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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

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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 

Tell Me On A Sunday @ Birmingham Book Festival

The beloved storytelling event Tell Me on a Sunday returned for one special evening, as part of the fourteenth annual Birmingham Book Festival. Relocating from its usual abode, Café Ikon, the event catered for a larger audience on the second floor gallery, currently host to the Arefin & Arefin exhibition. Presented by the enigmatic Cat Weatherill – story-telling extraordinaire and Tell Me on a Sunday facilitator – the dimly-lit, cabaret-esque room captured the audience’s imagination before the seven storytellers even took to the stage.

The night kicked off with a performance from the national storytelling laureate, Katrice Horsley. A feisty and engaging performer, Horsley told the story of her relationship with her Uncle, maintaining a gentle balance of humour and sentiment throughout. Exploring a variety of issues, from the speech impediment she suffered as a child, to her belief in magic and fairies, Horsley created a believable and surprisingly relatable world for her adult listeners.

The next storyteller was the lovely, and slightly gawky, Tom Philips. He presented a narrative of ‘firsts’ – first time on an aeroplane, first time in America – as he went to work at Camp America, aged eighteen. The tale began fairly light-hearted, as he recalled the funny incident where he rescued a young child who was sitting on the front porch, happily sharing his sweets with a black bear. Reminiscent of a coming-of-age film, Tom told us about how his plan to travel across the USA, ending in New York, was thwarted when his friend opted for a female companion instead. Visiting New York at a different time and returning to England earlier than he had planned, Tom recounted sitting watching television with his Dad when news of the 9/11 tragedy appeared on screen. If Tom had kept to his original plans, he would have been in Manhattan that day.

South-African born, Tell Me on a Sunday regular, Gavin Jones graced the stage next. He took the audience back sixteen years, as he told a story of family rejection and what it was like when he first moved to England and, eventually, Birmingham. Funny and tragic in one breath, the audience were visibly moved. Jones was succeeded by three more storytellers, Gorg Chand, Jane Campion and Natalie Cooke, who continued to enchant the listeners. Each story was different in tone and content but the high quality never faltered.

Although storytelling is an art form, and therefore a rehearsed and crafted genre, the performances were effortless and held the illusion of spontaneity. In each seven minute segment, the audience were transported to a small part of the teller’s life – to laugh, cry and share in lessons learnt. It was a humbling occasion that, though riddled with the potential for cliché, avoided it entirely.

 

Tell me on a Sunday: Season Two will return to Café Ikon on January 27th.

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

 

Elisha Owen
@ElishaOwen11

Patrick Gale and Femi Oyebode: The Psychiatry of Character

On the second evening of Birmingham’s fourteenth annual book festival, Sara Beadle proudly introduced the accomplished novelist, Patrick Gale, and psychiatrist, Femi Oybode. The talk focused on his most recent novel, A Perfectly Good Man, yet he began by reading a short extract from his previous novel, Notes from an Exhibition, as he admitted they were loosely paired in theme and ideology. Throughout the talk he continued to make constant and fluid reference to parts of his previous fourteen novels, as if they were an extension of his own personality. The renowned psychiatrist Dr Femi Oyebode, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham and Consultant Psychiatrist for Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust, asked Patrick Gale a series of questions about his novel’s characters. Interestingly, Oyebode perhaps provoked Gale to reveal more about his own life and psyche than he had originally intended.

I assumed the event would be held in the gallery’s restaurant, Café Ikon, like their regular story-telling evening Tell me on a Sunday. Surprisingly, however, the talk took place amongst one of the latest exhibitions, Arefin & Arefin – The graphic design of Tony Arefin. The contemporary, graphic backdrop complemented the talk nicely: the wall behind the stage sporting a large and brightly coloured installation which read, ‘I can see through walls’.

The artists personal aphorism, ‘I can see through walls,’ became particularly appropriate during the first phase of the discussion. In Gale’s answer to Oybode’s first question, ‘how do you construct a literary character?’, he admitted that it is far from easy. He further explained that a writer must pay attention to the ‘boundaries’ of character, like stereotypes for example, and construct characters within and outside of these simultaneously. The writer, he suggested, has to be able to ‘see through’ the different ‘versions of ourselves’ in order to get to the core of his characters.

As Oyebode continued prompting Gale, some of his questions began to feel a little too premeditated. When Oyebode asked Gale about the use of ethnic minorities and homosexuals as symbols rather than characters in novels,  it seemed not only irrelevant in the discussion but also  came across as an outdated literary response. However, for the most part, Oyebode did an excellent job of facilitating Gale to talk interestingly and openly about his own experiences; such as the death of his brother, and how this had shaped his writing, his characters and his own personality.

The audience Q&A session ended up lasting longer than the talk itself. It was clear that the vast majority of the audience were avid readers of Patrick Gale’s novels: many probed deeper into particular characters and plots. The atmosphere was literary, but also light-hearted. Although I wasn’t able to engage with much of the discussion, having never read a Gale novel, I was able to enjoy the clash of audience opinion and Patrick Gale’s self-aware and comedic commentary. For example, in one instance he spoke about Quakers, an ancestral vegetable garden and a memory of a childhood home.

‘Read. Write. Think.’ Hearing an author talk about their work is always a privilege. It is organisations, such as Birmingham Book Festival, that make thought provoking and informative literary events such as these happen. So thank you Birmingham Book Fest, for another lovely evening.

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

Alana Tomlin

@alanatomlin