Jonathan Harvey

For the 75th and final event of this year’s festival, Jonathan Harvey is joined at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation by the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus for a brilliant close to an excellent festival. Harvey wrote his first play in 1987, for which he won a £1000 prize from the Liverpool Playhouse and the National Girobank Young Writer of the Year Award. Since then he has won numerous awards for his plays and television writing, He is currently part of the Coronation Street team. Perhaps his most famous work, ‘Beautiful Thing’ was written in 1993, made into a movie in 1996, and performed last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, production which included songs performed by the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus , who begin and end tonight’s event with three of these songs. Today however, he is talking about his first novel, ‘All She Wants’, to which Caitlin Moran responded by saying, ‘if Harvey is the Scouse Proust, then this is his remembrance of things pissed’.

The novel is narrated by an airheaded soap actress called Jodie Mcgee, which sounds like an ambitious move for a male writer, but one which, judging by his reading, Harvey pulls off very comfortably. He tells us that his second novel, on which he is currently working, also uses a 1st person female narrator and that he recently wrote his first sex scene, and had to check with a female friend that it wasn’t ‘too gay’. The chapter he reads to us happens when his protagonist is 17 or 18 and is both silly and hilarious, particularly as Harvey reads his characters’ voices so well. In this section, a friend of Jodie’s, who has recently hooked up with a disabled boy at a party, has become a political-correctness warrior, and even turns up to a pub in a wheelchair herself. After this, Jodie’s parents find out that her ‘perfect’ brother Joey is gay, after he is arrested for gross public indecency. They are horrified to begin with and see him as a freak, until a colleague’s lesbian daughter becomes the talk of her workplace, and Jodie’s mother begins to brag that her son has been gay for years and that she practically encourages it. Harvey delivers the reading with great energy to a highly responsive audience.

He then takes questions, beginning with one regarding his choice to write a novel for the first time after 25 years of writing for stage and TV. He speaks about how he became a playwright and what it’s like to be part of the Coronation Street team, joking that since joing he hasn’t felt so bad about the number of shows he has been fired from. Something that is noted by audience members is the cultural ‘nowness’ of his work, which is full of references to popular culture, and the way all of the characters of his novel can be related to real people.

After two final songs from the L&G Chorus, Festival coordinator Jon Atkin makes the acknowledgements which close what has truly been an amazing festival.

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Sailing To Byzantium

The RNCM Concert Hall is a bit of a time capsule for me. As a child I would play there in violin groups and orchestras, but today is the first time I’ve visited in six or seven years, so it’s great to be back. I’ve always loved music of all sorts and sang at the Montreaux Jazz Festival last year. I’m also a big fan of modernist literature and have been recently been reading a lot of Joyce and studying his literary context, so when I first heard on the radio, while travelling home from the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, that Christine Tobin, who was named Best Vocalist at the 2008 BBC Jazz Awards, had released an album of WB Yeats poems set to music it was an extremely exciting prospect. When I saw that she would be performing the songs as part of the Manchester Literature Festival I knew I had to go along.

Taking the stage with her band, which consists of Phil Robson on guitar, Kate Shortt on cello, Liam Noble on piano and Dave Whitford on the double bass, Tobin explains that when asked to talk about Yeats by the National Library of Ireland, she decided that arranging and performing some of his poems would be a far less daunting task, and from this came the idea for the album. The performance begins with a recorded reading of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, by her ex-school teacher and actor Gabriel Byrne, followed immediately by the album’s first song, ‘When You Are Old’, a love poem from Yeats’ second collection, ‘The Rose’. This is followed by another love poem, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ (Aengus being the Celtic god of poetic love). What is immediately obvious is the prodigious talent of each of the performers; each musician playing extended improvised solos, and Tobin’s voice as rich live as post-production on the album. Between songs she offers context to the poems, telling us, before playing ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ that Coole, in County Galway, was the residence of Lady Augusta Gregory, with whom Yeats founded the Irish Literary Theatre, and describing ‘The Second Coming’ as a ‘dark and apocalyptic vision’; an atmosphere perfectly conveyed in the music by the ominous 5/4 ostinato and chaotic middle section. Next is ‘The Fisherman’, a poem that perfectly exemplifies the romantic notions of Irishness that Yeats is renowned for, and his abhorrence of the crass and the everyday, the ‘beating down’ of Art.

Sailing to Byzantium, the album’s title track, is one of Yeats’ most famous poems, written later on in his life at a time when he had become fascination by Eastern mysticism, and Tobin’s melody and harmonies have an eastern flavour. ‘What Then?’, a poem she describes as a ‘potted biography’ of Yeats’ life, encapsulates his search for affirmation even in his old age.  I think that my favourite of the arrangements must be ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markiewicz’. These were two friends of Yeats’ with whom he eventually disagreed, as they put politics above all else, while he prioritised art. The performance finishes with renditions of ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Long-Legged Fly’ (for which Tobin sings through a megaphone), and a reading of ‘The White Birds’, again by Gabriel Byrne.

It’s been an incredible performance and I’m feeling completely inspired. I think I might go and arrange some Keats or something.

Yvette Edwards and Robert Williams

I’m back in City library’s Becker room, today to hear Yvette Edwards and Robert Williams talking about their new novels. Edwards’ debut novel ‘A Cupboard full of Coats’ was long-listed for the Man Booker prize and Williams’ ‘How The Trouble Started’ led to his description by the Metro as ‘a master at writing about sensational subjects with an uneasy, queasy understanding.’

Williams talks first about his writing process, telling us that with both his novels he began first with an opening line and, preferring the excitement of allowing his stories to develop before his eyes, rather than planning ahead. While this method caused no problems with his first novel, ‘Luke and John’, which won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for numerous others, he tells us that after writing for six months, developing on the original first line of How The Trouble Started, about a boy who keeps on running, he found that he had no story as yet, and when the eureka moment occurred and he knew why his protagonist was running, he realised that the tone of most of what he had written no longer fitted the subject matter, and had to rewrite most of it. He first reads a section about the boy at 8 years old being interviewed by police. His first person narrative really portrays the boy’s lack of understanding at his situation. It is only after reading a second section that we understand what has occurred. The boy has killed a two-year-old child.

Yvette Edwards’ inspiration for ‘A Cupboard Full of Coats’ came from the story of a friend who after two years of going to court to take out restraining orders and injunctions on an abusive boyfriend had read in a newspaper that the ex-boyfriend had murdered his next girlfriend. Edwards tells us that the boyfriend had had a really nice friend and her surprise that the two could be such close friends led her to explore the relationship in her novel. She is keen to speak about how she wished to capture her own experience of being a second generation Montserratian growing up in London, particularly as Montserratian culture is disappearing due to an exodus of locals from the island due to its active volcano, and its influx of economic and scientific immigrants. Her reading describes her protagonist Jinx’s thoughts at the age of 16 when her mother, who has been single since her birth, has a new boyfriend more into their house. What stands out most is the frank and unashamed nature of her descriptions.

The pair are then interviewed by festival coordinator, Jon Atkins, whose first question regards the decisions of both authors to write their novels in the first person. Both agree that they enjoy living in the characters’ heads and like the intensity and immediacy of the first person, while Williams continues by explaining that he wished to follow in the momentum of his first novel, before experimenting with other styles, but tells us that his current project uses the third person. On the subject of setting, Edwards tells us that she enjoys reading novels set in places she is familiar with, which led to her decision to set her novel in Hackney where she lives. Williams, however, who sets How the Trouble Started in a semi-fictional northern village, says that when he reads books that describe familiar places in ways he doesn’t like, it often ruins the book for him, and also believes that when books are set in real places, these places can put readers off. He does agree that it is useful to base generalised settings on familiar places. While Steven King argues that each writer should have a vision of an ideal reader, the pair agree that they both write for themselves. They also both think that reading other people’s work during the writing process can be very intrusive on their own work. On the question of how they decide whether their writing is suitable for younger people Edwards argues that young people today are desensitised to what may have been unsuitable as the older generation grew up, while Williams believes that it’s a matter of tone, telling us that his first novel, which was labelled for ‘young adults’ had a hopeful outlook, while the new one, which is labelled ‘adult’ is far more bleak.

Rosie Garland

When I first found out that the new poetry collection Rosie Garland would be reading from today, ‘Everything Must Go’, is about her experiences of having cancer, I must admit, I was a little apprehensive. I expected a very moving but somewhat sombre and depressing affair, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, the thing that stood out to me the most was the inspirationally overwhelming sense of positivity exuded by the poet, performer and winner of the Mslexia 2011 novel award. The subject matter didn’t stop the crowds coming in either and Waterstones Deansgate’s event room was full up to the back; extra chairs even needed bringing out at one point.

The collection has a chronological feel, with a beginning, middle and end, something that Garland puts down to the experience of writing her novel, the ‘Palace of Curiosities’. The poems are frank and hold no punches but don’t contain a trace of self-pity, and are even at times, as in the case of the final poem, ‘Dignity’, really quite amusing. The first poem she reads is called ‘Camouflage’ and highlights the assumption that we all have when we hear the statistic that 1 in 3 people are affected by cancer: the assumption that we must be one of the other two. The next describes the unwillingness of the other patients at the Christie Hospice, which, like Macmillan, she cannot praise enough, to mention the C word, creating an experience that she describes as ‘a bit like a rubbish Butlins’. One poem talks about the annoyance of her hair falling out after chemotherapy and her decision to shave the rest of it off, while another pays a heart-warming tribute to the support and letters of family and friends. Between reading she comments on the fact that as a result of her throat cancer she is no longer able to produce saliva and has to use a substitute from a tube, some brands of which are made from porcine mucus, following this with a poem called ‘Pig Spit’. Another funny poem described a patient who had several packets of cigarettes smuggled into the ward by her son and wheeled her drips out to the car park to smoke them forty times a day. ‘Recycling’ reflects Garland’s decision to join the donors’ register, showing the effect of the illness on her attitude towards life.

After reading a short extract from ‘The Palace of Curiosity’, a fin de siècle tale partly narrated by a girl born covered in fur, which sounds to me more than a little bit Angela Carter, there is time for some questions. Some are about life after cancer, but some receive interesting answers about changes in writing style and material post-illness, as well as a modest refusal to be compared to Wordsworth after a question regarding inspiration.

Overall it was a really inspirational and enjoyable experience and I’m certainly glad I was able to see it.

Simon Armitage

Being a newcomer to the Manchester Literature Festival blog, I wasn’t supposed to be covering tonight’s event. I’m not even here as a volunteer. I came to see the man who, earlier in the festival, I had heard somebody describe as ‘the closest thing we poets have to a celebrity’. Simon Armitage, who has published ten poetry collections and has been awarded a CBE and the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, was one of the first poets I properly studied at school, occupying a whole section to himself in the AQA GCSE poetry anthology. It was around this time that I began to realise that English Literature was the subject I wished to continue with at university, so I feel somewhat indebted to Mr Armitage for inspiring me to make that decision. For this reason, I was extremely excited to find out on arrival that the blogger had been unable to make it and I had the opportunity to write the post instead!

Armitage begins by expressing his relief at the level of attendance at the Anthony Burgess Foundation, due to his concerns about clashing with the England vs Poland world cup qualifier and ‘more worryingly’, the Great British Bake-off final. This sets the tone for the evening and his warm Northern humour makes it a really enjoyable event. Reading from his new book, Walking Home, Armitage recounts his trek along the 256 miles of the Pennine way. Growing up in Marsden, he remembers backpackers ending the first leg of the walk from Edale and looking for food and accommodation in the village. He noticed at the time how warmly the visitors were welcomed. It was only a matter of time before he too felt obliged to undertake the walk as well. However, being a self-confessed contrarian, Armitage decided to walk in the opposite direction, into the weather, and towards home. Deciding to test the relevance of his art, he stopped each night along the way, like a modern day troubadour, to deliver a poetry reading at pubs, schools, village halls and even a Georgian theatre, taking a sock for collections of ‘whatever you think it’s worth’. This resulted in turnovers of dental appointment cards, a playing card (‘joker’) and a telephone number (‘Call me, Brenda’), along with the money.

He begins by reading from the book’s wittily titled ‘Preamble’, telling us about the reactions of his family to his plans. Amid worries about giving off the appearance of a mid-life crisis and the question of ‘why not just get a Harley Davidson and have done?’ Armitage’s prediction that his chances of completing the expedition are 50/50 receive the response, ‘I admire your optimism’, from his wife, and he’s told by his father not to bother with a raincoat, but to instead use a bin-bag with a head-hole. After showing a slideshow with pictures of a mars bar, the birthplaces of Ted Hughes and the Brontës, and ‘a guy who looked like Bob Dylan on a quad-bike’, he reads extracts about an early morning poetry reading and his feelings of existential melancholy in the fog up Cross Fell, and tells us about an accidental voice memo, which recorded 40 minutes of curses and enquiries of a more philosophical nature.

Answering questions from the audience, he diplomatically avoids the question of whether there is a difference in character between people in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and muses on Margaret Atwood’s assertion that prose and poetry come from different parts of the brain, after being asked about the transition between poetry and prose. While he agreed with the sentiment in a metaphorical sense, I couldn’t help noticing that his prose is far from prosaic, and in the context of a reading, could quite easily be mistaken for poetry. Armitage ended the questions on the heart-warming note that while he expected to write a book about himself, it ended up being about the help and encouragement of others, before reading a new poem about the experience, called Yellow Rattle (Poverty).

The Road Not Taken

Looking around City library’s Becker room from my corner spot in the second row I am presented with fifty faces, some bleary-eyed, some even tearful; all shocked by the intensity of the last hour. Matthew Hollis, poet and shortlist nominee for the Costa best biography award has just finished speaking. Reading from his book, ‘Now All Roads Lead to France’, Hollis’ tale is that of Edward Thomas. Thomas remains a less well known and under-appreciated poet, but one whose story is of salvation from suicidal depression through poetry, a remarkable friendship, and an ending that could have been written in a tragedy. In early 1913 Edward Thomas, while working as a reviewer, a job which he hated due to the lack of creativity and originality in his work, told his friend Walter de la Mare that he had made a ‘special purchase’; an item with which he intended to end his life. Thomas was persuaded to continue living by the impact he knew his actions would inevitably have on his family. His depression continued throughout the year, straining his relationship with his wife, who was so patient with him that she encouraged his feelings of attraction towards the daughter of a friend of his, stressing the importance of his independence; feelings he did not pursue, recognising them as mere consolation.

When, in October 1913, Thomas met the not yet established poet, Robert Frost, his life started to turn around. Thomas seemed, to begin with, the only reviewer that recognised Frost’s talent and honesty, while others saw his work as simplistic, and they became such close friends in 1914, described by Frost as ‘their year’, that Frost later referred to Thomas as ‘the only brother I ever had’. In late august that year, when Thomas asked Frost whether he thought that Thomas could put his hand to poetry, Frost told him that his writing already had poetic beauty, just in prose form. In his first five days of writing poetry Thomas wrote five poems. However, problems began to arise. Late in 1914 Frost fled back to America due to the outbreak of the First World War, taking Thomas’ son with him, in the expectation that Thomas and his family would follow. For the next half a year Thomas struggled with the dilemma of either joining Frost in America to pursue poetry in the knowledge that he had done nothing for the war effort, or signing up to fight in France.

In June 1915 Thomas, so convinced that he would go to America that he had warned his mother about his decision, received a poem from Frost, which was to become one of his most famous. It was called The Road Not Taken. The poem highlighted Thomas’ dilemma (http://www.bartleby.com/119/1.html), but Thomas’ reaction was not what Frost had expected. Thomas saw the poem as a mockery of his perceived ambivalence towards the war and, though an anti-nationalist who had argued with his father after refusing to condemn the Germans, decided to sign up to fight. It was at this point in the talk that Hollis played an old recording of Frost reading the poem. This was a particularly powerful moment for me, as I was introduced to the poem as an A level student last year and at the time was struck by it’s beauty, though I was taught only that it was characteristic of Frost’s ambiguity. In the knowledge of its context the poem has taken on for me a new profundity.

In 1916, after working as a map reading instructor Thomas said goodbye to his family for the last time, telling his wife, “all is well between us for ever and ever”, and travelled to the frontline. While there he continued to write poems, sending them back to Frost and his wife and in 1917 he received a newspaper clipping from the Times Literary Supplement including his name, with a highly positive review, among a list of new poets. Frost had carried out his promise and found Thomas a publisher in America. On the day before the Arras offensive began, a shell fell two feet from Thomas, and amazingly, failed to go off, leading to comments that with his luck he would never be hurt. The very next day a shell passed so close to Thomas that the rush of air stopped his heart. He died without a wound on his body.

The literary precision of Hollis’ writing, along with his inclusion of old recordings by Frost and Thomas’ wife made for a truly incredible and moving event, which the Literature Festival are going to have trouble beating.