Tag Archives: birmingham cathedral

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

Flatpack Festival presents: Another Fine Mess

The sixth Flatpack Film Festival kicked off with a great night showcasing several classic silent films. This was the first event of this year’s Birmingham-based film festival, which screens a glut of films for every taste from classics such as The Elephant Man to surreal and niche shorts like The Cat With Hands.

Another Fine Mess was a showcase of black and white comedies from the early part of the twentieth century, accompanied by the expertise of Neil Brand, a pianist who accompanies silent movies across the world (he also featured on Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns TV series).

After we had taken our seats in the (surprisingly warm) cathedral along with 200 others ranging in age from teens to pensioners, Ian Francis, Director of Flatpack, gave a brief introduction to the four day festival taking place at venues across the city. It was then on to the main event as Neil Brand highlighted the recent renaissance of silent film, undoubtedly spurred on by the success of The Artist.

The first film we were show was A Pair of Tights, from 1929, which centred around a pair of tight wads taking two (hungry) ladies on a double date. Resisting their date’s calls for a slap-up turkey dinner, the ‘pair of tights’ agreed to splash out on four ice cream cones. This prompted hilarious scenes involving revolving doors, amorous dogs and fist-shaking policemen, climaxing in what can only be termed reciprocal slapstick violence. It was a great introduction to the genre and you quickly forgot that Neil Brand was playing the piano in the room throughout, his compositions matching the drama and his emphasis perfectly timed with what was happening on screen.

Next up was one of the highlights of the night: a short entitled The Dog Outwits The Kidnapper (1908). What starts out as a very sinister tale of a toddler kidnapping turns rapidly into a heroic story of canine bravery. I won’t ruin it for you, as it’s available on YouTube in all its glory, but I will say though that from a personal perspective any film involving a dog dressed up, or driving a car, is a winner in my book.  See for yourself: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qApoxM41NGQ

Following these were some shorts illustrating the imagination, escapism and fantasy that characterised early black and white films. We were treated to eerie musical accompaniment for a man sneezing until he exploded (as funny as it sounds), a dramatisation of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves (as if it had been filmed on an drug induced high), and a train journey through space to the sun. These were also some of the earliest first colour films, created by artists individually hand-painting every single film cell – an arduous task to say the least, but the results were undoubtedly astonishing to audiences of the time.

Then it was the final event, starring one of, if not the most famous double act in cinema history: Laurel and Hardy in You’re Darn Tootin‘ from 1928. Audience participation was key to the screening of this film, with a drum handed out to replicate the noise of a punch to the stomach, a triangle for a kick to the knee, and pieces of paper for everyone to rip during the fabulous final scene: a mass trouser ripping involving over a dozen characters.

Accompanied by rapturous laughter, Another Fine Mess was a great start to the festival and also a great introduction to the silent film genre, the piano accompaniment and introductions to each short by Neil Brand really enhanced the event. The mixture of ages in the audience shows the variety of appeal these films have, and the overall audio and visual experience were unlike those found in Cineworld, the Showcase or the Odeon, and more like that at the theatre or the concert hall – a refreshing change to say the least.

A final thought for those who may not be too familiar with the stars of the silent comedy era: if you grew up finding the Chuckle Brothers funny, you’ll be in tears watching anything involving Laurel and Hardy.

Words by Andy Newnham