute value and prove our commitment. However, this has become so common that it now sounds more like ‘bloated pronouncements of value’ than genuine feeling. He asks whether we can separate ‘gravity and profundity’ from seriousness. Exampling Joe Brainard’s art, Paul Morrisey’s film Women in Revolt, and performance artists Kiki & Herb and David Hoyle, he demonstrates society’s confusion when faced with blended solemnity and comedy.

David Burrows proceeds with the point that ‘there’s a seriousness to humour’, recalling a performance artist who dressed as a soldier and lay ‘dead’ in the streets of Birmingham for a whole week. According to Burrows, ‘he points out the fact that the whole world is wrong’, underlining the irony of the show as criticism of war itself.

Andrew Hunt’s talk on Jacques Lacan has me utterly lost. He dons a mask that makes him look like a cartoon psychopath, and launches into a complex rant about the ‘discourse of the university and the master’. Milkshake by Kelis plays during an animated slideshow. I don’t quite know what to make of it, but the basic point I gather is that one’s unconscious desires are barred by the rules of society; a hysteric will show the ‘truth’ of these desires by denying ‘knowledge’ of culture.

An interesting but unnecessarily extravagant ‘symposium’, and appropriately enough by the end, I’m not sure whether to laugh or frown.

Danielle Bentley

Grizzly Pear @ The Bristol Pear

Writers’ Bloc, University of Birmingham’s Creative Writing Society, has managed to make a name for itself off campus. The society’s previously low-key open-mic night has been transformed into a dynamic and varied night called Grizzly Pear, set in the upstairs room of the Bristol Pear in Selly Oak. The night is the brainchild of Ben Norris, the society’s Literary Events Officer, who knows a thing or two about the open-mic scene in Birmingham – having started his foray into spoken word at this very kind of night. To complement Grizzly Pear’s new identity, the night has been given an entirely new format. There are now ten open-mic slots available to anyone; these are free of theme. The open-mic performers are then followed by five Writers’ Bloc members, who have to perform or read a piece that has been influenced by a subject. Finally, the night is concluded by one top-class headliner.

The theme of the night was ‘Loot’, which was introduced by Ben, who was also the evening’s compere. In a form true to his energetic style, Ben performed a middle-class parody of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ (with Joe Sale on guitar) to a delighted crowd, who responded with roars of laughter.

Grizzly Pear showed that it has the potential to become something much bigger than just a University-based open-mic night, as several poets from the Birmingham spoken word scene attended and performed. There were performances from Lorna Meehan, Jaden Larker and Carl Sealeaf, all of whom have performed at other well known spoken word nights. Lorna stuck to the theme by giving a brilliant performance of a poem based on lyrics from Florence + The Machine, Jaden performed a humorous poem about greetings cards, and Carl Sealeaf left the audience in awe with a beautifully honest poem. There were also several other highlights from the open-mic section. Joe Sale returned to the stage to perform ‘Ulysses Returns’, a powerful poem based on his father’s return from a life-threatening illness, in which Joe’s evident admiration was touching. Ben Jackson, who has previously performed at Hit The Ode, performed an inventive poem in which he experimented with sound and voice leaving the audience wanting more.

However, Grizzly Pear doesn’t simply cater to typical spoken word. Jess Hanson read a hilarious poem about surviving awkward family parties in a witty and confident style. She was followed by two special guests. Founder of the society and former Writers’ Bloc President, Sean Colletti, returned to impress once more. He read a touching poem about a good friend, in which he effortlessly captured the banter of friendship. He took the audience on an emotional journey which left the room devastated, and some audience members in tears. The final open-mic slot went to Luke Kennard, who is a lecturer of Creative Writing at the university and a renowned poet. His hilarious introduction to his sentimental poem, which will be appearing in his forthcoming collection, summed up the dynamic sense of the night perfectly.

The focus of the night then shifted onto Writers’ Bloc members. The standard of performances and readings was consistently high, showcasing the talent that the society has to offer. Among many highlights was Elisha Owen’s reading of ‘Radio Voices’. Elisha shifted her focus from spoken word (in which she has had many successes, including representing the university in a poetry slam against University of Edinburgh) to a more literary poem, which contained some strikingly beautiful images. She was followed by James Dolton, who first delivered a poem in rap-battle style, flawlessly integrating references to literature in every line. His second poem, ‘To’, was extremely honest and very well written, showing that his style has continued to mature. The final Writers’ Bloc member to perform was current President Alana Tomlin, who shared some of the poems she has written for her dissertation. Taking a witty yet simultaneously thought-provoking look at the failure of communities, Alana successfully looted parts of political speeches and was encouraged to continue by a riveted audience.

What is most original about Grizzly Pear is that it welcomes all disciplines of writing with open arms; page poets, spoken word performers and prose writers are all equally encouraged to share their work, providing the audience with a varied and thoroughly entertaining evening.

Grizzly Pear’s major success, however, was headliner Clayton Blizzard, who performed at Shambala Festival this summer. The highly talented folk singer and rapper travelled from Bristol to share a set for the first time in Birmingham. He initially captured the audience by singing a capella and wandering through the crowd, whispering in unsuspecting people’s ears. With witty rhymes, a strong vocal performance and some excellent guitar-playing, Clayton played a set which was full of black comedy. Highlights included ‘Sleep Tight’, in which a relaxing guitar piece was juxtaposed with sharp satire, and the infectious ‘Don’t Send Me Flowers When I’m Dead(I’ll Never Be on Top of the Pops Now)’. His varied set was a perfect end to the evening.

Thanks to its creator, Ben Norris, Grizzly Pear has firmly placed itself in line with some of the other open-mic nights that Birmingham has to offer, far exceeding previous events the society has held. Undoubtedly, everyone cannot wait until January when Grizzly Pear will return.

Follow @uobwritersbloc for more information on future events.

Words by Jenna Clake    @jennaclake

Pictures by Anita Baumgärtner

Speak Up @ The Hare and Hounds

As you walk into the upstairs room of the Hare & Hounds, you are captured by the ambience: the room is filled with beanbags and chairs (mostly taken already), there’s a table covered in homemade cupcakes and the room is lit with fairy lights. Sitting in the centre of the stage is a large leather chair, and in that chair sits compere and creator of ‘Speak Up’, Jodi Ann Bickley. She is renowned in the spoken-word scene and performed on the festival circuit this summer. Jodi Ann suffers from non-epileptic seizures, and she talks very bravely and candidly to the audience about her condition, trying to make them feel completely at ease; she even makes a game out of it, ‘Fits and Giggles’. Jodi Ann will sit in the chair for the entirety of the night (even during performances), unless she decides to take herself upstairs to another room, where she will Skype us and continue to host. The running-order of poets is chosen completely at random. On stage there is a screen (the one we’ll see Jodi-Ann appear on via Skype) and this is used to display a programme that selects the poet’s name at random.

There were a few highlights to the evening. The first poet of the evening was Ben Norris, a second-year English with Creative Writing student at the University of Birmingham, who has made a name for himself in the city’s poetry scene and is now receiving recognition for his work in other parts of the country, having recently represented the West Midlands in a national poetry slam. Ben performed ‘Disaster Sex’, a clever, humorous and heartfelt poem about the end of a relationship, complete with The Simpsons references and his recognisably energetic style. Ben set the bar for the evening, showing us all why his career is getting off to a fantastic start.

Carl Sealeaf followed shortly after. He nervously told that he was performing a new poem, and hetherefore was not sure if he had made the right decision. Carl’s choice of poem was exactly right: it revealed a sense of maturity that far exceeds his age. However, one must feel slightly sorry for Carl. Just before his performance, Jodi Ann decided to move upstairs and Skype. She was evidently in a playful mood and pulled faces and made jokes behind Carl as he performed, which made him lose his train of thought on two occasions, and also distracted the audience.

Lorna Meehan also gave a fantastic performance. She is popular in the Birmingham poetry scene, having supported Richard Tyrone Jones at his recent Hit The Ode special. She performed ‘Swing’, a self-affirming poem about the friendships that define us.

Joseph Sale, another second-year English with Creative Writing student, who has performed at Word Up and Hit The Ode, provided something completely different with a poem accompanied by the guitar. His inspiration was the picture of the falling man from 9/11. Joe’s ‘Thunderbolt 9/11’contains the religious and classical undertones we have come expect and enjoy from his work. His performance was chilling and hypnotic.

The first headliner of the evening was Toby de Angeli, a friend of the host and part of The Elephant Collective, which also contains the likes of Harry Baker. Toby is a storyteller. The audience listened, fascinated, as they were told about his friends and his favourite films (which were referenced frequently throughout his poems). In a touching story about the birth of his sister, Toby broke into a rap by his octopus alter-ego, which simply just added to the somewhat surreal quality of the night. The second headliner was Nichol Keene, also part of The Elephant Collective. She is Toby’s girlfriend, and it is quite evident that they have influenced each other’s style, although both are equally good in their own right. They finished the night with a poly-vocal piece in which Nichol also played the harmonica, which perfectly accompanied their storytelling prowess.

Despite the high calibre of talent, there were also some performances that required a little improvement. Frank Thomas performed a poem about an ex-girlfriend that was wrought with emotion, but clichéd at times. It was also in need of an edit, as it ran on for almost thirteen minutes. While it is evident that Frank was deeply passionate, thirteen minutes is over four-times the length of slam poetry. (However, he must receive credit for being able to remember all of it off-by-heart.)

Timing was also generally an issue for Speak Up as a whole. After nearly three hours, a poet called Archy took to the stage. The surreal atmosphere was amplified by his blatant improvisation, which at first was humorous, but then grew tiresome as he performed a third poem. Archy’s performance highlights Speak Up’s flaw: Jodi Ann doesn’t know when to say ‘no’. Throughout the night, people who had finally mustered up the courage had been asking to perform and Jodi Ann, admirably wanting to encourage them, said ‘yes’ to every single one. Speak Up is lacking the structure that other Birmingham-based spoken-word events have mastered, thus making the audience grow impatient and inattentive by the end. Jodi Ann, despite being quite welcoming in some circumstances, seemed far more comfortable when introducing her friends. Being at Speak Up was comparable to attending a typical American film house party (we literally could have been sitting in her lounge) in which Jodi Ann would have been the Queen Bee and her friends would have been the ‘popular’ group. This left others often out of the loop and feeling a little uncomfortable, especially as the host (ostensibly in good humour) attempted to pick on newcomers and people she had heard of, but never met. In this, Jodi Ann seemed to fulfil the role of a comedienne, not a compere of an open-mic evening. This, coupled with the duration of the night, left one feeling rather drained.

 If you have plenty of time to spare and a thick skin, then Speak Up will be perfect for you. It is definitely home to some extremely talented poets, especially as Jodi Ann is celebrated in the scene. However, if you have an early start or prefer your poetry to last a maximum of forty-five minutes, then there may be other Spoken Word events that will tend to your needs.

Look out for two more Birmingham-based spoken word events this week. ‘Grizzly Pear’ is at The Bristol Pear, Selly Oak at 7:30pm on Wednesday 24th October. Hit the Ode is at The Victoria at 7:30pm on Thursday 25th. 

Jenna Clake

@jennaclake

Liz Lochhead & Liz Berry with LiTTLe MACHiNe @ Birmingham Book Festival

It’s all over. The last event of Birmingham Book Festival 2012 took place last Saturday. There was no room to be sullen, however, as the ‘Closing Party’ celebrated the positivity of the festival.

The party took place in the Old Library – one of the many buildings which make up the eclectic mix of venues in the Custard Factory. Built in 1866, its Victorian gothic features prove its status as a precious piece of Birmingham’s history. The venue was also particularly appropriate having been one of Birmingham’s first free libraries. Although it has now been emptied of books, the evening brought back a literary atmosphere.

The two featured poets were, strangely, both called Liz. The first Liz was Liz Berry, a Black Country ‘lass’ who now lives in London. Her poetry was terrifically influenced by the West Midlands. One piece called ‘Birmingham Roller’ was written in a Black Country dialect and it felt like a perfect piece to emphasize an important purpose of the book festival, which is to celebrate and raise awareness for local talent. She also read a great piece called ‘The Fishwife’, which was inspired by the old tradition of inviting a fishwife to a wedding. She was a great performer, and definitely a poet to look out for.

The second Liz was Liz Lockhead, a renowned Scottish poet and playwright. She was appointed as a Makar (national poet of Scotland) in 2011 . When Liz took centre stage she commanded her environment. As several people walked in late, she ushered them to their seats asking them to sit down and enjoy the poetry. She read a selection of poems, including some from her latest collection A Choosing: The Selected Poetry of Liz Lochhead.

Later, Liz was joined by the very talented LiTTLe MACHiNe – a three man group who specialise in setting famous poetry to music. They collaborated by taking her poem ‘Trouble is not my middle name’ and putting to music. They had only prepared the piece a few hours prior to the performance, so it felt fresh and spontaneous.

LiTTLe MACHiNe then took the audience on a historical tour through British poetry. They interspersed personal and contextual tales amongst the music and poetry, giving the concert an intimate and cosy atmosphere. Their set included a vast range of poetry from Shakespeare to Carol Ann Duffy. Their renditions of ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron’s ‘We’ll Go No More a Roving’ were highlights of the set.

They certainly added a new dimension to well-known poetry. If the crowd had been slightly bigger, and a few more people had been willing to get on their feet and sing along, then the Old Library would have truly come alive on the final night of the book festival.

Lauren Carroll

@laurenxcarroll

Art and Writing – The City @ Birmingham Book Festival

In Birmingham, the second biggest city in the UK, defining the concept of ‘the city’ is understandably relevant. It is little wonder, therefore, that the Barber Institute has interpreted it also. The institute has been called ‘a haven of tranquility in a bustling metropolis’; procuring the status as a perfect island in which literary fans can gather and act the flâneur; observing the city through the eyes and mouths of storytellers.
‘Art and Writing: The City’ was presented on Thursday 11th October by Andrew Killeen, the resident writer at the Barber Institute; guiding listeners through the ‘concrete jungle’. This main event, he explained, was preceded by a series of creative writing workshops that aimed to provoke ideas about cities and our relationship to them. Yet, he emphasised writers did not simply sit in front of art and write. They met and discussed themes together, later reconvening to share and critique each other’s work. The finished products were then brought to the final workshop. Killeen was pleased to note that the experience had been ‘inspiring’, and that works had been chosen this evening to demonstrate the ‘breadth of ideas’ throughout the project.
Certainly, the stories brought some interesting interpretations to the fore. Cities were popularly situated alongside the countryside; most storytellers portrayed the country as backwards and boring, a ‘void’ where ‘a computer [became] a rare gift’. This rendered ‘the city’ a glamorous finale to a journey of escapism. This notion, however, was often dispelled by portrayals of multiple cities.


Jenefer Heap’s modern London was ‘rendered sterile from a safe distance’ for tourists. She superimposed this image upon a city so that the character of ‘Lu’ could walk with her younger self ‘Lulu’, confronting distasteful elements of her past.  Aaron Jackson portrayed a dark and bloody underworld to his initially attractive Tokyo and poet Jessica Holloway Swift held Oxford up against London, stating that ‘Oxford was the city of the king, London the city of the usurper.’
Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, Swift’s London smog was innovatively replaced with the presence of Puritans that apparently ‘polluted the soul’. In each, the ‘seductive’ city became sordid, the ‘nonchalant’ city became ‘violent’ and the ‘instinctively chic’ city became morally ambiguous. Death also permanently pervaded its horizon like ‘a weight of bloodied metal’. The word ‘survival’ echoed throughout; it seems that the workshops had stimulated an urban anxiety.
This was especially evident in Killeen’s short story, Hardcore, where a country dweller’s attempts to remove a traveller’s family from his local ‘green belt’ made evident fears about the spread of suburbia. Killeen claimed in his introduction that the city has ‘burst out of the walls’ that once defined it; rural/urban boundaries are being swallowed by a suburban landscape. Killeen asked, ‘How do we know who to include and exclude?’ His protagonist certainly does not want to include travellers, whom he sees as destroying his ‘way of life’. The implication, however, is that his bigoted views are influenced by his fear that ‘Eventually our green and pleasant land will become one big ugly dirty city’; his enemies are developing and changing a field into an (albeit basic) built-up area.
Combatting this aesthetic of unease were the readings that punctuated the workshop’s storytellers. Lecturers from the university brought a fresh and positive attitude to the project; a love for the city, that has been explored by English writers in times past. We heard the hustle and bustle of Virginia Woolf’s London that leads Mrs Dalloway to proclaim that this ‘was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.’ Hugh Adlington performed a more serene London in William Wordsworth’s Composed Upon Westminster Bridge where ‘the very houses seem asleep/And all that mighty heart is lying still’. This poem seemed particularly appropriate as Wordsworth’s stolen moment of ‘calm, in the midst of Mrs Dalloway’s London, mirrored that of the audience’s in the Barber Institute’s intimate lecture theatre.
In the course of the evening, it became clear that the city has many faces, and that art has the capacity to capture each of them, including the people living within them. The relationship between urbanites and the metropolis is a complex one, and Killeen’s project displayed urban love and hate in a wonderfully widespread and indeed inspiring fashion.

Becca Inglis

Jackie Kay: Reality, Reality @ Birmingham Book Festival

Jackie Kay graced Birmingham Cathedral last Thursday, for the second annual ‘address from the pulpit’. The renowned poet, writer and broadcaster came to give a ‘secular sermon’, as she mischievously dubbed it, to promote her new book Reality, Reality. The seats were filled with fans, young and old, who were obviously excited about seeing the woman whose observations of life have captured the hearts of many.

Despite being a huge literary figure, the Jackie Kay who giggled like a child at the irony of her surroundings, was both gracious and unassuming. She began by reading The Friday Poem, from her 2011 poetry collection Fiere. In Scots dialect fiere means ‘companion’ and the poem was a fitting reflection of Kay’s heritage. Although the audience mostly consisted of women, and the prevalent voice in her works is female, there was a unified appreciation for this tribute to friendship.

Kay then read an extract from her best-selling memoir Red Dust Road. A chronicle of the author’s search for her birth mother and father – a journey which eventually takes her to Nigeria – Kay explores a form of loneliness. One particular quote stood out: ‘I am only alone in the way that everybody is alone. And yet it seems that the bundle of child that is wrapped up in the ghostly shawl of adoption does have another layer of aloneness wrapped up in there.’ In the Q&A session Kay talked of the exposure one feels when writing as oneself, rather than vicariously through a character. This only seemed to enhance her work; her account of meeting her biological Father for the first time was as funny as it was poignant. Each anecdote was tinged with the heartbreaking disappointment that came with deconstructing the images she had held of her birth parents. She told the audience how it would later strike her that both parents had become extremely religious – and both came to meet her holding carrier bags.

Kay frequently flitted back and forth between her own life and her collection of fifteen short stories, Reality, Reality; at times it was hard to distinguish between the two. Her oration, however, maintained a buoyancy throughout, regardless of her self-recognised inability to do the myriad accents she captures in her stories. As any Jackie Kay fan will tell you, alternative cultures and perspectives are conveyed in her work through ‘voice’ more than image. With this comes an emphasis on the authority of personal experience.

Indeed, it is hard to separate Jackie Kay from her writing and she voiced her worries about this in the Q&A session. She stated that not everything is autobiographical but also hinted that all inspiration has its source. One impertinent audience member stated, ‘You are a black, outspoken Lesbian writer’, as if she was unaware of this fact, and demanded to know her thoughts on being placed in the ‘Gay Fiction’ aisle of a book-store. Kay diplomatically replied that she did not feel pigeon-holed by this factor and if it helps people in the gay community, especially younger people, understand themselves then the pleasure is hers.

Jackie Kay’s work, although a celebration of companionship, was never over-sentimental. Her matter-of-fact tone allowed her work to speak for itself. A highlight of the evening was one of her collective short stories, These Are Not My Clothes. Kay read the story of Margaret, an elderly woman who is stripped of dignity by the abusive staff at the old people’s home she resides in. Placing middle-aged and older women at the centre of Reality, Reality, it felt like eavesdropping on the private thoughts of a host of disparate women. Memory, loss and self-delusion were just a few of the many topics she explored in the extracts she read aloud.

Jackie Kay is as famous for her fascinating life as she is for the excellent work she produces. Infusing her discussion with warmth and humour, it was clear that there is a through-narrative in everything she shares with her readers. Reality, Reality continues this tale of amity and stresses the importance of appreciating those around you.

Sadly, Birmingham Book Festival 2012 is now over. Visit their website for more information about the festival as a whole:  http://www.birminghambookfestival.org/

Elisha Owen
@ElishaOwen11

Simon Armitage: Walking Home @ Birmingham Book Festival

When it comes to public speaking Simon Armitage has always been renowned as a writer with a sense of humour. His talk at the Birmingham Book Festival proved no different. His allotted time wasn’t just about how many funny anecdotes he could tell before the end of the night, however. The evening’s discussion focused mainly on his new novel Walking Home, a book about his backwards and penniless journey of the Pennine Way.

The evening began with Armitage’s explanation for walking the arduous 256 miles. He described growing up in Marsden, part of the Pennine Way trail, and watching the shadows of walkers descend upon his town in the summer. The most vivid image was that of two travellers who had pitched a tent near his house and decided to stay in Marsden, opening up their tent to let wafts of smoke out every now and again.

Having seen so many others do it the author felt he should give it a go but with the twist of using no money. He wanted to test the value of poetry, and his worth as a poet, trading lodging for poetry readings. His choice to do the walk in reverse meant ending the walk in Marsden; a physical challenge, as well as a test of his personal value.

Continuing to reflect on his childhood, Armitage reminisced of slide-shows his town would display every year – ‘sometimes the Priest’s holiday pictures would end up in there’ – and used this as a cue for his own slide-show. The comments that complemented the presentation were minimal but effective; ‘this is a door’ was met with a roar of laughter. With every picture the audience anticipated his next witty remark.

By the end of the talk, the listeners knew everything they needed to know about the making of Walking Home. The time came to hear the result of Armitage’s endeavour to write prose rather than poetry. Before this, he admitted the intention of the walk was to provide inspiration for new poems but unfortunately the part of his brain, which he used for walking, was the part he also used for creating verse too. Yet this wasn’t evident in the extracts heard by the audience. While it certainly read like prose the attention to detail and descriptions of various parts of the journey felt like they had been taken out of lines of poetry. The charm of the novel was that the change in form hadn’t resulted in a change in style. There was a nice balance of insightful observations, alongside smirk-prescribing stories to make the novel worth its merit.

Before the Q&A Armitage indulged the audience in one last anecdote from his walk titled ‘The Doughnut Man’. It involved an incident, during a reading, where the audience’s laughter and attention was diverted to a man in a doughnut costume stood just behind him. The bizarreness of the situation was a great way to end a relaxing evening, which never had a dull moment.

If you missed him at the Birmingham Book Festival, Simon Armitage will next be reading at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester on Tuesday 16th October 2012. 

Andy Cashmore

@AndyJCash

Birmingham Book Festival: Caitlin Moran and Stuart Maconie

Listening to the Caitlin Moran and Stuart Maconie talk was like sitting in a pub with friends when the perfect conversation occurs, littered with anecdotes, references and in-jokes. A conversation in which you are so absorbed you don’t want to leave the table, despite a million things happening around you.

Birmingham Book Festival created a faux-pub backdrop for the two writers. Moran and Maconie sat on stools, clutching bottles of water but swigging it like alcohol at a bar. They debated everything from libraries and television to feminism. Both writers brought entirely unique perspectives to the topics they were debating. Moran spoke quickly and confidently and although she used obscure references and phrases, they were neither pretentious nor alienating. Birmingham-based Maconie offered a male viewpoint on topics, such as feminism and sexism within the work place, punctuating Moran’s anecdotes with experiences of his own.

They both started out as music journalists and expressed their views on how the publishing industry has changed. In their day journalism offered a window of opportunity for a teenager with no specific qualifications. In their discussion about the dwindling opportunities of the arts world, the pair also commented on the number of privately educated pop stars who dominate the charts. Both writers were keen to stress that these bands shouldn’t be condemned. However, they expressed concern about the lack of opportunity for those involved in the creative industries without privileges or connections.

Despite this concern, Moran showed a high sense of appreciation for the changeability of contemporary culture. This gives people the opportunity to make things new and undergo personal revolution. Moran celebrated having a voice, be it within her journalism or in her day to day opinions on the mundane. She   admitted that when she first started writing she adopted the tone of a Victorian gentleman, writing in a voice she thought others wished to hear, instead of her own. She soon realised that what characterises great writing is originality, and therefore encouraged everyone to express their individuality in whatever they do. You shouldn’t be shy about having an opinion on anything, from the mundane to the important. This seemed particularly relevant regarding the diverse appreciation for arts and culture within Birmingham.

For a full list of Bham Book Fest events: http://www.birminghambookfestival.org/events-2012/full-festival-programme/

Lottie Halstead

@LottieHalstead