Literary Festivals from the Midlands: spotlight on Stratford and Birmingham

A short post today – more of a shout out really, a few dates for your literary calendars. If you’re based in or around the Midlands, you might be interested to know that both Stratford and Birmingham will shortly be launching their 2018 literary festivals. Stratford’s festival runs from the 22nd April and Birmingham’s from the 27th, with both ending on the 29th.

I won’t make it to Birmingham this year, but I have booked a talk at Stratford on the 26th. Very excited to hear Tara Westover talk about her much-written-about memoir Educated, alongside Aida Edemariam, author of The Wife’s Tale, a retelling of her grandmother’s stories of (to borrow from the programme) “an Ethiopian childhood surrounded by proud priests and soldiers, of her husband’s imprisonment, of her fight for justice, all of it played out against an ancient cycle of festivals and the rhythms of the seasons”. The focus of the talk is the genre itself and the challenges of writing a memoir, whether it be your own or someone else’s.

If you’re interested in the Birmingham Festival – featuring, amongst others, Jenni Murray, Kit de Waal and Salley Vickers – click here for a link to the website and programme.

For the Stratford Festival – featuring, amongst others, Rose Tremain, Jackie Morris and Marcel Theroux – click here for the website and programme. Stratford also has an amazing sounding children’s programme – I’m very excited about the possibilities next year when my daughter is a little older and will fall into the age bracket for a few more of the events. Have a gander here if you too have a small person who loves books.


Some children’s books are GORgeous

The 2nd April was International Children’s Book Day. While every day in our house is currently Children’s Book Day (and LONG may that continue), I had planned to do a post to mark the date itself. Then I spent a couple of weeks around that time having to squeeze all my work into the evenings again and it got a little waylaid.

But there’s no reason not to celebrate children’s books at every opportunity so I thought I’d feature some that were just beautiful to look at and to read. We’ve done funny books, books connected to a certain date and now I present to you some utterly lovely objects.

Neither my phone camera, nor the grey day on which I took these pictures is doing justice to the vibrant colours. Bottom left is Oliver Jeffers’ A Child of Books, in the middle Laura Knowles’ and Jennie Webber’s It Starts with a Seed, and on the right Patricia Hegarty and Britta Teckentrup’s Moon. Across these three titles, are some of my favourite themes in children’s literature: the power of imagination and the wonder of the natural world. My daughter (who is 2 and a half) has been obsessed with each of these books in turn and regularly quotes them at random. The illustrations are magical, using a variety of different mediums and some impressive creativity.

They’re very simple stories, about simple, albeit fundamental, things. The best tales often are.

Imogen Hermes Gowar – The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Sometimes when I’m reading historical fiction, I’m blown away by the amount of detail you’d have to research to write even one convincing sentence. Let’s say someone walks across a room and sits down. What room is it? Would a house like this have that kind of a room? Would they even go into this room at that time of day? What’s in the room? Is it appropriate to their station in life? What are they wearing? Could they afford it? How does it move? Does the fabric make a sound? What do they sit on? How do they sit? etc. etc. until I feel like I could do with a lie down.

All of which makes a really good historical novel a very impressive achievement indeed. I can’t verify the detail in Gowar’s book but it vibrates with life and authenticity in a way that makes it a lot of fun to read.

It’s 1785 in Georgian London and shipping merchant Jonah Hancock is disturbed by a violent knocking at his door. He’s about to discover one of his captains has sold his ship for what he claims is a mermaid. And the quiet, if lonely, existence he has been living since the death of his wife and unborn child some years before is about to be turned inside out.

Meanwhile, in an apartment in Soho, the famous courtesan Angelica Neal takes stock of her situation following the death of her benefactor, a middle-aged Duke who supported her in life but cruelly overlooked her in his will. Her options dwindling and the money running out, Angelica is under some pressure to find a new protector or accept the offer of the ‘abbess’ of King’s Place, Mrs Chappell, doyen of the most famous brothel in London.

The story that follows takes both of these lives and weaves them together in a tale of ambition, obsession and desperation. Written in the present tense, there’s a kind of bustling immediacy that immerses you in the action, rich in detail, and giving the impression of what an exhausting hubbub 19th century London must have been. Somehow Gowar manages to balance that detail with an absorbing and pacy plot, which isn’t always the case. What I loved most about this book though, was the way that it handles the mermaid, or really the idea of the mermaid and what it represents, pulling in aspects of its folklore to suggest clever parallels with both Angelica and Jonah, both of whom are often regarded as ‘unnatural creatures’ in their own lives.

There’s a strong theme throughout of ownership and possession, which Gowar uses to illuminate the struggles of Georgian women who ultimately cannot own themselves or their own lives, and find themselves constantly vulnerable as a result. Angelica and the mermaid are the same creature – both there to be acquired, pored over, displayed and greedily consumed; worthy only in terms of the money they bring to their owner and at risk of being sold on when they become troublesome.

I feel like I’m still mulling over the final part of the novel (which I won’t say anything about here because…spoilers). There’s almost an aspect of magical realism to it; it certainly becomes harder to separate reality from, well, imagination? Psychosis? Depression? I’d love to know what other people thought. It’d be a good discussion at a book group, I suspect. The book definitely plumbed some hidden, murky depths (bad pun, just awful) that I’m still exploring and that would lend themselves well to re-readings. In many respects, it represents, through the mermaid, an exorcism of sorts for two people who have much to let go of in their pasts.

All of which means that I heartily recommend reading it, if only so you can come back here and talk to me about it…

Nickolas Butler – Shotgun Lovesongs

One of the things I love most about reading is that it can connect you to worlds that are very distant from your own, in far away places, via experiences you’re unlikely ever to have. And in doing so, it can teach you that we’re none of us really that different after all.

Shotgun Lovesongs is a story about four boys, now grown, who spent their childhoods together in rural Wisconsin before taking quite different paths as adults. There’s Lee, a successful touring musician; Kip, a former trader who has returned to his home town to attempt to renovate his past; Ronny, ex-rodeo star and recovering alcoholic; and, finally, Henry, a Wisconsin farmer, happily married with two children. Over the course of the story, the men reunite for a wedding and this begins a process of gentle unravelling as secrets from their shared pasts come back to rock the present. I have a tendency to gravitate to stories about and by women but this made it onto my radar because of countless glowing reviews. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. A lesson learned, I think: good writing can make anyone’s story accessible, interesting and emotionally involving.

Butler allows each of his central characters to narrate parts of the story in turn, so there are a number of ‘I’s in the book. Without going to heavy-handed lengths to distinguish their voices, Butler has employed just enough craft to allow us to quickly distinguish Henry’s calm, responsible voice from Lee’s slightly prickly, paranoid one; Kip’s bullish desperation from Ronny’s straight-talking poignancy. We also hear from Beth, Henry’s wife, whose relationship with all four men goes back many years.

Really, this is just a great story, convincingly told. I was hooked from the start and impressed at just how few pages it took Butler to create four vivid, present characters that I was invested in. It’s a book about the bonds between people and how they change over time, becoming stretched in many cases to near breaking point. It’s also a story about the power of shared experience and how we change while staying the same.

The writing is simple but skilful. Butler is very good at creating something beautiful from the everyday, in the way that we’ve all felt nostalgia tinting precious childhood memories so that the mundane turns into the unforgettable. His  descriptions of Wisconsin have an eye for detail and are filled with respect for the way of life and the connection to the land. By the end, I’d probably have needed reminding that I didn’t actually grow up in small-town America…


Bill Bryson – One Summer: America 1927

If you’ve ever had a passing interest in:

  1. The race to fly across the Atlantic
  2. Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St Louis
  3. President Calvin Coolidge
  4. Prohibition and the American gangster
  5. The Wall Street Crash
  6. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the rise of baseball
  7. Henry Ford, the Model T and Fordlandia
  8. Heavyweight boxing
  9. The creation of television
  10. and an awesome sounding woman called Mabel Walker Willebrandt

then I’d recommend Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927. To be honest, even if you’re not terribly interested in those things you’d likely enjoy this book. Bryson could make the shipping forecast read like a gripping narrative.

His masterful ‘schtick’ is the fascinating aside, most of which are powerful scene setters or providers of context. Sometimes they’re just really long intros to a particular point. But they’re always interesting. Told chronologically, the book covers American events from May to September, a period in which a really surprisingly huge amount of significant things happened.

I thought he painted a vivid, memorable picture of a hectic and world-changing period in American history.

Jane Robinson – Hearts and Minds

Hello poor neglected blog. All my best-laid plans for March fell by the wayside when a succession of viral bugs and my childminder being on holiday for a week suddenly meant that work got shifted to evenings and weekends, and everything else just got shifted. It meant choosing between reading books or writing about them, and sometimes it meant not doing either for longer periods than I’d like.

So I have some books I still want to talk about from February and a couple of new ones from March to catch up on.

First up, Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and how Women Won the Vote: required reading in the centenary anniversary year of some women getting the vote in the UK. There were two books out in the run-up to this particular historic milestone as Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes was published late last year.

Although Robinson’s book does discuss the suffragette manifesto and some of the key events, both planned and unplanned, in their passionate commitment to the cause, the focus of her book is actually the parallel suffragist movement, including the Great Pilgrimage of 1913, in which large numbers of women set off from all over the UK to march on London, travelling along six major routes from all four compass points. Her descriptions of the women involved, the journey they undertook and some of the threats they faced along the way are gripping and I was shocked that it wasn’t an event I’d heard about before in my reading around this subject.

If you’re a bit hazy on the difference between the suffragettes and the suffragists then you’re in the position I was before I read Robinson’s book. Understandably, for a movement so associated with controversy, criminality and column inches, the suffragettes are the ones most people remember and can talk about. In contrast to the militant campaigns of the suffragettes, the suffragists, or ‘constitutional campaigners’, believed that they needed to win the ‘hearts and minds of the British people’, arguing that they couldn’t get the vote unless they proved themselves deserving of it.`

Now all of that is the worst and most oversimplified type of summarising (and I apologise to Jane Robinson for it). In reality, the line between suffragette and suffragist was blurry and indistinct, with some women members of both camps. Suffragists both benefited from the increased exposure their cause received as a result of suffragette action, while being harmed by it when it was assumed by police and public that their peaceful protests and demonstrations would turn violent. One of the things I liked most about Robinson’s book was that she didn’t try to pretend that there were easy answers to the problems of suffrage. Instead, she explores the contradictions and struggles of a huge group of individuals who ultimately all had the same goal in their hearts by focusing on a smaller group of truly remarkable women. Some of them you’ll likely have heard of and some you almost certainly won’t. Women like Millicent Fawcett, a tireless, committed and intelligent suffragist and leader of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), and Elsie Inglis, who balanced her suffragist duties with her work as a surgeon.

I mention Inglis in particular because she’s a fantastic example of something else that Robinson’s book makes clear. Many of these women were incredible whether they were engaged in suffrage activities or not, putting their talents and passions to use in many other diverse fields. During the First World War, Inglis set up a female-staffed Red Cross hospital in Edinburgh before offering her services to the War Office to set up similar hospitals on the Western Front. When she was told to ‘go home and sit still’ she took her idea to the Scottish Federation of Suffrage Societies, who sponsored her, with support from French and Serbian ambassadors in London, to set up her first hospital (in just three weeks) at Royaumont, near Paris. By the end of the War, there were 14 hospitals like Royaumont.

There are so many other women I could mention and if all you read is the list of mini bios at the end of Robinson’s book you’ll come away feeling so uplifted and inspired. Which is helpful, given that some of the book made me so spitting angry that I’d happily have gone out, smashed a few windows and chained myself to some railings.  Asquith’s response to one of the suffrage petitions is breathtaking in its condescending, patronising tone. And then of course there’s the War Office response to Inglis…

Given the intense anger felt by many of these women and the prolonged injustices they fought against, it’s inevitable that the book prompts a lot of interesting questions. What would you do? Where do you stand? How far would you go? What do you believe in?

I think the most important lesson I got from Robinson’s book though was the scale of suffrage, whether it be suffragist or suffragette. The fight for the vote wasn’t a late uprising by a few particularly empassioned and eloquent women (as reporting on suffrage can sometimes suggest) but a huge massed force of stoic, courageous persistence over many many decades. Between John Stuart Mills’ failed 1868 petition to parliament, which was supported by 1500 names (when he had requested 100), and the turn of the century, parliament was deluged with further petitions (255 in 1869 alone) carrying anything from 15 to tens of thousands of names. Famous signatories included Florence Nightingale and Mary Somerville. The issue was debated 18 times between 1870 and 1904. It’s so hard to see how the suffrage movement was put off and put down for so long, particularly given the sort of weak, tired, demonstrably untrue arguments that had dragged on for centuries (women were weak minded, emotionally volatile, belonged at home, hadn’t the education/intellect to engage in politics, etc.). It really is injustice on a grand scale and speaks volumes about the battle for equality that women faced in every arena.

I’ve always voted – it feels almost criminal not to – but the next time I’m at the polling station, I will almost certainly pause and think about a few of the names from Robinson’s book and send out a heartfelt thank you.

If you’re interested in Diane Atkinson’s book, here are a few reviews to check out:

In the library with Matthew Battles and Annie Spence

Two books for you today, connected in the loosest sense by the fact that they are both written by librarians and are, in part at least, about libraries. Otherwise they couldn’t be more different, which makes them interesting companions.

Matthew Battles – Library: An Unquiet History

Matthew Battles is a rare books librarian at the Houghton Library at Harvard University.  What he’s written is a sort-of history of the library, via a series of essays covering the libraries of Ancient Greece, Rome and the Arabic and Chinese empires; changes in the way libraries were perceived during the Renaissance; the purpose of libraries; the destruction of books (via such diverse events as the mythical desecration of the great Alexandrian Library by Caliph Omar and the very real Nazi book burnings); and the categorisation, storage and eventual retiring of books.

The opening essay – ‘Reading the library’ – makes for a gripping if uncomfortable experience, as Battles explores his time working at Harvard’s Widener Library, with its ‘…ten levels […] fifty-seven miles of shelves [and] 4.6 million bound volumes…’. If you wanted to set someone off on a downward spiral of despair at the limits of one reading life, this is the way to do it. I’ve always loved libraries in a profound, almost spiritual way but I realise my ability to be in them is the result of a constant subconscious effort to suppress the thought that they contain thousands of books I won’t read in order to maintain focus on the few that I will. In a way, browsing in a library is the ultimate expression of hope – if you thought too much about how little time for reading you really have, you’d end up a gibbering wreck frantically pulling books off the shelves at random and discarding them after a sentence or two.

In the same way that you dip in and out of the shelves of a library, Battles’ is the kind of book best read by dipping in and out of the essays, depending on what grabs your attention. I tried to read it in one swoop, from beginning to end and found my interest waned a bit as a result. The writing can be a little impenetrable and dry at times and, if I were the sort of person who could do such things, I should probably have read the chapters that appealed to me and left it at that. Snippets of enlightening information have lodged in my mind (such as the fact that early libraries were so light on books that categorisation wasn’t even a requirement, and alphabetic categorisation was a pretty late addition to the systems in place). There’s some interesting info on Dewey, actually, who may not have been the unequivocal force for good I might have previously thought. And it was really fascinating to consider libraries as political tools: the means by which various people secured power, toppled dynasties or exercised their intellectual authority.

My overriding takeaway from reading the book, though, is a renewed appreciation for the libraries I use (big shout out to The Hive in Worcester, one of my all-time favourite places to be) and my own personal library at home. It’s impossible to read a book like this without feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the fact that I can surround myself with books, collect them for sheer love of them (without needing to be embarrassingly rich) and share them with others with such ease. I am very lucky.

And now for something COMPLETELY different (picked up at Wenlock Books as it happens)… Annie Spence has spent the last 10 years working at various public libraries in the American Midwest. Her book (as somewhat evident from the title) is made up of a series of letters written to books that have been significant in her life – for good or bad. A lot of serious stuff is written about books (and don’t get me wrong, I take books pretty seriously myself) so it was fun to read something a little more irreverent. Spence’s letters come from a place of deep love, but she’s also witty, breezy and sarcastic. I thought she was hilarious and I love the conceit of talking directly to the book, or its protagonist, as if it became a discrete entity the second it left the author’s ‘pen’, which in many respects I believe it does.

One of my most interesting takeaways from Spence’s book is that we have long relationships with some of the books we read, just like some of the people who come in and out of our lives. Some books are a brief conversation on a bus, others are lengthy, often emotional experiences, that shape and change us over the years or are somehow changed by us along the way.

Not all of the letters are humorous either – one of the most powerful is addressed to The Fledgling, a book I haven’t read (thus proving that really isn’t an issue, for anyone who was wondering), and describes how a childhood favourite helped Annie find her way through the explosion of uncertainty and temporary loss of self that comes with new motherhood. Moving and powerful, and the subject matter of the book was secondary: “You comforted me in a way that no one else’s words could have managed, reminding me of my own natural soul. Of the person I am when I don’t have to be anything else.”

And yes – some letters do offer an insight into life as a librarian. From the relationships they have with the reading public (there are echoes of Shaun Bythell here) to the decisions they make when ‘weeding’ the shelves.

Ultimately, I thought this was a great read and definitely has something new to offer in the much-beloved ‘bookish people writing about books’ category. Every library should be so lucky as to have an Annie Spence in the stacks.